Review: Top Secret by Simon Menner

Simon Menner, from Top Secret
Simon Menner

Somewhere in East Berlin, a group of old colleagues are getting together every Wednesday night, to reminisce about the good old times, now long gone. Following established procedures, the meetups are held at different, secret locations. It’s not that anyone would really care – it’s true, the media might go for a quick story (which would then be forgotten even more quickly), but old habits die hard. And they’re not just habits, they were – and still are – the tools of the trade. Secret worlds don’t like to become unsecret.

These old men feel for their younger counterparts across the Atlantic many of whose secrets have been spilled so unceremoniously into the open by a young contractor who should have never had access to all those files in the first place. A contractor! What were they thinking?

Previously having been in charge of constructing and maintaining a surveillance state with the widest reaches, these former Stasi operatives can’t help but feel a little bit envious of the new tools they had never access to, those computers in every household into which people willingly enter their most private information to share, those portable telephones that have people essentially track themselves. You don’t even have to do much! How amazing is that? What if… What if…

I don’t know whether there are in fact members of East Germany’s secret service, the Stasi (short for “Staatssicherheit” or “State Security”), who have these kinds of meetups. It’s possible. I think it’s likely. But who knows? And I don’t know what the Stasi members who are still alive would make of this new world we find ourselves in, where it has become widely accepted that “privacy” actually means exactly what they always thought it would mean. You can’t help but wonder.

There is enough material left over from the Stasi to give us some clues. The archives were huge, and they still are. For quite a while after they were made accessible, people used to go to find out what they would find, often with devastating consequences. Here is just one such story. Imagine those playing out all across East Germany (or Eastern Germany, as it’s now called).

Artist Simon Menner got access to the files to look for whatever visual materials might be available. As it turns out, there is quite a bit of it. A collection has now been published as Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives (the artist wrote about the material and his experiences on this very website two years ago). The material comes in a variety of categories, some of them quite expected, others less so.

Nobody will be surprised to see surveillance photographs of mailboxes, say, or of the entrance of the US embassy in East Berlin. This is, after all, what spies do. Few people might be surprised to see photographs taken in people’s homes without their knowledge. This is also what spies do, but it seems quite a bit more chilling. However, images secret hand gestures or of disguises might come unexpectedly. Of course, there would be photographs taken – how else can you show someone what a good disguise might look like (let’s not argue about the “good” here). But somehow, you don’t expect that to happen anyway. These images – some shown above – somehow meet at the intersection of so many different areas that it’s hard to wrap one’s head around it.

There is a danger here, though. It’s tempting, too tempting, to focus on the absurdity of many of these images. Many are funny, many are absurd. But at the same time, each and every one of these photographs was absolutely serious and could, potentially, have very serious and possibly bad consequences for someone. If there is a banality of evil, there also is the absurdity of evil, and this absurdity easily stretches into areas that we would not consider to be evil at all. Quite a bit of the material in Top Secret could easily found its way into, let’s say, Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel.

Our contemporary societies live as much from often oddly ritualized amounts of sheer absurdity that can have the most extreme consequences for those who refuse to conform than previous societies that, say, had people wear powdered wigs over their usually perfectly fine own hair. We usually use the term “bureaucracy” to sum up an apparatus that so desperately needs strict rules to follow to maintain itself, rules that can and usually will become absurd quite quickly.

So to marvel or to laugh at what is on display in Top Secret is fine, but it shouldn’t stop there. How and where does any of this apply to the world we’re living in? That’s what we have to be aware of. And if you think it doesn’t apply, talk to, let’s say, William Vollmann (who, btw, even has a photo connection in his story, through his friend Jock Sturges).

Top Secret; images from the Stasi archives edited/curated by Simon Menner; 128 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2013