Government Surveillance

This semester, I am taking a class taught by Mark Jarzombek called Traumatic Urbanism. We are exploring the linkages between discourses of trauma and discourses of design and urbanism. If trauma must be worked through to be overcome, like a PTSD patient meeting with a therapist, then the public display of traumatic pasts works as a kind of public working through. A memorial is a type of public therapy, a quite conflicted one, shot through with ruptures.

Christianna Bonin brought this fascinating example of a public working through into class. The Stasi  of the former communist East Germany was notorious for the vast archives they collected on citizens throughout the country. Their surveillance was pervasive and copious. Simon Menner, an artist based in Berlin, curated a collection of Stasi polaroids taken during the invasion of private homes. Their purpose was to document the existing condition of objects and furnishings so that the objects could be replaced exactly as they were after they were strewn about during the search of incriminating evidence.

Looking at the polaroid is like looking through the viewport of the police state’s camera. We see the gaze of the spy, but was also see the kitsch of daily life that somehow became the target of this surveillance. We can imagine the police carefully re-arranging shoes, and re-disheveling a bed. In a state where these photographs exist, does the public/private binary cease to have the same meaning? Even an unmade bed isn’t a private thing hidden behind a closed door.

If the NSA is reading our emails, are they as banal, and conversely, as full of life as these polaroids?

Thanks to Christianna Bonin for bringing this project to class.

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