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During the Cold War, one of the few places where East and West Germans could meet was Hungary’s Lake Balaton region. Drawing on witness accounts and archival materials to recreate the setting for this intricate and intriguing chapter of German-German history, this research, art and exhibition project opens a unique perspective onto the social history of the Eastern bloc as it unfolded each summer by Lake Balaton - the most popular holiday destination in Hungary.

A cinematographic installation by

Péter Forgács and Gusztáv Hámos
Initiated by: János Can Togay 
Curator : Dávid Szauder
Based on the intermedial research and exhibition project by Balassi Institute - Collegium Hungaricum Berlin (.CHB)
Presented by Balassi Institute - Hungarian Cultural Center, New York and Goethe Institute, New York
On show at Goethe Institute Library, 72 Spring Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10013
November 6-20, 2014
Hours: 1pm to 6pm, Monday to Friday

Lake Balaton owes its name to the Slavic word Blatna. It refers to the extensive marshland that once surrounded it - before being drained so as to allow vacationers to make use of the largest body of freshwater in Hungary and Central Europe. In the 19th century, the Hungarian aristocracy and, soon afterwards, the wealthy middle class discovered the lake, and became the first holiday makers there, building lavish castles and mansions.
After 1945, the communist government took possession of these retreats and transformed them into public holiday homes. It also set up holiday camps, and introduced the socialist salute “szabadság” (“freedom”). In 1956, a national uprising failed to bring freedom to Hungary. Subsequently, the state socialist regime under János Kádár purged the term "szabadság" from any connotations of "freedom", reducing it to mean leave from work - "holiday". Ordinary Hungarians, however, recaptured at least some of the freedom denied to them by building - of all things - holiday homes. (So that they could be somewhat free while on holiday...)
The Kádár system’s lenient and increasingly proto-capitalist policies along with Hungarian hospitality and Lake Balaton’s pleasant climate started to attract an increasing number of tourists, especially from the two Germanies: the strictly communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the democratic German Federal Republic (GFR). Germans from both East and West appreciated the beautiful landscape and the region’s relaxed atmosphere. However, even in Hungary, the Stasi, the feared and omnipresent East German homeland security agency kept GDR tourists under surveillance through its so-called “Balaton Brigade” and with the support of the Hungarian security service. Despite the intensive surveillance, the lake soon became famous as a symbol of fugitive freedom behind the Iron Curtain and as a place for East and West German reunions.
The narratives of this intermedia exhibition is an attempt to revive and present to audiences the peculiarities, contradictions, lives and stories bound up with the often paradoxical complex of East and West German relations embedded into contemporary Hungarian history and the history of lake Balaton between 1961 (the building of the Berlin Wall) and 1989 (the toppling of state socialism in Central Europe, including the GDR and Hungary).
I would like to thank the supporters and to all of those who worked on this ambitious project. I especially wish to express my gratitude to all those who, by sharing their stories with us, enabled us to illustrate an important part of the private history saga of German reunification.
János Can Togay
former Director of the Collegium Hungaricum Berlin

Hungarian society, following the example of Poland and fed up with years of violent communist rule, attempted to break away from the Soviet bloc in 1956. After the bloody end of the Hungarian Revolution, the new communist leader János Kádár first experimented with crackdowns and repression but, soon showed himself eager to win back public confidence by improving the population‘s economic situation and access to consumer goods. As the socialist dictatorship from the 1960s onward permitted some private enterprise, became more tolerant towards non-communist cultural phenomena and opened the country to Western tourists, a societal and political complex usually referred to as "goulash communism" emerged - characterized by more tacit modes of control and population management then in most other countries of the Eastern bloc.
Opening the country to Western tourists represented an important source of hard currency for the cash-strapped state-run economy, and Hungary soon became a place where East and West Germans could meet and reunite. East Germans were, of course, permitted to visit a socialist ally of the GDR and the Soviet Union, while West Germans were attracted by the relative openness of the exotic socialist country that Hungary was. As a consequence, the ever alert East German homeland security agency, the infamous Stasi (short for Staatsicherheit or state security) soon expanded its operations to Hungary. It was supported in the undertaking by the Hungarian security services. Parallel to the increasing levels of surveillance, however, Hungary became increasingly forced to borrow money from Western countries in order to maintain the people’s standard of living and compensate for the stagnation experienced by the so-called planned economy of the country. By the late 1970s, this policy had led to even more openness towards the West and "capitalist" states, which let the number of German reunions soar.

With the help of the Hungarian State Security Service, operative groups of the Stasi were deployed around Lake Balaton (the Balaton Brigade), where they monitored unsuspecting GDR citizens and recorded (i. e. criminalized) even their most mundane activities.
Permanent surveillance of citizens in the GDR and abroad produced, quite literally, tons of files that not only served as justification for the existence of the homeland security agency and as proof of its importance, but they also created the false impression that the GDR was threatened by internal and external enemies. The perpetual surveillance and its often overt character had the additional effect (beyond accumulating data) of undermining the confidence of many East Germans in human relationships, acting as a deterrent to building civic networks and organizations.
At the same time, East German citizens did not expect their state security to be active even in a relatively open and partially Western-oriented country like Hungary. The Stasi, of course, took advantage of the tourists’ ignorance and of the fact that they tended to act more relaxed and carelessly than they would at home - where they knew they were constantly being monitored.

The exhibition’s centerpiece is a cinematographic installation by media artist and filmmaker Péter Forgács. His composition of interviews with contemporary witnesses along with private photos and movie reels, archival TV footage and files of the East German and Hungarian security services illustrates “private” German reunification as it occurred at Lake Balaton. It’s a touching documentation of the personal stories behind the peculiar and often paradoxical East / West German-Hungarian relations in the decades between the building and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Conceived and developed by the Collegium Hungaricum Berlin, realized by Péter Forgács and Hámos Gusztáv, the cinematic installation “German Unity at Lake Balaton“ was first shown in the CHB in October 2009. The touring exhibition has since visited a score of German and Hungarian cities, before being reconceived by curator David Szauder for a special presentation in New York on the 25the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in East Central Europe.
A further achievement of the project has been the publication of the book Deutsche Einheit am Balaton, published in co-operation with the Wilhelm-Fraenger-Institut by be.bra Verlag in September 2009.

Based on oral histories along with over 1,000 private photos and 15 hours of amateur super8 and 8mm films provided by contemporary witnesses, this intermedia exhibition tells tales of separated families, East-West friendships, family reunions and escapes over the Hungarian border. The CHB’s socio-political research has produced an archive of 32 personal stories that unveils new aspects of the cooperation between the East German and the Hungarian secret service as well as the gap between private lives and official propaganda and offers a new understanding of German-Hungarian Cold War history. The archive is complemented by historical objects collected in the context of the exhibition that deepen the effort to present an image of the era through private histories, microhistorical research such as the reconstruction of personal networks and the history of leisure.
The accounts of over 40 witnesses tell stories about a broad spectrum of various encounters at Lake Balaton, including those between families torn apart by the Berlin Wall, East-West friendships old and new, reunions between fugitives and old friends, love stories, church reunions and great escapes to the West. The sample and the context is large and rich enough to even permit a structural interpretation of the various periods within the history of leisure and societal, often transnational relationships from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. The novel perspective of the archive offers a new vista for interpreting German-German-Hungarian history during the Cold War, a merit that justifies the effort to share this wealth of materials with the broader public online and in print, as well.


Péter Forgács
 (1950) ranks among the best known international media artists today. His international career was launched by a series of found footage documentaries, notably when The Bartos Family won the grand prize of the Hague Video Festival in 1990. These documentaries use footage from the Private Photo and Film Archives Foundation, which Forgács launched in 1983 and has been supervising since. Apart from his extensive documentary work which is recognized today as a unique take on post-modernist poetics of history and the difficulties of narrating the past(s), he has presented a number of highly acclaimed installations, including The Danube Exodus at The Getty Research Institute in 2002, where he had been artist in residence between 2000 and 2002 and Col Tempo – TheW. Project at the 54th Venice Biennale. Since its inception, The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River installation has been presented eleven times at leading host institutions including BOZAR, CCBA, Barcelona and Kiasma, Helsinki. In 2007 Forgács was awarded with the Erasmus Prize for his notable contributions to European culture. His most recent major commission has been the project Letters to Afar, which was commissioned by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and YIVO. Letters to Afar is to be exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York in late 2014 and at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco in 2015. His works can be found in several museums and public collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Gusztáv Hámos
, born 1955 in Budapest, lives and works in Berlin. He is a media artist, curator and author. His artistic work includes video, film, photography and installations and has been exhibited at Documenta 8, La Biennale di Venezia, ZKM Karlsruhe, Ernst Múzeum (Budapest) and Ludwig Múzeum Budapest. His videos and films have been screened at the Tate Modern London, SFMOMA, Centre Georges Pompidou, Palais de Tokyo, Videobrasil,Sao Paulo, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Salt Istanbul and Art Basel Miami, among others. His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Centre Georges Pompidou, NBK Berlin, Múzeum Ludwig Budapest, C3 Budapest, Kunstsammlung NRW and ZKM Karlsruhe. His films and videos are distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix, New York and Arsenal Experimental, Berlin. A recipient of numerous grants, he has lectured in Venice, London, Berlin, San Francisco and Budapest and has held professorships and teaching assignments at the DFFB Berlin, UdK Berlin, HFF Potsdam-Babelsberg and Merzakademie Stuttgart. His filmography includes Seins Fiction (1980), Commercial I (1981), Commercial II (1981), Superman (1982), Seins Fiction II (1983), Cherie I Feel so Bad (1983), Snow White (1984), Le Dernier Jour (1985), The Invincible (1985), Killer (1986), Luck Smith (1987), Wermut (1988), A Tale of Love (1988). The Real Power of Television (1991), Too Young to Die (1992), Sex/Machine (1995), Golda & Roza (1995), Berlin Retour (1996), Natural Born Digital (1998), Transposed Bodies (2002), Rien ne va plus (2005), Fiasco (2010), Hidden Cities (2012), Potential Space (2014), Rope (in progress) and the intermedia installations Vogelhaus (1977), Seins Fiction (1981), Madre (1984), Heaven and Earth (1986), Mammon 3 (1986), Animals & Living Room (1988), Siegfried is Dreaming of Brünhilde (1988), The Hammer on the AnviL (1992), The Power of Television – Hammer Series (1992), True Fun (1995), Light Unit (1995), Auf der Suche nach Walter Ruttmann (1995), Berlin Viewfinder (1996), Möbius Zirkus (1996), Die Verborgene Stadt (2000), Fremdkörper (2001) with Katja Pratschke, Rush (2003), Eine Halbe Insel ist keine Halbinsel (2008) and Sample Cities (2012) with Katja Pratschke.

Dávid Szauder
 (1976); is a Hungarian media artist and curator based in Berlin. He studied Art History and Intermedia in Budapest. Between 2008 and 2009, Szauder spent a year at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture at the Aalto University in Helsinki. He moved to Berlin and started working at the Collegium Hungaricum Berlin in 2009. He has participated in various art and media projects, exhibitions and screenings in and outside of the institute. He has been leading workshops about interactive media in Berlin and in Budapest since 2010 and has been a visiting lecturer at the Film College Potsdam-Babelsberg. Selected projects include DigitalArt – digital interactive installation – Center of Pompidou, Paris, 2013; Glitch – installation – RUA RED South Dublin Art Center, Dublin, 2013; Musrara mix, failed memories – installation, Jerusalem 2014; Die grosse Illusion - exhibition, Collegium Hungaricum Berlin 2014; SKY SCREEN – public projection series by Momentum Gallery – Collegium Hungaricum Berlin and Trafo Stettin, 2013; Cinema Total 4, 5, 6 and 7 – Collegium Hungaricum Berlin, 2011-2014;  as well as Deutsche Einheit am Balaton – cinematographical installation – Berlin, Mainz, Dortmund, Balatonfüred; and ReConsidering Roma – video installation – Haus Bethanien, Berlin, 2011. 

János Can Togay
 (1955) is an actor, film director, screenwriter, producer, conceptual artist, cultural manager and cultural diplomat. Beside his career as a filmmaker, he has been a guest lecturer and visiting professor at the Tampere University of Applied Art and Sciences, the University of Theatre and Film, Budapest as well as at the Central European University in Budapest. He is member of the Advisory Board of the Budapest College of Communication and Business. He has developed several artistic concepts, among them one of the most acclaimed European memorials of the Holocaust, Shoes on the Danube Promenade. Between 2007 and 2014 he was the director of the Collegium Hungaricum Berlin. During these years Can Togay initiated and co-curated a number of transdisciplinary and multimedia events, long-term projects and installations. He created the media facade of .CHB, a surface for public space events as part of the long-term project The Building as a Piece of Art. He is the founder of Cinema Total a networking and transmedia event during the Berlin Film Festival; initiator of cinematographic installations, such as German Reunification at Lake Balaton, conferences such as Psychoanalysis behind the Iron Curtain, the experimental game for students Versailles renegotiated, the art exhibition manifest Kassák! and several other innovative events. In October 2014 he was appointed professor at the College of Film in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

Exhibition info
Balassi Institute – Hungarian Cultural Center, New York
450 7th Avenue | Suite 2601 | New York 10123, NY
T.: +1 212 750 44 50 | +1 917 688 98 36
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Project info

Collegium Hungaricum Berlin
Dorotheenstraße 12 | 10117 Berlin
T.: +49. 30. 21 23 40-0 | F: +49. 30. 21 23 40-488
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