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Sara Blaylock (2011 cohort): A year in Berlin, researching experimental art from East Germany in the 1980s

Berlin Wall Park, photo by Sara Blaylock, enjoying a year in the city while researching her dissertation topic
October 1, 2015

Fall 2015

In my fifth year in the Visual Studies PhD program, I have begun the final two-year shift from student to professional academic. Facing the writing of my dissertation is the last step ahead of me. After a very successful year of research in Berlin, funded by a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), I am excited for the challenge of turning material and ideas into text. Just four years ago, this time of dissertating seemed impossibly far away. Today, I sit in my office with an almost eerie confidence in my ability to complete the task at hand. As a colleague’s mother once told her, “If people can drive semis on ice, then you can write a dissertation.” Given that my subject of research is located in the often frigid environs of the East Bloc (though I’d like to dispense with “Cold War” metaphors), this bit of wisdom is for me particularly germane.


Most research on East German art has focused on the repressive conditions of state politics. Within this limited analytic paradigm art practices are either considered to be state propaganda or examples of political resistance. Interpretations have concentrated on how artists negotiated the state’s prescription for art and politics and have overlooked artistic autonomy, personal politics, and creative desires. My dissertation (“Magnitudes of Dissent: Art from the East German Margins”) examines the performance art, photography, Super-8 film, galleries, and publications of East German artists in the 1980s through an expanded lens. I find in these experimental art practices a continuum of conformity and rebellion that suggests artists in East Germany exercised greater agency than current understandings of the state system allow.


Curators, artists, and theorists today argue that the end of state-socialism resulted in a great loss in creative possibility across the world. These conversations require more legitimation through concrete examples of artworks and discourses that emerged in the Cold War. Such attention would demonstrate how each East Bloc country defined a communist aesthetic differently, and show how and why artists rebelled against these principles. The details of my research add a material reality from one East Bloc example and contribute to understanding the differences between the conditions of art production in capitalism to those in state-socialism.


All dissertation research has its own set of challenges. For me, these have been primarily methodological. Namely, how can a subject that has been virtually unstudied in the English-language, and scarcely studied in German, produce enough information for a dissertation? The lack of scholarship, however, belies a tremendous amount of material. The problem for me has then been in how to access it. I realized quickly that most of my research would, of course, have to take place in Germany and in German, and also that most of my resources would have to be mediated by personal relationships. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love to talk with and meet new people; I was made for this kind of research.


My first DAAD grant in the summer after my first year in the program got me in touch with a number of artists, scholars, and interested parties. The list continued to grow as I made my way around conferences and workshops, big and small, national and international, looking for interlocutors and new ways into my subject. In 2014-15 I returned to Berlin thanks to a 10-month DAAD grant, and additional support from the Coalition of Women in Germany, and UCSC's Women’s Club, the Arts Dean, and the HAVC department. My year in Berlin was incredible! I met so many people, saw an extraordinary array of artwork, film, and ephemera from the period, and was consistently inspired. I worked in nine archives, both private and public, and conducted 30 interviews.


Thankfully, after the end of my research period, I returned to the States with some time to adjust back to the ebbs and flows of graduate school. The Arts Dean awarded me a generous sum for the summer, which allowed me to take four final trips in Germany, give a conference paper at the University of Birmingham in England, make my move back to the US, and travel down to LA to revisit the Wende Museum and consult for the first time the East German collections at the Getty Research Institute. At the beginning of October, I travelled to DC to workshop a dissertation chapter at the German Studies Association annual conference. Now I am back in Santa Cruz, working diligently on dissertation chapters, grant applications, a few encyclopedia entries for the DEFA (East German film) encyclopedia, and my paper for the College Art Association conference in DC this February. It is quite busy, but fortunately the workload is manageable thanks to a Doctoral Student Sabbatical Fellowship I was awarded by UCSC.


I’d like to conclude by expressing my due gratitude to the Visual Studies PhD program. I am part of the 2nd cohort, and as such have seen the program achieve a number of major milestones, from first QEs to the hiring of new faculty and staff to major course restructuring. Throughout these years, I have been quite grateful for the mentorship I have received from so many faculty members on professional issues—and the occasional personal crisis. I admire so much the way faculty have modeled for me a need to be professional and prepared, but also kind and understanding.


Among my greatest influences as a student has been my primary advisor, Jennifer González. Those who know her have certainly observed the vast range of her intellect, as well as her tremendous poise and enviable dexterity as a listener or commentator. As her student, I have learned from Jennifer how to tighten up an argument, to ensnare a reader with a vivid visual analysis, and to know not just when, but also how to admit that I have misunderstood something. In addition to modeling excellence in research, writing, and teaching, Jennifer has taught me the importance of being an engaged and humble listener and reader of other peoples’ scholarship, both when it intersects with and vastly diverges from my own. 


I really could go on and on about my experiences in the program. Please do get in touch with me if you’d like me to sing the praises of the regional breadth of our course requirements, or the encouragement to work across several disciplines by taking courses with faculty in other departments, or the tremendous experience of TA’ing classes in the HAVC department! If you can’t find me in Kresge, look out for me on my robin’s egg blue bike, which I relish riding at a clip down the hill back home at the end of the day.

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