Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In the Archive

In the 1980s, the East German Stasi came to the realisation that their surveillance of citizens was so absurdly zealous that it had become impossible to manage, let alone utilise, the millions of files collected. By 1989, the Berlin headquarters of the Stasi contained nearly 7 million files collected by the East Germans on East German citizens crammed into 100 kilometres of storage space. Whilst some of the dossiers undoubtedly reviewed potentially incriminating material, the majority constituted a catalogue of banality. Even the most insignificant actions were reported and recorded. In 1987, an undercover agent denounced a housewife in his apartment block for allowing her daughter to wear blue jeans. Neighbours informed on their neighbours’ haircuts, telephone habits, or reported if their television aerials were oriented in a suspiciously western direction. Notes were filed on the fashion habits of known artists. There were eight kilometres of files of transcripts of phone conversations recorded in Berlin alone. Add to this the so-called "Bureau of Olfactory": a warehouse stacked with thousands of jars containing pieces of fabric stolen from houses (notably, dirty underwear and socks), that were used to train sniffer dogs to track suspects. It was joked at the time that the only information you needed to provide your taxi driver with was your name, for they would already know your address.

After the revolutions at the end of 1989, the files that hadn’t been destroyed by the Stasi were made available for public review. Which raised several questions; when everyone is on file, how can anyone possibly be incriminated? When every action is recorded, what constitutes history? And how are we to sift the clues from the junk? Within the archive, the inconsequential and the incriminating sit side by side.

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