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From God to the Stasi, how we respond to being watched

Femke Colborne
February 16, 2017

People were once more afraid of God's watchful eye; now they fear the state. Three parallel Berlin exhibitions on surveillance reveal its humorous side. But perhaps we laugh because we're terrified.

Deutschland Berliner Ausstellungen - Harsh lessons
Image: Hito Steyerl, courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York

Towards the end of "Watching You, Watching Me" at the Museum für Fotografie in Berlin, there are a series of pictures of severe-looking men dressed in outrageous 1970s outfits.

There's something not quite right about the men in the pictures. Their oversize pointed collars, shiny sunglasses and furry hats are high 1970s chic, but their expressions somehow don't match the look. It's as though they are in costume - and, in fact, they are.

These images were used by the Stasi, the feared secret police institution of the East German communist government, to instruct its agents on how to disguise themselves, and are part of a project by German artist Simon Menner.

They are one of the highlights of a new trio of exhibitions in Berlin focusing on artistic representations of surveillance.

"Watching You, Watching Me" features work by artists including Mari Bastashevski, Josh Begley, Mishka Henner and Tomas van Houtryve that explores the boundaries between public and private, the role of governments in national security, and the psychology of being watched.

It's funny - until you realize what's behind it  

Yukiko Yamagata, one of the curators of "Watching You, Watching Me," says the exhibition "makes the invisible visible and raises questions about the consequences of surveillance, civil liberties and rights."

The Stasi photos are a good example of how the exhibition explores different reactions to surveillance, she says: "They are quite humorous. You're not sure what you're looking at initially, and then they take on a darker meaning when you realize."

There is more archive material on show, too, including Polaroids capturing surveillance activity and CCTV images of bank robberies. But the exhibition also includes original works created to challenge our perceptions of surveillance.

"We are interested in the role of photography as an instrument, but also as a tool to expose the negative effects of surveillance," Yamagata says.

Deutschland Berliner Ausstellungen - Surveillant gaze
Polaroids of CCTV footage capturing bank robberies are included in the "Watching You, Watching Me" exhibitionImage: Günter Karl Bose

"Surveillance is supposed to be omnipresent, but also covert and hidden. The challenge is how to show something that's not meant to be seen by the public. There are a lot of examples of engaging with archive material and using found imagery and traces of these activities. But photography is also a way to explore and resist surveillance."

Three-pronged approach to surveillance

Also at the Museum für Fotografie, the exhibition "The Field Has Eyes" explores surveillance from a historical perspective, featuring examples from as early as the 1500s; and around the corner at C/O Berlin, the show "Watched! Surveillance Art and Photography" focuses primarily on the idea of modern digital surveillance.

The three exhibitions represent the first coordinated project between the photography museum and C/O Berlin. "Watching You, Watching Me" and "Watched!" have both previously been on show in other countries, but new works have been added for Berlin to refresh them for a German audience.

"The Field Has Eyes," meanwhile, is a new exhibition bringing together prints, books, photographs and examples of apparatus from the collections of Berlin's state museums as well as other libraries, archives and private collections.

Germans still wary of surveillance

Contemporary Germany has developed a famously low tolerance for surveillance activities. Laws around the use of CCTV cameras are stricter than in other countries. The public has reacted fiercely to stories of communications being monitored in politics, and the country's economy remains one of the most cash-intensive on earth, since people don't like the idea of their personal business being tracked online.

These attitudes are partly a result of traumatic memories of the Stasi - a time marked by hidden cameras in handbags, tiny holes drilled in apartment walls, and a general lack of trust. 

However, over the past decade and a half, and particularly in light of the Berlin Christmas market attack in December 2016, attitudes have started to shift. In December, the German coalition government approved an expansion of the country's video surveillance network, and earlier this year plans were announced to introduce further security measures including ankle tags for potentially violent criminals.

"Germany is known to have a lot of strict laws on privacy, but when people's fears are provoked you do see that tension between privacy and national security," Yamagata says. "Events since 9/11 have impacted the tolerance level for surveillance."

Ann-Christin Bertrand, curator at C/O Berlin, also highlights shifting attitudes to surveillance in Germany. "After 9/11, surveillance started to become more prevalent, but initially the focus was very much on America. Now, with the attacks in Paris and the Christmas market attack, it has come nearer to us in Europe," she says.

Breitscheidplatz in Berlin
The Berlin Christmas market attack has led to increased security measures in GermanyImage: Getty Images/S. Loos

'We are all participants in surveillance'

However, the main focus of the C/O Berlin exhibition is not on state surveillance but on digital monitoring. The exhibition consists entirely of contemporary works, all created since 2002 and some as recently as this year, by artists including Paolo Cirio, Hasan Elahi, Hito Steyerl and Ai Weiwei.

"For us, it's important to bring surveillance down from this high position," says Bertrand. "We are all participants in surveillance - with our smartphones, with Google Street View, with Instagram and Facebook.

"We are constantly being tracked. We all give away our data because apps help us and have positive outcomes. We are aware of it but we still continue."

Paranoia: being watched by God

Though we might think of surveillance as a modern phenomenon, it can in fact be traced back as far as the beginning of civilization. That's the idea explored by the third exhibition in the trio, "The Field Has Eyes.”

"In a sense, it has always been there," says Michalis Valaouris, curator of "The Field Has Eyes." "That is important for us to understand. Our exhibition tries to open a new perspective and ask what the past can show us."

Images include depictions of the divine eye of God, showing the primitive idea of an omniscient being whose gaze is inescapable.

The picture from which the exhibition takes its name, dating from 1546, shows a man creeping towards a sinister-looking forest where eyes blink up at him from the ground and ears grow on the trees.

According to Valaouris, this highlights an important and universal element of surveillance: paranoia. "People have to believe that they are being seen," he says. "The power has shifted from religion and the eye of God to the state and the police. It is a different kind of paranoia and different techniques."

Valaouris also believes paranoia explains our response to the Stasi pictures: "Many people laugh when they see these pictures. Laughter is an interesting response. In fact, perhaps we are laughing because we are frightened.'

"Watching You, Watching Me" and "The Field Has Eyes" are at the Museum für Fotografie from February 17. "Watched! Surveillance Art and Photography" is at C/O Berlin from February 18.

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