These days many people know of Stasi, the East German internal security agency, from the recent movie The Lives of Others. Not too long ago I read the wonderful book Stasiland [link to journal entry] which has a lot of horrible/incredible anecdotes about domestic spying in East Germany. And then a number of years ago two artists, the Wilson sisters, did a moody surreal art film in the former Stasi headquarters that features a levitating chair. The agency was known for turning citizens against their neighbors by subtle pressure, implied threat or economic incentive. It seems it’s something that many national agencies do from time to time (“If you see something, say something”.) Turning the citizenry into rats makes the entire populace scared and docile, as no one knows who’s informing on whom. ANYONE could be an informer or an agent. The world becomes a Phillip K. Dick novel — although in his version everyone would be informing on themselves.
Sure enough, just like I read about, and as seen in the movie, there were smell samples in jars, bits of cloth holding the odor or suspected citizenry (often a stolen piece of underwear — the perverts!) These were filed away just in case that person should disappear, and then a dog could sniff the rag and discover the bad guy’s hiding place.
The Stasi Museum is inside one part of a former massive compound that enclosed many city blocks. Parking and entrances were inside the compound, so no one could see who was coming or going. And the whole complex is now for sale! For one Euro! Well, I’m sure there are conditions. I think the city is trying to sell it to the country if they will turn it into a proper museum. As is, it’s rudimentary. One floor of former offices displays clunky spy devices: cameras in logs, behind buttons and in fake rocks. Here’s one in a birdhouse — a little obvious, I think.
Maybe the intent was NOT to hide this surveillance gear too well, the idea possibly being to make people aware they were being looked at and listened to. If you’re not aware you’re being observed then you won't live in fear, so what’s the point? Sometimes buildings here in the U.S. put up fake surveillance cameras in the hopes of discouraging perps. Of course, it wasn’t all just nutty surveillance stuff — people’s lives were ruined, destroyed, their careers came to a dead end at the least suspicion, there were prison terms and torture without stated reason (where have I heard that one before?) and information and culture was heavily censored. And the food wasn’t that great, either.
On a higher floor were the offices of the head of Stasi, a Mr. Mielke. They weren’t very grand by Western standards, but he did have a little apartment attached, which was pretty cute if one can now look at this style as very peculiar design aesthetic.
Hardly luxurious — but then maybe these higher-ups saw themselves as modest functionaries just doing the noble work of the state rather than as secret oligarchs or royalty. I remember visiting Pravda HQ in Moscow in the 90s and the decorator must have been the same guy. In that room there were also no decadent touches — just one long bookshelf that held the collected works of Lenin. (When did Lenin have time to write all those volumes?)
The Stasi AV room:
As the wall was coming down the shredding machines in this place went into overdrive. Most of them clogged and they had to call for reinforcements. Many many documents were destroyed but there were too many to shred in just a few days, so there are organizations now that will allow you to locate your file if it is readable. Here is a page from John Lennon’s FBI file, for example — not a lot of it is “uncensored” — a sort of piece of conceptual art, if you ask me.
The next day we checked out some more of the local museums. The Hamburger Banhof (a former train station and freight terminal) was massive! Bigger than DIA Beacon or the Arsenale in Venice! An endless series of identical galleries. Here is the adjoining hallway, disappearing into an art-filled infinity.
CS has some pieces in a room juxtaposed with some Paul McCarthy grotesques. She said one of hers had been hung upside down — a giant grotesque vagina.
The hotel sells pieces of the Berlin Wall in addition to overpriced Pringles above the minibar. This piece of the wall looks like a cookie.
You can also take rides in a Trabant, the cheap plastic-bodied Eastern car that was a joke and now is nostalgia. Or Ostalgia, as it is called here.
At Arndt Gallery there was a stuffed tattooed pig — a real pig. On another floor in another room (many of the successful galleries have expanded rapidly) there was a piece by Thomas Hirshhorn that I liked of manikin hands holding aloft literary tomes and ordinary tools — a sort of hilarious intellectual “workers arise!” image.
An idealized revolution on a (large) tabletop. I can imagine this as a crude proposal for a large-scale monument that would have been made years ago in the former East. Maybe done here by a high school senior using available materials: paperbacks rather than more impressive bound volumes, and puny screwdrivers and measuring tapes rather than hammers and sickles. And of course all held together with packing tape, a Hirshhorn specialty by now.
I like this much better than his recent installations that feature scenes of horror and photos of mutilated bodies from Iraq or elsewhere mixed with slogans, art and detritus meant to amplify or heal — those pieces seem too obviously shocking or didactic. Images of mutilated bodies are indeed the part of the U.S. invasion that are carefully kept from the view of most Americans. Accounts of every car bomb, reported almost daily, are not, for example, accompanied by close-ups of the body parts that inevitably accompany those events. Usually we see a smoking car or building in the medium distance and people running away or carrying stretchers. But we don’t often see the toll on human flesh. There was a show at White Columns about a year ago in which a photographer re-photographed the images seen in a museum in Vietnam whose subject was The American War, as they call it. Mangled bodies, living and dead, Agent Orange victims, denuded countryside. Again, the human toll was brought home in ways that Life magazine and CBS never did.
In a strange way, however, the censoring of war’s toll seems reasonable. Both sides of many conflicts can, to some extent (though hardly in Iraq, it’s so one-sided) hold up gruesome images of maimed loved ones and partisans to justify their outrage and need for revenge. The images further inflame passions, anger and distrust. The images demand “justice”, not an explanation. And in order to obtain the “justice” these horrors demand, one must create equal and opposite horrors. But then we have sunk to the level of beasts, clawing at each other, an eye for an eye, until nothing is left standing. And eye for an eye may be justified in a stable society, or at least one could argue for it, under the tight control of an impartial body. But in wartime, without the controls, it spirals quickly out of control. Besides, an eye for an eye rules out forgiveness, repentance and rehabilitation. I know that our prisons are mostly about punishment and revenge — as are many wars — but those three hopeful words are the only way out of the spiral. The Israeli, Soviet and U.S. solutions — not really solutions but stopgaps — are to build massive walls and keep the parties, the entities, separate. It didn’t work in Berlin, or in South Africa, or even China, but it seems to be a recurring idea — as if no one had ever thought of it before!
At another gallery the little-known German pop artist Thomas Bayrle had some surprising pieces. He’s been making stuff since the 60s, some of which now looks like psychedelic posters. He came up with Polke and Richter, but never had the success they did. One wall was covered with wallpaper covered with a repeating graphic of women’s shoes. Possibly before Warhol’s cow wallpaper, who knows? He likes swarming patterns. In another room was an old B&W 16mm film of a rubber plant slowly turning, but on its leaves, swarming like aphids, were tiny people. They seemed be images from a busy street scene, shot from a high angle. Somehow it almost matched the angle on the plant’s leaves so the people really seemed to be crawling all over them. The explanation said it was done frame by frame.
In another room he there was a wall-sized video projection of a crucified Christ (without the cross) seemingly made out of thousands of shiny angled crystal facets. There was a familiar but unidentifiable whooshing sound. As the “camera” moved in closer one could see that every facet of every “crystal” was a tiny oddly shaped high angle moving image of a highway with trucks and cars zooming by — hence the strange whooshing sound. The “camera” pushed in further, until the “Christ” was no longer discernable and all one could see was weirdly shaped films of cars and trucks on a highway.
Here are some quotes from the artist:
"The entire world opinion lies in a couple billion halftone-dots."
“I never say good motorway or bad motorway.”
"I consider the relationship between individual and collective/community the same as that between dot and grid, the dot representing a component of the grid, and between cell and body, the cell being its basic element."
Lastly, there was, tucked under a river embankment, a tiny museum of DDR life, complete with with a recreation of an apartment interior. Apparently nudism was a popular idea in the East, as the museum included a detailed and extensive diorama of a nude beach:
So maybe there were some perks to living in the East after all. This museum has an odd format — much of the stuff is in drawers — so if a panel describes the clothing, for example, the drawer might be filled with actual clothes manufactured in the DDR. You can reach in and touch the stuff. Nobody steals anything. The website for the museum has an extensive photo archive of the contents of the museum, life in the DDR, and also of the details of the step-by-step construction of the space. Here’s their toilet in construction.
There was a wonderful design book, reissued by Taschen in smaller form, called SED (Stunning Eastern Design). It emanated from an exhibition in Germany in ‘89. It celebrates a now vanished universe of “bad” design, shoddy printing and oddball aesthetics. The stuff was so “bad” it was good.
Of course, the original version of this book became a fetish item in the 90s. Designers like Tibor Kalman, Stefan Sagmeister and Deborah Norcross all plundered its wacky pages, layouts and typefaces. This Cornershop record, for example, accurately recreated (!) a hosiery ad from this design book — funky printing and all.
I guess at some point designers (and others) get bored with “good” design and the increasing ease of making tasteful design that looks more or less like everything else, which is exactly the point, and also not the point. At some point I guess people designing things want them to look tasteful so that they’ll appeal to a semi-sophisticated crowd. And now it’s pretty easy to do that. With computers, and under the influence of the wealth of slick packaging in the world, tasteful layouts are pretty easy to emulate. The general public is fairly sophisticated in their design sense these days — they “read” the language of design — but, it being a visual language, they are not able to articulate the “text”. But if as a designer you want to be really hip and to appeal to those who deem themselves above mere tasteful design, then you have to have to work a little harder. One way to achieve this ultra cool surprise is to look intentionally bad, but to drop little visual ironic winks into the mix so that the audience knows it’s not really buying a record by a crappy East German band.
So, over the years, every genre of crap design — East German products, tacky back of magazine ads recycled by Warhol or Lichtenstein, sleazy RnB and Rock and Roll record covers, amateur porn and scientific textbooks — gets regurgitated as “good” design. Everything gets mulched and reused. So how does anything truly new ever get created?