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The Big Society: GDR Art from the City of Schwedt

Curator Andreas Bötcher exhibits poster art from Schwedt, a city on the German-Polish border, made during its Communist rule era

Focusing on Schwedt, an industrial town on the German-Polish border, a group of creatives are exhibiting GDR (German Democratic Republic) posters as part of Shoreditch’s Red Project. The project, taking place in abandoned buildings, aims to re-energise those spaces, while the iconic works on display straddle the line between social realism and socialist realism. Ahead of the opening of The Big Society: GDR Art From the City of Schwedt we spoke to Andreas Bötcher, whose idea set the ball rolling for the ongoing cultural programme.

Dazed Digital: Firstly could you tell us a bit about The Big Society?
Bötcher: In the 60s, after war and destruction, Schwedt was built up to become one of the most modern East-German industrial locations. This is where the oil pipeline from the Soviet Union ended. The petrol which is produced in this refinery fuels a fifth of all German cars. Dimitri Hegemann and I visited this company last year and we spoke to the directors about Schwedt and saw the images. For Dimitri, who’s from West Berlin, these images were new and fascinating. I’m from East Berlin so for me it was a re-encounter with the spirits of the past.

DD: How did you come up with this idea?
Bötcher: It was very weird. One of us discovered something that had until then been completely unknown and the other was suddenly transported back to the past. Dimitri immediately felt these paintings should be shown. I was sceptical until I realised that these images recaptured the exact atmosphere - the sense of optimism during the early phases of Socialism. On the other hand, they show everything schematic and stiff about this thoroughly administrated society. Just as church windows portray holy martyrs, these images portrayed the legends of a bygone society. These heroes were the so-called working class.

DD: What’s the....

... best thing about Schwedt?
Bötcher: Schwedt is really strongly affected by modern trends. It offers so much room for new ideas, new people, new influences from outside. Schwedt’s a dark horse with latent power.

... the worst?
Bötcher: The consequences of the events of 1989 were freedom, democracy and a better standard of living for the majority of people. But it meant immense re-structuring  of society. Schwedt has lost more than a third of its population to emigration during the last 20 years. These gaps can be felt everywhere in the city.

…at the heart of The Big Society?
Bötcher: We’re drawing attention to a past future, a future which didn’t eventuate. And this city, which was created from this sense of optimism and is now working on a new future. The paintings of an incomplete and imperfect system should serve to provoke thought about the current proposals which should re-invigorate the city.

…your favourite city in the world?
Bötcher: Berlin - always. Berlin is very dear to me. It ignites my curiosity. Berlin’s big, but not gigantic. Berlin’s beautiful, but not chic…every name - whether from a street, a square, a district or something else lingers in anyone who loves Berlin.

...your most memorable experience of London?
Bötcher: The opening of the Tate Modern. As I walked into the great turbine hall on the opening day I thought: this is the beginning of a new museum culture.

The Big Society: GDR Art from the City of Schwedt, Red Gallery, London, May 6-19, 2011

Text by Katie Rose