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Shredded Spy Agency Documents Become Readymade Art

Conceptual artist Daniel Knorr artistically explores the legacy of East Germany’s spy agency, the Stasi.

by DJ Pangburn
14 May 2016, 8:20pm

When the Berlin Wall fell, East Germany’s darkly efficient secret intelligence service, the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheitsdienst, or State Security Service), fell along with it. Modeled after the Soviet Union’s Ministry of State Security (MGB), the Stasi was staffed with 90,000 agents who generated around one billion bureaucratic reports while spying on fellow citizens. Even before the Berlin Wall fell, the Stasi were hard at work shredding what eventually amounted to 45 million documents (about 5% of the total secret cache) before activists occupied the Stasi headquarters and halted the destruction. Some of these documents—paper, microfilm and audio tape—were destroyed with a wet shredder, and combined with oil and water, resulting in cellulose lumps that look like stones.

In the new exhibition The State of Mind, now on at the Berlin gallery Manière Noire, conceptual artist Daniel Knorr uses these “Leipzig stones” as artifacts. The other part of the exhibition is installed at The Stasi Museum Runde Ecke (“round corner”) in Leipzig, an “object” that Knorr exchanged for the document hunks—a model of the T-54 Soviet tank on a pedestal at the scale of 1:50.

The Stasi stone display © Daniela Friebel

“This process of destruction by the secret police itself formed cellulose clumps in whose colored mass of gray, pale blue and pink, only a few letters are recognizable,” Knorr tells The Creators Project. “On the cannon of the tank, hanging on a lace, there are preserved secret documents of original size. A manifesto is enclosed, written by two schoolgirls from Frankfurt (Oder) in 1968, to inform the East German population about the invasion of Prague by troops of the Warsaw Pact. The other documents are the files of the inquiry issued by the secret police.”

Knorr’s The State of Mind has its origins in an invitation he received from his former NYU professor Antoni Muntadas, who visited Germany to accompany him to the Stasi Museum in Leipzig.

“I discovered the cellulose chunks that were on display and I was overwhelmed by their look and history,” he recalls. “The director of the museum, explained that I could have some of the pieces if I wanted. Since that moment I started to think about an exchange with the museum. I didn’t intend to just take the destroyed files—I saw the strategy of getting the piece as part of the work or part of its materialization.”

Stasi stone detail

Knorr calls the documents “readymade.” So the only work that Knorr performed was the careful packing and unpacking of the chunks, and their eventual display.

“I didn’t alter the files at all,” Knorr says. “In that case, the East German state was the ‘sculptor.’ The stones were hidden in the canalization in the courtyard of the Stasi house. They were found because once it rained they were plugging the canal pipes.”

When visitors enter Manière Noire gallery, they encounter a pedestal covered with a transparent plexiglas top. Within this people can see about 19 pieces of stone displayed on a pile.

The 1:50 scale metal model of the Soviet T-54 tank, on display at the Stasi museum in Leipzig

Knorr explains that the stone’s various colors come from different file cards. The pink ones were issued by secret agents, while the blue ones were file cards about persons who were being tailed. A booklet describing the project is also on display in the gallery. There viewers can see also the piece installed in the Stasi museum in Leipzig.

Knorr came across the 1:50 metal model of the T-54 Soviet tank on an eBay page, and purchased there. It is, as he explains, the tank that invaded Prague in 1968, destroying the Prague Spring, a period of political protest in Soviet satellite state Czechoslovakia. This piece’s location in the Stasi museum at Runde Ecke is significant, as all of the Stasi activities were directed from there. After the fall of the East Germany regime, Runde Ecke became a museum.

The 1:50 scale metal model of the Soviet T-54 tank, on display at the Stasi museum in Leipzig.

“The manifesto of the schoolgirls that is hanging on the gun of the tank, warns the population about the invasion of the troops,” Knorr says. “I was interested in making a kind of little memorial inside a historic exhibition, such as the Stasi museum.”

For Knorr, it’s important that the work is read as a historical point in which the “Mind” of a state is deleted as a kind of bio-political short circuit of a surveillance practice.

“Firstly, the intelligence was about observation and after the fall of the system, it’s about self-destruction,” Knorr says. “A kind of backslide into primitivism. I see the piece a priori for bio-politics of a system no matter if it’s a totalitarian or democratic system.”

The Stasi logo

“The potential of an exit into a Benjaminian lack of experience state is materialized as a creative element and metaphor of the piece,” he adds. “The Stasi Stone Documents point out, furthermore, the aspect of repetition of obscure political acts in history, and I hope it encourages us today to be more vigilant in dealings with government bodies.”

The State of Mind runs at Manière Noire until May 31, 2016.

Click here to see more of Daniel Knorr’s work, and here to check out his gallery Fonti in Naples.

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