Tag Archives: subjective history

Speaking about Speaking Out

Speaking of marginalized and dominant discourses, the latter being (naturally) overwhelmingly present on Sunday, on Monday we got a presentation of a theater project which aims at giving a voice to those who were excluded from the national euphoria in the early ’90s.

There is a good chance that Nai Wen’s perspective as someone who came to Germany as an adult helped her to ask the questions and get the answers which the performance project she presented is based on. Working with techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed, and Brechtian alienation effects, on the site of the well-established memorial site Bernauer Straße, her original project combines multiple dimensions of a de-colonial, subversive approach to history:

By generating a script from interviews with contemporary witnesses, people from the margins of German society are given the opportunity to speak out, and a sense of authenticity is generated.
By using the, sometimes graphic, overacting and alienation techniques, this sense is smashed to pieces, and the individual experience is genera
By acting on-site, starting off with the traditional format of a guided tour around an official memorial site, official discourse is at the same time challenged and
interacted with.
By leaving it to visitors themselves to figure out who and what is part of the play, individual involvement is encouraged.

For me, this performance project stands out as an example of creative, dynamic, and engaging approaches to deal with history. Especially when dealing with people who are neither very fond of “traditional” ways of learning about history, e.g. books and museums, nor represented in official discourses, I imagine projects like this are potential “gateways” to generate interest in historic events in general.

Nai Wen’s presentation was, unfortunately, very disappointing. Some short clips, and then a workshop in Theatre of the Oppressed, or just more room for questions, might have allowed (me) a deeper understanding of her work, and prevented exhaustion!

(Hi)Story Telling

Today we used two slightly different, alternative ways of approaching the historical period we are dealing with.

The first way was object-centered, a kind of historical show-and-tell. This way we got very different presentations on remembrance of the cold war era in Romania, Lithuania, Italy, and Germany (and Finland, but unfortunately I did not get to hear these). For me, the approach though objects is very useful as an opener: it makes the person who brought the object reflect their own relation to the topic in question, and encourages the others to do the same. Furthermore, objects, being material and tangible, are able to draw more attention and interest than texts in books, powerpoint-presentations, or documentaries. They might also “embody” different layers of history, larger historical developments as well as personal stories, which is why the right objects can be great starting points for getting people interested in historical contexts.

Which relates to the next part of the day, the story-telling-cafe: A kind of oral history, and an interview-method at the same time, here people are encouraged to tell their personal stories in a safe space. The safety of the context is guaranteed by rules for the audience, which is not allowed to interrupt or ask questions. Obviously, this also means that there can be no questioning while the narrator is talking and presenting her very own version of history: her-story.
The method needs good moderation, to ensure that there will be adequate reflection of the presented stories, and also that the narrating person is confident to open up and present personal experiences, perceptions and ideas. Preparation is needed to make sure the audience is ready to accept everything they hear at first, with questions, replies and discussions being held back.  I also think solid background knowledge is useful for the listeners to be able to put the subjective accounts into broader context.

When these things are given, I think it is a very valid method (perhaps even in connection with objects), which can add important, thought perhaps not always comfortable, aspects to historical research and advanced education. Otherwise, it might quickly turn into a debate different generations of a family might have at the kitchen table – and from my experience, these are rarely enlightening or satisfying.

In Prison

I had heard mainly negative things about the way the Gedenkstätte Stasi-Gefängnis Hohenschönhausen dealt with history and actors opposing their strictly anti-communist way of remembrance. Still, I was interested in seeing the place myself when we went, thought I am not sure what I expected, really. After all, a prison without inmates is not much different from any other abandonded concrete building – unless it contains some “special” rooms as well, which, to be honest, I’d rather not see.

Hohenschönhausen turned out to be just that. A bleak, intimidating wall of concrete, a big gate and some buildings without any special traits. From the tour, which was not given by a former inmate but by an energetic young historian, many details could be learned: what type of food was served, how prisoners had to behave day and night,  privileges and punishments… Historical background was not touched upon too much, and when the conversation with the guide turned to comparisons of this particular prisons with other ones in different times and places it became tangible that there is really not that much to learn in Hohenschönhausen, except that the GDR wasn’t exactly nice to the people they incarcerated (but then again, where have prisons ever been nice), and that arrests were often made at random and prisoners rarely had the chance to get a proper trial and legal advice (again, not exactly unique in history and in the world).

What bothered me about the presentation was not so much the perceived waste of time (I would never recommend a visit to the place to anyone), because in our context it still made some sense to see the prison, but the lack of questioning in the presentation. We, like all the other groups who go to this place, got a complete story presented, without grey areas, open questions, or space for controversy. Not a very good way to deal with historical places and events, in my opinion. Especially because in connection to the space around the prison Hohenschönhausen has the potential to open up new perspectives on the organization and functioning of the Stasi, without demonization and ideological prejudice.