Top Secret

Simon Menner
Top Secret
(Hatje Cantz, 2013)

What does the raw material of surveillance look like? How do you evaluate days of camera footage of a single street corner, or comprehensive maps marking the movement of a cell phone over the course of a single week? In the current climate of post-Snowden unease, it is hard to imagine a time when people could live without the vague suspicion that some unconsidered electronic device is watching them for the government. Until recently, the task of surveillance and diligent documentation of suspicious activity went to workaday spies—living, breathing humans tasked with recording countless hours of behavior, subversive or not. In East Germany, the Ministry of State Security employed 274,000 of its citizens from 1950 to 1989. These employees of the Communist Party were given various missions involving following, recording, and generally spying on their comrades for the purpose of rooting out—and severely punishing—perceived threats to the State. Within the mammoth trove of data recovered from the Stasi after German reunification exist photographs, a tiny fraction of which have been plucked out and published by German artist Simon Menner in his new book, Top Secret. These confidential photographs expose the Stasi operations as uninformative, ineffective, at times humorous, and above all, overwhelmingly human. What is known as one of the most thorough government spying machines in history was, it turns out, composed of familiar, fallible individuals.

Top Secret, which was recently shortlisted for the 2013 Paris Photo-Aperture First PhotoBook award, represents two years of Menner’s research into the Stasi archives, an appropriate extension of the artist’s own photographic work, which largely deals with issues of surveillance and concealed danger. The book is broken up into categories that roughly divide the photographs into three general groups: instruction manuals, spy operations, and internal affairs. As a representation of highly protected material, the images are at once absurd and banal. There are no hidden compartments in furniture or covert meetings of defectors here; instead, the subjects include a guinea pig, a mailbox, a bag stuffed with baby food jars. A picture of two airplanes on a runway was apparently deemed so explosive that it was subsequently ripped up, restored only after the fall of the G.D.R. (German Democratic Republic). By utilizing images of peripheral espionage activities, far from any ostensible threats, Top Secret counters the belief that the Stasi were collecting politically significant information. Instead, these photographs, in their triteness, depict a 40-year saga of paranoid, self-inflicted East German oppression. Collectively, they communicate the everyday reality of a police state, not the fear experienced by any specific East German. By exposing moments of unguarded interaction among top Stasi agents, Menner succeeds, if only for a moment, in reversing the gaze of the surveillance, shining a light on those leading the surveillance effort.

At first glance, the pictures serve to provide a feeling for the everyday life and style of a specific time: messy homes with macramé plant hangers, a teenager’s wall plastered with images of Madonna, patterned polyester shirts and inexplicably puffy hairstyles, a film still from a midday stroll along a street of timbered houses. But Menner’s matter-of-fact categorization of images according their intended purposes alerts you to their sinister significance. The Polaroid of a messy home was taken before a secret house search, so that agents could meticulously re-create the mess after they had finished combing through it. The posters of Madonna belong to a teenager with distinctly Western (and therefore suspect) tastes. The men in ridiculous outfits are students of a seminar on how to blend in with the general public. And a small black mark on an image of people on a street, which could at first glance be disregarded as age damage, reveals itself on closer inspection to be a plastic arrow pointing at an anonymous head, presumably a person of interest.

It is in these glimpses of the people behind the operation that something unique to Menner’s treatment of surveillance emerges. Images of spies having beards and mustaches glued carefully onto their faces by beauticians, or dressing up as dissident backpackers with freshly shorn cut-offs, are fascinating in their depictions of diligent attention to detail, which ultimately results in absurd costumery. A series of images of the same agents in various civilian roles, called the “catalogue of masks,” suggests the extremes the Stasi went to in capturing false personas. We see a spy comb his hair in six different styles for as many different characters. Two “selfies” taken in mirrors are included in the book, along with a sardonic caption: “When an agent photographed himself at work, he had probably attained the highest stage of his espionage training.” Is it possible that these ridiculous characters were agents of terror, spending their days watching other people, making judgments about their potential threat, condemning them to imprisonment or death? One series documents a top official being recognized for his excellent work in telephone surveillance; he is knighted with a sword and given a large pendant in the shape of a telephone receiver. There are several seemingly random pictures of animals, which Menner sees as evidence of an agent’s “inner photographer,” illuminating these spontaneous moments of humanity amid the drudgery of surveillance work. What is notable is not so much that these pictures were taken, but that they were included in such highly classified files, along with countless other images of unremarkable scenes; perhaps it suggests the fear that leaving out even a single slide of film would be considered suspicious behavior to the agents’ superiors.

But the best example of the bizarre nature of the bureaucrat-as-spy modelmay be a surreal office costume party. Candids taken at the celebration document delighted guests, festively costumed as popes, ballerinas, athletes, and activists—members of groups specifically targeted by the Stasi.

Menner deals carefully with photographs of actual spying and police activity, areas with potential for extreme emotional reaction, by digitally obscuring the faces of the subjects (both spies and citizens) and rarely including images of physical violence; there are no photographs of incarcerated prisoners or details concerning punishment of alleged crimes, and the only images of police oppression are of performances of arrests, re-created by the Stasi for training purposes.

Although the book does speak to the breadth and range contained within the archives, the focus seems to be inclined more toward an intimate feeling of the unease and intrusion symptomatic of these large-scale surveillance efforts, felt both by the general population and the agents themselves. While the invasion of private citizens’ lives is implicitly abusive, the individual actions of the Stasi agents—making furtive hand signals to one another from unmarked vehicles while wearing disguises—expose their espionage activities as pathetic, paranoid, and fearful in their intricacy.

In the context of this book, created by an artist unrelated to the Stasi and published decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spies become as vulnerable to judgment as the individuals they watched. While this clearly does not carry the same implications as it would for an East German under suspicion in the 1980s, it speaks to the concept of surveillance in a more expansive way, with the benefit of time allowing the viewer some room for sympathetic feeling at the futility of the behaviors involved in this complex effort.

But Menner makes a point of not cohering these photographs into a single unified meaning or lesson. The images are selectively organized so as to avoid personalizing the experiences of any specific East German; instead, they collectively communicate the everyday reality of a police state. By exposing moments of unguarded interaction among top Stasi agents, he succeeds, if only for a moment, in reversing the gaze of the surveillance, shining a light on those leading the surveillance effort.

For artists who, like Menner, investigate the narrative of crime through photography, the apparent objectivity of the lens provides a powerful tool for creating feelings of unease and distaste toward seemingly innocuous subjects. In chronicling the tale of teenage spree killers, for example, Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood (2011) similarly transformed a suburban home’s textured vinyl siding and swirls of ochre prairie grass into inescapable hallmarks of doom by placing them alongside images of a burning tree and bloody snow. Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site (1997) positions the theater seat in which Lee Harvey Oswald watched War is Hell after killing President Kennedy alongside a home in Love Canal and the balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Photographs of these environments communicate something beyond their immediate aesthetic impression when their historical significance is made clearer.

While Menner’s other photographic pursuits frequently reference this tradition — from a series of murder weapons posed as scientific specimens to landscapes of minefields in Bosnia and France—Top Secret communicates a different kind of unanticipated threat. Rather than acting as doomsday taxonomist, he takes what has already been identified as dangerous and exposes it as essentially meaningless. These are pieces of information taken by someone other than the artist for the intended purpose of documentation (no photographer credits are given to the Stasi agents responsible for these images). It is this knowledge of the political import and implications of these images that the viewer returns to when seeking to find meaning in the collection.

Menner seems to question, rather than identify, the true value and import of the Stasi archive. What are these images evidence of? In their context as Stasi artifacts, the answer seems to be the existence of imperfect human behavior despite, and in conjunction with, carefully cultivated governmental paranoia. While undertaking the terrifying task of following individuals and painstakingly documenting their daily activities, Stasi agents appear fallible, familiar, and at times in good humor. Menner acknowledges the problematic implications of reproducing these images. Making this material public could be perceived as a continuation of intrusion into private life. Many of the pictures can be interpreted as comical, even as they represent the German Democratic Republic’s desire to terrorize the population. And these select photographs are only the tip of an unimaginably massive iceberg: there are few published accounts of the visual material culled from the Ministry for State Security, and many of those photographs have not been seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

One poignant aspect of this book, Menner points out, is its ability to exist. It would be impossible to conceive of a similar book of photographs taken from the archives of the K.G.B. or the C.I.A. In the wake of the revelation that the United States has been tapping Angela Merkel’s phone for a decade, the publication of Top Secret is timely, probing into the apparent reversal of the public policy (and public perception) of these two countries. The Stasi archives remain the only publicly accessible secret police archive reclaimed by its own country.

In a world of high-tech recording gadgets, global satellite surveillance, easily accessed digital databases of personal information, and home appliances that can be turned into recording devices unbeknownst to their owners, it is surreal to look into the historical record of an espionage apparatus and find a bumbling collection of bureaucrats taking pictures of their cats and gluing fake mustaches onto their faces. Which is more terrifying, knowing that your movements, ideas, and speech are documented by your human peers, or by your over-achieving cell phone? Having your behavior interpreted through the cold objectivity of the digital world maintains some kind of abstraction, at least before it is catalogued and classified by analysts. But the psychological distress that comes from being in a constant state of paranoia, of not recognizing safety in other human beings, ultimately seems more dangerous.

Contributor

Samantha Dylan Mitchell

SAMANTHA DYLAN MITCHELL is an artist, teacher, and writer based in Philadelphia.

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