The swimmer and the spy is the third 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.
In my quest to track down the swimmers from the 1968 race, nowhere could I find any trace of the two former-East German swimmers, Marianne Seydel and Sabine Steinbach. Then in a lightbulb moment, I knew exactly what I had to do: go to Germany and track them down in person. Buoyed with the näive confidence that came from finding Tui in the phone book, I set about the task of finding Marianne Seydel and Sabine Steinbach with the same vigour. But I quickly realised that I needed someone on the ground in Germany; that is, a German-speaking someone based in the city of Chemnitz in the old East Germany, which was where they had both trained for the Olympics. I needed a sleuth. Someone who knew how to track people down. In short, a private eye. The irony of hiring a private eye in the former East Germany was not lost on me.
Being a bit of a greenhorn in these matters, I started by Googling ‘how to hire a private eye.’ I found a web page with a list of tips for hiring a private eye. The tip I liked the best was “Don’t do business with jerks.” In my everyday life experience, I’ve found that’s generally a good tip. Armed with this, I set about Googling private eyes based in and around Chemnitz. My final pick was the website with an English translation, and, more importantly, of all the websites it was the best looking (striking a decisive blow for aesthetics).
I emailed him. He replied: “Thank you for your email. I will gladly carry out the task for you.” Good so far, not sounding like a jerk. Later, he emailed: “Hello Sandy, today I am in a surveillance. Tomorrow I send you the contract.” I liked his efficiency. We swapped a number of emails, eagerly I signed his contract, paid his fee, and so he began.
A few days away from stepping onto my flight to Germany, I received an email: he’d managed to track down both Marianne Seydel and Sabine Steinbach but neither of them wanted to make contact with me. He tried to soften the blow, writing in his bad English: “She is a old lady and live in her own world, a east German world.” Then he signed off, “I hope you have a nice Christmas time …”
Fuck. That wasn’t ideal.
I realised I had handed over a certain degree of agency to the private eye. In doing so, I had also set up an artistic premise whereby the proposition itself activated an unforeseen set of events to take place. In this, I drew upon conceptual strategies stretching back, for instance, to Sophie Calle’s The Shadow (1981), in which she asked her mother to hire a private investigator to follow her, photograph and record her activities; and Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969), in which he activated the role of a private eye himself by following random strangers in the street until losing sight of them. Not unlike Acconci, I had allowed strangers (the private eye as much as Marianne Seydel and Sabine Steinbach) to determine the outcome. However, whereas Acconci was forced to stop when he lost sight of his target, instead this activated a different response – I decided to travel to the former-East German city of Chemnitz with a plan to swim in their old training pool, the Stadtbad Chemnitz.
We caught the train from Dresden to Chemnitz. I had my togs in a plastic bag and, being mid-winter, it was snowing. We walked gingerly through the icy, almost-deserted streets, past the massive bust of Karl Marx and the rows of Soviet-era apartment blocks until finally, there it was – the Stadtbad Chemnitz in all its Bauhaus-inspired splendour. Even better, it was senior citizens’ day – I felt right at home (haha). But my cunning plan of getting my husband, Chris, to video me swimming in the pool was thwarted when we read the pool rules – even in German, it was very clear: no photography was allowed in the pool area. I tried to speak with the stony-faced ticketing staff, but I was stymied by my lack of German. Finally, a young woman was summoned – yes, she knew a little English but “No,” she reiterated, no photography was allowed. “Yes,” my husband could wait for me while I swam, but “No,” no spectators were allowed in the pool area. He could wait “there,” she said, pointing to a small anteroom at the end of the pool that had a door that opened out into the pool area.
I was politely ushered into the women’s changing room for a wonderful German experience of uninhibited nudity and scrupulous pre-swim washing. Freshly scrubbed, I made my way to the pool. I’d seen photos, of course, but I was still taken aback – this was, without a doubt, the most beautiful pool I’d ever been in. After climbing in and claiming the right-hand lane, I warmed up with a couple of lengths of breaststroke, bobbing my way along the length of the pool in time with the sedate rhythm of the other elderly swimmers. It proved to be an extraordinary encounter and I swam with a heightened awareness of the politics, power and ideologies that still permeated this space. Yet it was so tranquil – it seemed incongruous to think that this was where the East German swimmers had slogged it out under the watchful eyes of their Stasi coaches while training for the Olympics. I switched to freestyle and swam some more lengths – all the while feeling like an interloper in this pool, an undercover agent trying to insert myself into their story.
This was how I ended up swimming laps in an unforeseen yet slyly comical performance in which I slid into the swimming pool with a group of aged swimmers while, at the same time, vicariously inserting myself into the stories of the two absent swimmers. Later, after I got out, my husband proudly showed me some footage he’d sneakily shot on his phone through the door that opened out into the pool – two short clips of me swimming in the pool. As I viewed them, it struck me that these two fuzzy little surveillance videos were in fact the perfect response to the absence of the two former-East German swimmers. Drawing upon the legacy of surveillance footage in the old East Germany, this was better than anything I could have hoped for.