Christiane Zschommler

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Christiane Zschommler

Behind The Berlin Wall,  A State of Surveillance

 My photographic work, concerned with the brutality of The Berlin Wall, has been a means of reflecting on life in East Germany

I was brought up in a block of flats overlooking the strip of no-man’s land behind The Wall in Berlin, in full view of the watch towers, guard dogs attached to wires and flood lights illuminating the strip of forbidden territory.  There was no access to the other side.

I was seven when I heard a woman scream as she was shot in No-Man's Land trying to escape to the West: the incident was never mentioned by my family or reported in a newspaper, I never forgot. Unknown numbers of people suffered distress and despair in their personal lives as a consequence of this oppression.

In the beginning of the 1980s my elderly grandmother smuggled George Orwell’s 1984, forbidden in East Germany, in her underwear through Check Point Charlie. Orwell’s imagination fell way short of the situation in East Germany. Looking at the evidence now, the reality of hidden surveillance was even beyond my imagination.

The experience of East German totalitarianism has been transformed into statistics. It is impossible to imagine that 15000 people worked at the Security head office in Berlin every day before 1989. What happened to all the 97000 employees and 189,000 Informal Collaborators (IMs)? The Stasi network of IMs covered all sections of the population and provided crucial support to the country's elaborate surveillance system, it made it possible to monitor groups to which a Stasi officer could never have gained more direct access.

Victims and Participants of the system exist now only in numbers and facts. Nobody has been brought to account or put on trial.

I make objects that integrate government statistics, published after The Wall came down: numbers of deaths, employees and informers for the state security, minor incidents in no man’s land or in my neighbourhood. 

In 1997 two months after I applied to find out whether there were files held on me by the secret police I received a surprising response. The 6-month delay before being allowed to read my files made me think about the content, also about who had betrayed me, family members, close friends? Compared with many others the files were not substantial. They contained meticulous photocopies of correspondence between my friends in the East and West, including both the front and back of envelops and picture postcards. Also included were copies of teaching material I had requested from the West. I could not believe the absurd pettiness and the manpower involved in collecting, checking and vetting the nation’s mail or in what manner they thought I may be conspiring to undermine their perceived socialist dream.

The final report suggested that I should be dismissed from my teaching job for being unsuitable, this resulted in a transfer to a new post without notice. Some of the pages in my files were censored by the new authority that deals with the legacy of the Stasi after communism fell, redacted with patterns of black rectangles. The Stasi’s carefully handwritten pagination was thoroughly renumbered and neatly rubber stamped by the archivist and the copies I received were rubber stamped a second time.

By obscuring the file which was held on me, I am creating a different relationship between the documents and the viewer. Once the final composite is complete it has the feel of a dense chalk drawing on a blackboard, reminiscent of the type I remember from my school days.

The images have the feeling of being monitored, the constructed and enfolded layers leave the collected information unclear. These objects echo the uncertainty of recorded intimate information and the constant fear that enveloped everyday life. We were transparent beings. These concepts are still true today with the data that modern governments are reading. Spying on private lives of citizens and withholding of sensitive information by government bodies increases in its sophistication at an alarming rate. When thinking of East Germany, we are not able to alter the past, but are able to sharpen our awareness of the injustice in the society we now live in.

Reworking the files 30 years after they were created, challenges the normalisation of violence, the current Zeitgeist is not dealing with the impact of surveillance on people in the former dictatorship. The abstract images detach themselves from their origins and try to evoke a watchfulness against the ubiquitous use of surveillance in modern society.

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