How to wear a disguise is the fourth component in a body of video work generated for my PhD research project, The paradox of failure: sport, competition and contemporary art, in which I set out to restage a 50-year-old swimming race from the 1968 Mexico Olympics: the final of the women’s 400 metres individual medley.
Before we left Germany, we had paid a visit to the Stasi Museum in Berlin. It was the crazy photos that caught my eye: spycraft memorabilia of Stasi agents being taught how to wear disguises, how to put on wigs and false moustaches, how to disguise themselves as Western tourists, how to be spies. A bit like kids playing at dress-up but, absurdly, these were grown-ups. At first I thought they were taking the piss, then I realised they were real and what they were actually doing was very unfunny. In fact, it was all a bit sinister and creepy, this motley collection of very ordinary-looking people who were trained to spy on their own. Suddenly, Marianne Seydel’s distress at the end of the 1968 race made a whole lot of sense.
I couldn’t quite get those crazy photos at the Stasi Museum out of my mind, so when we got back to Wellington, I popped into the Costume Cave fancy-dress hire shop and filled a bag with an armful of 60s and 70s clothes, shoes, wigs, stick-on moustaches, false eyelashes, you name it – everything I could think of that I might need to engage in my own How to wear a disguise. The clothes had that distinctive ‘hired costume’ musty smell, with a do-it-yourself aesthetic; and they’d seen better days, but a few well-placed safety pins and a bit of double-sided tape later, I was ready. Armed with photographs I’d taken of the Stasi instructions on how to wear disguises, I set up my video camera and entered the experience of the instructions – turning the instructions into a kind of participatory artwork, re-imagining and restaging. What followed was an awkward jumble of repetitive hammed-up personas of ‘ordinary’ people: schoolteacher, truck driver, withered vamp, housewife, ageing party boy – but freakishly they all still looked like me.
It challenged me to think about how the Stasi spies might have been in their private moments as they disguised themselves, morphing into something else, something quite duplicitous. I thought about the two young swimmers and the Stasi regime that had controlled them, and the possibility that they had been spied on, maybe even by their friends and families. These were the disguised ‘ordinary’ people I attempted to act out. But in front of the camera, I found myself overplaying it – as if one foot was in vaudeville playing dress-up and the other firmly stuck back in the Stasi world of serious disguises. Aided and abetted by a classic spy film-noir soundtrack, the overall effect of the final work is not so much tragicomic as it is Austin Powers, with a mix of absurdity and anachronistic oddness – much like the absurdity and oddness that today oozes from those old Stasi photos.
Dressing up, wearing disguises, masquerading – as a female artist, it is hard to escape the long shadow of Cindy Sherman. But I prefer Ronnie van Hout and his schlocky cheap wigs and op-shop clothes, coupled with a fondness for absurdity and the tragicomic. When I watched the video footage later, I could see that I’d captured the awkward amateurishness of the Stasi photos but also, not unlike van Hout, there’s something else tragically ‘almost funny’ that’s exposed in my ageing visage and my deliberately hammed-up acting. Ultimately, How to wear a disguise isn’t that funny but, disconcertingly, it slides around in a murky tragicomic zone, testing the edges of another kind of failure in an attempt to collapse the distance between the former East Germany, its youthful swimmers and The swimming project.
The tragicomic, according to theatre scholar John Orr, is “short, frail, explosive and bewildering. It balances comic repetition against tragic downfall. It demonstrates the coexistence of amusement and pity, terror and laughter.” Likewise, How to wear a disguise is an attempt at using humour to draw out the tragicomic side of biopolitics and of East Germany’s forty-year Stasi regime – also short, tragic and terrifying. I had been – in equal measure – appalled, weirdly amused and fascinated by the stark evidence of the exhibits. But also, I was intrigued by the photographs of the spies, ordinary citizens who were recruited by the Stasi to inform on their families, friends and colleagues. In How to wear a disguise I set out to explore these politicised double lives through a tragicomic lens, playing with tensions oscillating between the photos and the videoed performance, improvising actions and gestures imagined from the Stasi photos.
Many of these Stasi training and surveillance photographs are also reproduced in researcher Simon Menner’s Top Secret: Images from the Stasi (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2014). Sarah E. James examines the lost socialist culture of the German Democratic Republic through an analysis of photographic documentation in “Radical Archives,” Frieze d/e 17 (December 2014–February 2015). Also see Donna West Brett’s illuminating study “Stasi Surveillance Photographs and Extra-Archival Legacy,” Photography and Culture 12, no. 2 (2019): 227–248. The website for the Stasi Museum also provides a useful background to the regime’s workings, see http://www.stasi-museum.de/en/enausstellung.htm
Henry Mancini’s “The Boss” was composed for the film noir classic Touch of Evil (1958), directed by Orson Welles.
John Orr, Tragicomedy and Contemporary Culture: Pity and Performance from Beckett to Shepard (Basingstoke & London: MacMillan, 1991), 1.
Review by Tasha Haines