Identities Refracted for Consumption

Here at the Wende Museum, we are at once a repository of Eastern European Cold War artifacts, the active preservers of these artifacts, and the forum through which these same artifacts are then reproduced as material objects to be consumed, in the inverse, for the same purpose for which they were originally created. I say the “inverse” because the commemorative plates again commemorate, and other consumer products, such as radios and deodorant, are consumed and yet, the plates commemorate, not a personal experience or achievement, but a collective historical context and we do not consume the radios and deodorant as neither aural instrument nor for personal hygiene, but as reflectors of a time and place and further, of circumstance.

In particular, we have in our collection a facial recognition training manual developed for the infamous border guards of the Berlin Wall as part of the “Facing the Wall” exhibit.

Pairs of pictures of faces are placed side by side and the onlooker can guess whether or not the pair of pictures is of the same person or if they are two separate images of two separate people altogether. These pairs of pictures are, ostensibly, reflections of each other, that is to say reflections of the same person, but more often than not, they are of two entirely different individuals. This was both a startling and disconcerting experience for me as I tried to deconstruct and correctly discern the relationship between each set of pictures. This was, I came to learn, the final exam that prospective guards had to pass. Predictably, I was wrong more times than I was correct (by a rather embarrassing margin) and ultimately decided that maybe I wouldn’t be the most efficient border guard.

Afterwards, with my ego still smarting from the failure of this training exercise, I found a different facial recognition test online and decided to try this one…better luck the second time around?

Well, it worked!

I got a 100%! This was most gratifying, to say the least.

Then I got to wondering why or what it was that made this one so much easier? I mean, there were three people per sampling and they even did a static blurring of the faces to make it more difficult…Then I realized that none of them had had hair, or facial hair, or glasses or even clothes for that matter. Without all of these variable aspects removed, I was able to concentrate on the immutable structural elements of these profiles. What exactly were these two photographs reflecting of the other then? If they are two different people, then certainly they couldn’t be reflecting one or the other’s fundamental structural elements, because even I can tell the difference between those (I can say this with the results of the online test behind me🙂. In effect, they are reflecting the many and varied visual indicators that we often absorb unconsciously that inform our perceptions of culture, ethnicity and individuality and the job of a GDR border guard was to be able to see throughall of this and discern actual identity of each person passing through. This realization, more than anything else illuminated for me the true nature of life in such a communist state as the GDR: the kind of state where the superimpositions of individuality are stripped away and the spatial orientation of each and every individual was duly monitored and controlled. All of the material aspects of identity, the consumption of one’s own identity, as it were, are eliminated and what remains are the bare elements of humanity that are subject to the gaze of an external force: us, them , it doesn’t matter.

Here at the Wende Museum, we are at once a repository of Eastern European Cold War artifacts, the active preservers of these artifacts, and the forum through which these same artifacts are then reproduced as material objects to be consumed, in the inverse, for the same purpose for which they were originally created. To a certain extent, we have consumed their identities by taking their treasured commemorative plates, books, artwork and displaying them to fulfill our own historical curiosity. There is only the material here, but through the material we are able to glimpse the individual lives and visceral experiences of people in the GDR, and that, as they say, is something that cannot be simply purchased… or can it?

This entry was posted in Border Guards / Grenztruppen, Exhibits, Facial Recognition, Facing the Wall, videos. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Identities Refracted for Consumption

  1. paloma says:

    When he turned over his facial recognition materials to the museum, Major Bochmann (who had a big part in creating them) said – rather wistfully – that he hoped they might still find an application in police work. New technology of the digital kind was already getting ahead of the skills of his MfS officers, despite their training in analysis of earlobes, eyebrows, dimples, nostrils, cheekbones, etc. – all those elements of the human face less likely to be altered during the useful life of a passport.

  2. joanne says:

    It’s so sad that the digital systems are making such training obsolete. I wonder though, if these computerized versions are only efficiently filling a gap for a contemporary situation and leaving open rather bigger vulnerabilities in the process after all; the various technicalities that a computer/digital system can pick up are easily foiled by another [inverse] technology, but there is nothing to replace the human intuition and subjectivity, which is, I think, highly underestimated in the face of 2 dimensional computer. It even jives with the metaphysical idealogy of a totalitarian communist state: control of the technical aspects of life extended to the BELIEFS of life — Foucaultian internalization of discipline??

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