FO 32 extra hart arbeitendes rastermaterial für kontakt did not emerge from the usual underground milieu – their setting was the base of the 4th Flotilla of the GDR People’s Navy!
The propaganda unit PrK 18 had among its recruits some who turned the logistics for agitation against the intentions of the system. Inside a barracks, but under the state radar, the paramilitary music corps FO 32 boarded an NVA studio and recorded industrial tracks and dark ambient. The experimental military band gave an illegal concert; they had previously been heard on the radio programme “Parocktikum”, a pirate gig from the ranks of the People’s Navy on GDR radio.
In 1989, a first FO-32 tape was shared among just a few friends. Shortly after, an abridged mix of material was released on the illegal Trash Tape label in an edition of no more than one hundred copies. The vinyl version on tapetopia is based on the original tape.
The tapetopia series, using the original layouts and track lists, publishes cassette editions from the GDR underground of the 1980s, especially from the “walled-in” scene in East Berlin. More than three decades after their initial “release”, these tapes have yet to be heard on either vinyl or CD, even though they made an audible mark in the canon of GDR subculture. Despite the tiny original editions of the time, many of the bands were considered cult in countercultural circles, which made them highly suspect in informed circles.
The shambolic history of the GDR underground did not lack in bizarre constellations stemming from the collisions of dictate and subculture as well as from the resulting turbulence. Underneath the ideological superstructure, cells and circles far removed from the state’s influence established independent structures. In response to their “tunnelling activity”, the miners of the system were in turn dug into by its shadow army, and so things went their socialist way. One of the most spectacular stories goes back to a little-known project that, with impressive cold-bloodedness, managed to avoid the usual course of events. Here it was not the deviant who fell victim to the state, rather it was the state itself that fell prey to a bunch of freaks, or better still, to a bunch of NVA conscripts. The setting was not a mouldy cellar in a second backyard or a rehearsal room in the sanctuary of a church – the stage for this Schweikism was the base of the 4th Flotilla of the GDR People’s Navy! Here, in Rostock Hohe Düne, the paramilitary music corps FO 32 extra hart arbeitendes rastermaterial für kontakt came into being.
Conditions for developing a level-headed character could not be more disadvantageous within a barracks, but in fact they were optimal. Axel Holst, chief of staff of FO 32, describes it in retrospect as a “perversely ideal situation of confinement and creative pressure”. This by itself would hardly have sufficed to form an experimental military band. As fate would have it though, it was a company for political education and propaganda, of all places, in which the four recruits met and resolved to rededicate their military service to the service of their own cause. With Alexander Ponick, Dirk Nickel and Volker Wendt, Axel Holst gathered comrades-in-arms around him who would operate in the comrade officers’ domain without their superiors ever becoming aware of a fifth column within their shielded complex. The “art is a weapon” doctrine was vindicated in a way that could hardly have been intended by the regime, as FO 32 directed civilian but ultimately military logistics against the intentions of a mono-socialist belief system.
At least two of the conspirators were from subcultural circles. “Axelander” Holst was friends with Chaos, the singer of Leipzig punk rock legends Wutanfall. Both felt punk had pretty much run its course. Holst founded an industrial project called Zauhaufen, which was probably still on the threshold from idea to action. In 1985 he then performed at Leipzig’s Galerie Nord, at a gig by pffft...!, an apocalypticon of noise and industrial thunderstorms that Chaos unleashed after leaving Wutanfall. Alexander Ponick rotated around the Rostock punk band Arrest. From 1984 onwards, he received training as a printer at the BS Rudi Arndt in Berlin. This vocational school enjoyed a special reputation. Printers, typesetters and bookbinders tended to be blessed or struck with artistic ambitions, and the intellectualism of some of them would frequently challenge ideological standards. In 1981 and ’82, the pacifist movement “Swords to Ploughshares” found its way also to BS Rudi Arndt. Some of the apprentices openly sympathized, while the teachers and foremen rallied around the crossed hammer and sickle. This turbulent year “at Rudi Arndt” also produced musicians from punk bands Planlos, The Leistungsleichen and Grabnoct. (However, it also yielded a certain Lunikoff, skinhead of the Nazi rock band Landser for the entire 1990s).
From this underground cadre factory, Alexander Ponick was called up directly to the NVA in 1987 and found himself in the propaganda unit PrK-18 of the 4th Flotilla of the GDR People’s Navy, which was associated with the HGS-18 combat headquarters. The PrK-18 had special machinery at its disposal. Parked in a motor vehicle hall were three Czech Tatra tractor units with container trailers housing a mobile printing and processing line: a typesetting and repro station, an offset printing station and a bookbinding station. Two W50 trucks equipped with cinema and audio engineering gear awaited their deployment in another hall. The concrete purpose of this agitation fleet would remain obscure to all hands for the duration of their “honorary service”. Far from any probability, however, it stood to reason that, in an emergency, it was to be put into position at base or even to demoralise the enemy. From time to time, the legionnaires were charged with printing products of ideological need for internal service use, but mostly they were kept busy with cleaning. After 5 p.m., especially on weekends, the officers would take a temporary break from their constant readiness to defend the fatherland and leave the fleet base in the hands of the sergeants on guard (UvD). The infantry had the barracks to themselves. The UvD in charge was sidelined with a bottle of schnapps and Axel Holst organised the first nocturnal sessions in the motor vehicle hall where the W50 studio lay dormant largely unused; the technical equipment for the big propaganda campaign was only waiting to be put to good use!
During these night shifts, knowledge of the consequences of discovery remained ever present; the collective of conspirators would reduce all light in the hall to a minimum. In this darkened atmosphere, artistic attitudes could finally collide and were at times intensely fought out. Where struggle was a purely military option, it gained an artistic dimension. Dirk Nickel, responsible for the studio gear in a both official and unofficial capacity, would position the microphones outside the W50 but record instruments and voices inside the hall. These recordings were enriched by loops of cut tapes recorded on shortwave by means of tracking transmitters, all left to chance. Tacking between industrial and dark ambient, clandestine nocturnes set sail from the 4th Flotilla’s base.
Nocturnes call for a name that glows in the dark. One of the Tatras held stacks of a special photographic paper. Its fluorescent type designation “FO 32 extrahart arbeitendes Rastermaterial für Kontakt” (FO 32 extra-hard working screen material for contact) illustrated with chilling sobriety the industrial character both of the base and the project. Produced in a W50 of the PrK-18 unit, FO 32... ticked away with a technoid poetics that several contemporary projects from West Berlin or West Germany such as P1/E, Scala 3, Minus Delta T, Din A Testbild, Notorische Reflexe or Populäre Mechanik also had in their names. Axel Holst’s laconic text protocols fit seamlessly with this aesthetic, and a poem by Ernst Jandl seemed appropriate every now and then.
The recordings were never intended as secret messages within a barracks, but quite naturally for publication. Since tapes could not be sent directly from a People’s Navy base to GDR radio, Axel Holst dispatched some recordings to a cover address of Chaos’. Chaos had his mail posted to the address of a blameless but courageous citizen in Leipzig where he picked it up regularly. In addition to the FO-32 review on side A, Chaos put recordings by cacophonicans pffft...! on side B and sent the split tape to radio DJ Lutz Schramm. In the summer of 1988, at a time when the project participants were all still serving, FO 32 were played twice on Schramm’s programme “Parocktikum”. Under the searchlights of censorship, this was tantamount to a pirate gig on GDR radio from the ranks of the People’s Navy. Half a service year later, in January 1989, FO 32 did in fact give a single concert; this performance in Jena also took place while they were still serving. In the run-up to the show, it was now the mobile print shop of the PrK-18 that was unceremoniously made use of. Posters with the announcement were quickly designed and printed, Jena was then illegally but liberally placarded. Since the machines were already running, a programme booklet (!) with freely adapted texts by the Romanian avant-garde was also produced. Before that, there was already the opportunity of producing fake shore leave stamps in the print station. One did what was necessary. As “ground crew” or cleaning squad, they occasionally had access to the flotilla captain’s office, where they made short work by courageously affixing the commander’s stamp to blank passes. Legitimised in this way, the counterfeiters “on duty” could now freewheel outside the base. Alexander Ponick unceremoniously occupied a flat in Rostock’s Feldstraße and used it as a studio, busying himself as a bohemian and painter outside the barracks. There, moreover, the NVA’s “dress of honour” could be swapped for black civilian clothes. In the meantime, FO 32’s reputation as a “verboten” band preceded them in Jena. To be banned, however, they would have had to be targeted by the Stasi. But going rogue under flying colours provided perfect camouflage; the concert took place and was packed, the band improvised a mix of industrial and recitation. When the day’s work was done, the military ensemble ordered themselves back to their barracks.
Axel Holst had already completed the NVA manoeuvre at this point and recruit Tim Däunert, another BS Rudi Arndt graduate, joined FO 32 in his place. This line-up with Däunert made a second tape in the barracks’ sheltered environment. The only copy later vanished on its way to Lutz Schramm. There are two versions of an FO 32 tape in existence today; a more extensive collection of material that Alexander Ponick distributed among a few friends in 1989 with artwork by himself, as well as an abridged mix of material on a single-sided cassette that was put out on the illegal label Trash Tape Records in the same year. The salvo of one hundred copies was also the final salute for FO 32 – released into civilian life, the extra hart arbeitende rastermaterial für kontakt had served its time.
The vinyl series tapetopia releases a FO 32 selection, the track list of which is based on the original tape by Alexander Ponick.
Translation: Stefan Widdess