About Josh Schwebel

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#9: Final Report

We met the night before, more to dispel the nerves of being strangers than to organize a plan. I felt curiosity and welcome from the other members of our group.

The next day we arrived at the museum and went inside to look at the exhibit. We split up almost immediately, going to different rooms and spending different amounts of time with the displays. I noticed so many levels of resonance between the architecture of the surveillance regime and the architecture and furniture of the building. I walked through the rooms of original objects, photos, and histories, entranced. I loved the details: the listening devices revealed behind doors, the stories of manipulation and betrayal. It was thrilling, unsavoury, and felt totally unrelated to our current political condition, which, given the circumstances, was a glorious relief.


The museum took care to demonstrate how thoroughly they had studied the DDR spy organization’s cadaver, everything displayed in such a way as to promise that we had conquered this regime.  Drawers opened, compartments laid bare for the spectator’s gaze. This museum offered a careful simulacra of the DDR surveillance fantasy and fetish. It was like a haunted house: all the elements were designed to provoke a memory that visitors had only experienced by way of cinema: a sense of voyeuristic horror, authenticity without the risk of danger.


As we took lunch we discussed these properties of looking and the deliberate openness with which the museum conducted its affairs. One of us recounted that she had accidentally even entered the admission-ticket kiosk and stood behind the man taking money. We discussed some courses of potential actions to go forth.

On my return I began copying excerpts from the didactic texts, both in English and German, which described particular instances of penetration, border crossing, intrusiveness, or invasion. I copied these texts onto tiny index cards. Beginning with the cloak room, where people were invited to leave their coats and bags unattended, I slipped these cards into coat-pockets, backpacks, and suitcases. It was terrifying. I then hovered around the outskirts of a tour group as the guide spoke about the complete control exercised by the regime. I approached people whose coats were trailing in their arms or those who didn’t have anyone standing behind them. I began slipping cards into pockets as people walked by, hunting unsuspecting visitors. My disguise as a visitor frayed and slipped. I began only looking for vulnerable points of access – easy pockets, open bags. Some people felt me approach and pulled away as I encroached on their personal space. It was difficult to appear to be looking at the display while my arms were pursuing another task and my whole body was racing with adrenaline. At a certain point I became completely exhausted. I joined others on the top level sitting in the largest room as they wrote. Things naturally wound down, and we ran out of energy. As we left I took a photograph of the Lenin statue holding ground in the front foyer, his hand majestically slipped inside his coat pocket.


Photos: JS

#9: Final Report

They came before I was open, standing outside my door but inside my protective wall. They took photos of my door. I watched them.

When my doors were unlocked, one of them bought tickets at the entrance. They were polite but I could see that they were watching me in a way that was different from the normal visitors. Looking for gaps and seams, looking at how I was prepared to be shown.

They moved through me like all the others, reading, taking some notes, taking some photos and making some sketches. They paid careful attention to the ways I was left unguarded.

They moved around more boldly, looking now at my employees and the other visitors with the same examining gaze. I wasn’t sure how I felt about them, but all I could do was watch.

When they left, I was relieved. But then they came back.

They stood near a tour that passed through me every weekend. A large and passive group. The group stood around listening while loaded up with bags, coats and cameras. I have a public coat-check, but most tourists are too careful to let their things remain unguarded in my cloakroom. These visitors stayed on the outskirts of the tour, watching, taking notes, and occasionally penetrating the group or abandoning it mid-history. They were only pretending to be interested – they were looking for other things.

They began doing things to me. Standing inside my hidden compartments, waiting in the dark, watching. Holding positions that had been previously mine. I felt, what? Exposed? Vulnerable? Violated? They brought a buzzing tension, a level of curiosity, tenderness, but also invasiveness, despite its subtle restraint. I remember when my compartments were used this way before, but I was built for this type of watching, and I am familiar with it, it’s all I know. But in the many years since that time, I have shed many layers of protection, and was not prepared for this coordinated trespass. I accept that I must be looked at, but I also determine what I show and how I show it. These outsiders wanted to get inside me and reconstruct who watched whom and for what purpose. I was disturbed.

Finally they tired of their game, took a few more photos of my Lenins and light fixtures. Then, mercifully, they left. I waited until they were safely out of sight, and then exhaled.