Artist Amie Siegel discusses her experiences wading through Stasi film archives, tackling translation, and weaving together the “visual essay” that is DDR/DDR. The film is screening at the Anthology Film Archives through Thursday, May 13th.
Amie Siegel’s DDR/DDR, a “visual essay” on the German Democratic Republic, flirts with both documentary and fiction, settling somewhere between the two. The bulk of the film focuses on the Stasi, the East German secret service during the GDR, who were notorious for spying and interrogating everyday citizens. In their wake is an archive full of surveillance videos, part of which Siegel curates for us in the film. She also interviews psychoanalysts and East German Native American hobbyists, experiments with the analogue technologies used by the Stasi, and lets her own lens linger on the photogenic Modernist architecture of the preserved Stasi headquarters. While she resists the term “documentary,” watching DDR/DDR made me wish that more documentary filmmakers would use her intelligently playful approach in their craft. In our email exchange, we discussed her experience with the Stasi Archive, translation, and her various influences, among other topics.
Lena Valencia I’m curious as to why you choose to label DDR/DDR as a “visual essay” rather than documentary.
Amie Siegel DDR/DDR enacts a broad, layered and associative montage, deploying strategies that have more in common with ruptured literary structures or the image constellations found in contemporary art, rather than notions of “documentary” aesthetics. The documentary as a category of representation seems fraught with all sorts of odd humanist approaches and assumptions of authority and objectivity that DDR/DDR actively subverts. The film is not a presentation of fact, of journalism, of the language of experts. It is a subjective, reflexive world that is speculative, playful. The film doesn’t assume “fly on the wall” verité, or even a consistent engagement with genre, it questions observational modes, asking how one can make a film—itself an apparatus of invasive cameras and microphones—about a culture defined by surveillance, cameras and microphones? All of my “cinema films,” The Sleepers, Empathy and DDR/DDR, take up a concern with reversing the gaze—the voyeur, the psychoanalyst, the Stasi operative—and along with those reversals, the operations and ethics of filmmaking itself. Perhaps the space where my cinema films come closest to familiar non-fiction practices is in the interview, a form that continually fascinates me as a space of exchange, of intimacy, of psychoanalytic mirroring, a deeply political space where people perform themselves.
It’s a visual essay because so much of what the film proposes is resident in its varied images; the distanced mise-en-scène, the montage that is more concerned with scene-to-scene accumulation, rather than shot-to-shot. Individual scenes are treated more like shots, as it is through their juxtaposition with adjacent scenes, or sequences 30 minutes later in the film, that meanings unfold. It moves through the territories of surveillance, psychoanalysis, spaces of the past, performance of the past in the present, East German modernist architecture abandoned, sold and re-purposed, Stasi equipment, the voice-over, folding each back in on itself, so there is an accumulative constellation of elements at play. And this associative discourse with themes is also recurrent across works, blurring the boundaries between otherwise discrete formal objects, in the long films but also in the video installations Establishing Shots, Berlin Remake and Deathstar/Toddesstern. A motif or subject touched on in one work is recast, referred to or elaborated in another work, another context (such as the micro-histories of modernist chairs evidenced by the Eames Lounge chair section in Empathy and returned to in the East German plastic chair migration in DDR/DDR).
These films may masquerade as documentaries, but only to fashion a familiar norm from which they inevitably deviate.
LV How did you choose the subjects? While the former Stasi operatives are an obvious choice for a piece about East Germany, the Native American Hobbyists and the psychoanalysts were not. Did you begin making the film with your subjects in mind or were these people you met in the process of conducting interviews for the film?
AS The way I work when I make these long films—as differentiated from the multi-channel film installations such as Berlin Remake (2005) or the photo/video-based works in the My Way series (2009) or The Modernists (2010)—is to accumulate, stage and record a vast amount of material that I sense is connected, and then to find the film, the connections, in the editing room. The elements that often come first are the spaces—such as the former GDR radio station in Berlin, which is partly a ruin and partly renovated. A synecdochic feedback loop. Or the “Paternoster” elevator (literally “rosary”) that recycles itself, disappearing into and emerging from the basement/unconscious and attic/superego of the Stasi. Or the brick line that demarcates the former site of the Berlin wall. The spaces suggest various scenarios or shot choreography, which leads me to a integration process with my sense of what the larger film will be and how these moments, spaces and characters can return later in the film and change—such as when the psychoanalyst shifts from her authoritative “analyst chair” to the patient’s couch to tell her own story, and how this shift in space and furniture communicates a psychological and political shift from doctor to… well to patient, to victim, to resister. Though the characters and people in the film are quite varied when it comes to occupation, or even recreational activity (funny how recreation in the sports sense has this re-making allusion, “re-creating”) as in the case of the former East Germans and their Native American hobby culture, my sense was that these things are connected. Psychoanalysis seeks to dissolve the boundaries/conflict between unconscious (id) and conscious (super-ego). Modernist architecture sought to dissolve the boundary between inside and outside. The pan-optic culture of the GDR aspired to erase and penetrate the boundaries between the public and private lives of its citizens.
Production and post-production do not occur in discrete stages, instead I shoot and edit in several phases. This is a strange way of working because it moves against the practical concerns of shooting a film all at once, which is the tradition and dominant practice in film production, yet my own method allows for a reflective process where unusual connections emerge. I am concerned with recycling a set of interests—in voyeurism, psychoanalysis, performance and identity, the uncanny, disclosure of the past, modernist architecture and design—anew with each film. I consider the long films to be mirrors of one another that have developed an internal vocabulary of shrinks, chairs, interviewers, self-reflexive gestures, surveillance—a common vocabulary that is differently employed in each film, giving like materials varied currency.
LV Can you talk a little bit about going through all the Stasi footage?
AS The Stasi archive is a particularly odd place. One often feels in an archive that its administrators have a unique, perhaps even fetishistic, attachment to the materials, films and documents under their control. But in the Stasi archive, where I had some very funky and sweet Mitarbeiters, I had the uncanny feeling that we all viewed the people on the films and tapes—the operatives, the victims, the FDJ youth groups—as fictional people or even actors from another time. Of course this isn’t the case at all, as much of this is fairly recent history. For my own part, this had the effect of my searching out oddly personal, particular moments within the 80 or so hours I looked at. I found it very difficult to watch much of this material, particularly the interrogations, but looked out for things that ruptured or exaggerated the subjective within the seemingly anonymous pile of images—the seventies Stasi training film clearly modeled on the spy fantasies of fiction films, the long black & white video session with the informant, who after agreeing to confess is fed a meal. The eating of food in the midst of the confession—it was so unexpected, so quotidian, and yet he approaches it in such a task-driven way it seemed to me—he eats his shame.
There was also a paradox that I encountered at the archive that became suggestion for formal operation in DDR/DDR. In order to watch any of the Stasi materials, video or film, because the formats they used are so outdated, the people working at the archive actually use the Stasi’s own equipment—their old U-matic video playback machines, their former Steenbeck’s for editing film—to view the film, video and sound recordings. So this strange performance of their materials with their own equipment, it felt very ghostly but also implicating. It was almost like a séance with the dead. I was grateful for this feeling of having to step into the Stasi’s shoes via their equipment because while formats have changed, our contemporary production equipment are still basically cameras and microphones. Using recording devices as a anonymous, oppressive tools of the state versus using them to make a provocative, subjective film seemed uncomfortably close. These feelings of discomfort formed the notion to seek out former Stasi cameras and use them to film former Stasi operatives. To reverse the gaze, but to implicate the image-maker, the author as well. I’m often looking for the uncomfortable things, then mining them. It seemed to me the film should question my complicity, and the complicity of any “documentarian,” or archivist.
LV A good part of the film focuses on analogue technology used by the Stasi. Can you talk about your fascination with these technologies and their role in the film?
AS Well, in fact there is analogue technology scattered across the film—the GDR film studio sound engineer I interview uses his own analogue equipment, my soundman uses a Nagra to record much of the film…
My work tends to be concerned with the iconography of formats— the various associations and histories different image and sound formats evoke, such as how super-8 is evocative of intimacy, the hand-held, of home movies; 35mm film connotes large emotional, fictive landscapes; video assumes immediacy, or surveillance, often of a non-fiction or amateur usage—rather than as pure anachronism. I’m interested in how formats are perceived to signify the real versus the fictional, the reflex of performance/mirror and direct address (video) or the evocation of the medium itself, and its lapse (film). I’m not compelled by fidelity to particular mediums or formats, but how to harness their individual iconographies as such.
The use of analogue technologies within DDR/DDR is concerned in part with a lapse, but also with a reflexive gesture—using the Stasi’s cameras to film themselves. They are evocative objects because they are the apparatus by which the Stasi constituted itself (the Wall came down before the digital era began) and its measure of control over GDR citizens. My literal use of the Stasi’s former cameras sets my own filmmaking in an uneasy ethical space—it reverses the gaze of the Stasi back onto itself, but it puts me (or any filmmaker) in the place of the Stasi. The appearances of cameras, televisions, reel-to-reel players also indicate entire personal and cultural histories that are broken, silenced, “remade in the capitalist façade.” The scene where eastern European equipment is thrown from a moving truck—what do you do with the detritus of a culture, with a country that still exists geographically but has lapsed politically? Do you throw out personal histories, memories, the constitutive events and objects of one’s life?
LV DDR/DDR has been shown in both a gallery setting at the Whitney 2008 biennial and in movie theaters. What do you feel is the best way to view it? As an artist who makes feature-length works, how do you feel about showing films in a gallery setting versus screening them in a theater?
AS In terms of exhibition conditions, I have made distinctions between the works of mine which constitute “the cinema films,” long films that are rigorously structured to be experienced accumulatively, from beginning to end (and repeatedly, as they are quite layered) and the works installed in exhibitions, such as Berlin Remake, Deathstar, the My Way series… DDR/DDR was shown at the Whitney in something like their cinema—a black box in which artist’s films are often featured—it wasn’t an installed piece, but came on each day at the same time, so if one did their homework, you could see it unfold for its full duration. Despite these distinctions in viewing conditions, the context, it seems to me, is the foregrounded concern—though I’m invested in subverting the theatrical film form, which evidences itself in part in the long, associative visual essays (the cinema films), and at other times in multi-channel video installations, single-channel videos, photo-based works, ect., the formal context and dialogue is with contemporary art and art history, rather than independent film, documentary, or even experimental film as defined by the lyrical and material. Perhaps now we are moving closer to the potential that cinematic space had in its earliest incarnations, in early twentieth century forms of spectatorship and performative séance, before cinema was co-opted by the constraints of theater and the novel.
LV A series of steadicam shots through a dilapidated Modernist building cuts to what is essentially a music video. These staged scenes—breaks from the traditional documentary-style interviews and found footage—happen throughout the film. Can you speak about these scripted performances?
AS Fissures in the mimesis occur early in the film—the little girl with sound gear who directly addresses the camera, à la Brecht, with her account of a dream of twins, or the long tracking shots through GDR spaces, in particular the loft where I appear performing the film’s voice-over, or the Stasi director’s office where the filmmaker free-associates on his daybed… There are segments that resemble more typical documentary tropes—such as the interviews—but these constructed spaces of exchange and performance of the self (which interviews always are, even this “email interview” where any seeming spontaneity is the result of much labor and textual manipulation) create a common tissue between filmmaker and audience, one against which subversive gestures are deployed as the film unfolds.
The long steadicam sequence that follows the hipster through the studios and hallways of the former GDR radio station in Berlin, that moves seamlessly into the renovated part of that building and the young Polish band Los Trabantos recording a song with their hipster pals watching… I think of it as an architectural transition, a dream-space, an intermission… but the sequence also considers the relationship of dilapidated spaces, equipment and cultures to the filmic present. The hipsters and the band— young people who are referencing the ’70s and ’80s, but for whom that period (also the time of the GDR) is not a lived experience but a second-hand memory or fashion—something to be performed. So it seems to me the sequence is a performance of the past in the present, partially performed by the building, by the camera choreography, by the hipsters, by their clothes, attitudes, the song… an interpretation of a thing once removed. The East, socialism, (Poland an east beyond Berlin…) defines their parent’s generation, but something they themselves can revive only in a performative cultural sense. In this respect they share the performance of the past, the performance of an appropriated identity, with the East German Indian hobbyists. Though for the later it is quite different.
LV Reviewers have cited Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil and Ulrike Ottinger’s Countdown as films that share themes and styles with DDR/DDR. Who are some of your influences? Were there any films or filmmakers that you looked to for inspiration while making DDR/DDR? Are there any other filmmakers or artists who are manipulating the documentary formula the way you did in DDR/DDR?
AS I’m familiar with Ottinger’s work but I have yet to see Countdown. And Godard of course… but mainly the videos made in collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville, France/tour/detour/deux/enfants is one of the few works that adequately renders the political and ethical complexities of the interview, and in such an uncanny way. Alexander Kluge, Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Yvonne Rainer’s work have been important to me, also the late West German filmmaker Ricki Kalbe, whose film Hexenschuss has an unparalleled engagement with women, surveillance, technology and domestic labor. But more often than not the relationship is to artists whose concerns and iterations of performance, re-making, absence, staged and cinematic representation changed the terms of those gestures—I’m thinking of Claes Oldenburg’s Bedroom Ensemble, Tibor Hajas’ Self Fashion Show, James Coleman, Sherrie Levine, Valie Export… As to perforating the particular righteousness documentary peddles, certainly Godard’s Ici et Ailleurs, Minh-ha, Marker… This just sounds like a psychic laundry list in the Harold Bloom sense. But it’s a good list.
LV The scripted scene where you and the crew about the translation of Wende (very loosely meaning the fall of the Berlin Wall) illuminated the difficulties of translating complex ideas. Can you talk about your decision to include this scene?
AS I first lived in Berlin on an artist’s residency, and then the term Wende came up repeatedly, yet when I asked for a definition, the answer was different every time. I learned to count on highly subjective, emotional reactions to the word’s meaning, and by proxy the meaning of the fall of the Wall, a proper accounting for the sequence of events that led to the GDR’s demise, the transitional period before reunification, and the absence of a “third way” to emerge as alternative to communism or capitalism. I wrote the editing room scene—where the term’s translation is debated—in anticipation of the problems my own film would face translating the term, but also in an effort to enact this Rashomon-like experience, where every person had a different accounting for the word. In the end I decided not to translate the word in the subtitles for my own film, that the term’s ambiguity (for those foreign to Germany) would be a piece of the puzzle that falls into place only three-quarters of the way through the film in the very scene you mention.
LV What projects are you currently working on?
AS I have a slutty tendency to work on several pieces at once, then focus on the project that holds me closest. There is a recent video series, My Way, which uses Youtube as an archive, a rendition and condensation of simultaneous proclamations of individuality and mass identity that varied performances of songs including the words “My Way” propose. Those videos are currently in an exhibition curated by Peter Eleey, The Talent Show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. I just lugged a new piece, The Modernists, which is two large framed pieces and a video projection, back to my studio in Williamsburg from a show in Boston. The framed works are a grid of images from a personal archive of a woman/wife repeatedly photographed over twenty years in front of Modernist sculptures the world over, and the man/husband who photographed her. The video is much the same, only super-8 film of her posed in front of varied sculptures. Her outfits have an uncanny relationship to the sculptures. I’m making a new film installation, if the heirs to the location let me, that is part of an ongoing body of work engaged with remaking, cover versions, adaptation, site and performance. I’m working on a long film/performance project somehow concerned with New York, fashion and the condo-ification of prior bohemias. I’ve got a half-finished film I’ve made with a friend that’s almost killed our friendship. There’s a funky book project in the works… I’m miserable at discussing work in progress, it’s like a bad one-night stand—feels good in the moment and then you regret it the next day.
Lena Valencia is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is also BOMB’s Web Editor.