Strictly confidential: This international group exhibition at the Schirn is dedicated to the fascination of espionage as a source of artistic inspiration.

From 24 September 2020 to 10 January 2021, the Schirn is highlighting espionage as a current source of artistic inspiration. Although spies are presented as glamorous in popular culture, the information they gather in covert actions can prove to be explosive within society. Spying is about the unauthorized obtaining of secret knowledge or confidential information.

Whereas in the past, individuals or states were spied on by national governments, in times of digital communication citizens make state secrets public, and whistleblowers denounce the surveillance of the general population by their own government. Today, the openness and transparency of modern states is countered by new mechanisms of surveillance, manipulation, and espionage. Digital networks and technologies, as well as the willing spread of personal data, open up hitherto unforeseen possibilities for obtaining and disseminating intelligence. Against this backdrop, a renewed interest in the strategies of secrecy is emerging.

The exhibition presents works by 40 international artists. About 70 paintings, photographs, video works, sculptures, and installations explore the topic from a contemporary point of view, with the works touching on aspects of espionage such as surveillance, paranoia, conspiracy, threat, camouflage, cryptography, manipulation, and propaganda. On view are a multitude of artistic strategies dealing with the “golden age” of espionage during the Cold War, while other works probe the current context of media super-exposure. New and already existing projects, as well as a collection of unexpected objects, are immersed in unorthodox ways within a specific environment—exploring the world of espionage between reality and fiction. Historical apparatuses such as the Enigma encryption machine provide insights into the reality of surveillance and secrecy. 

Taryn Simon, American Index, The Central Intelligence Agency Main Entrance Hall, CIA Original Headquarters Building, 2007 © Taryn Simon. Von Kelterborn Collection, Frankfurt am Main

Also, popular culture has created a glamourous image around the myth of the spy, featuring heroic and shady figures, an image that continues to thrill audiences still today. As early as the nineteenth century, spy novels emerged as a separate narrative genre; and the history of film and cinema has also contributed much to the popularity of the subject. Selected book covers as well as film posters and film extracts will be on show in the exhibition, demonstrating how the entertainment industry has been inspired by the reality of intelligence gathering. Indeed, the title of the exhibition “We Never Sleep” evokes the fact that spies who live undercover, having constantly to change identities, are always on the run and have no time to rest.

About labyrinths, surveillance technologies and government manipulation

“We Never Sleep” highlights espionage through the prism of contemporary art and design. Artworks and unexpected objects are presented in Adrien Rovero’s exhibition architecture as an intriguing and comprehensive environment. The exhibition opens with an expansive sound installation by Gabriel Lester in collaboration with Monadnock Architects. Through an immersive labyrinth of paths, dead ends, entrances, and exits, a chorus of haunting voices is audible, prompting questions and picking up on manipulative interrogation techniques. Lawrence Abu Hamdan also explores sound and surveillance technologies in conjunction with forensic speech analysis. At the heart of his installation on view is an audio documentary about software that scans the human voice, utilizing, among other things, a lie detector. 

Rodney Graham, Newspaper Man, 2017, Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar (The Netherlands)

A video work by the brothers Park Chan-Kyong and Park Chan-Wook, an artist duo active under the moniker PARKing CHANce, features spies, double agents, and defectors who change sides in the power-political conflict between North and South Korea. The theme of the double agent is further examined by the Lithuanian artist duo Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas. Dora Longo Bahia, in her new collage series developed especially for this context, focuses on famous women in the history of espionage, including Greta Garbo, Sonja Wigert, Coco Chanel, and Alice Marble. They appeared primarily as public figures, yet at the same time they also operated in political contexts or became active as agents. Stan Douglas adapts film genres and literary classics for his photographs, films, and installations in order to reexamine historical events.

The artist duo Dias & Riedweg explores the ways in which manipulation by state systems actually penetrates society and its collective memory. Their video installation traces the iconography of the political and commercial propaganda of the Cold War and combines excerpts from advertising, TV series, music, and journalism of the 1960s and 1970s. The work “Glimpses of the USA” (1959) by Charles and Ray Eames dates from this period. Commissioned by the United States Information Agency, they portrayed American society in more than 2,200 photographs and moving images. This material was shown in 1959 at the American National Exhibition in Moscow as part of the first cultural exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union; it was intended to convey both economic prosperity and humanity to the Soviet public.

Trevor Paglen, Control Tower (Area 52); Tonopah Test Range, NV; Distance ~ 20 miles; 11:55 a.m., 2006 © Trevor Paglen, Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York, Altman Siegel, San Francisco

Suzanne Treister is showing a large body of artworks dealing with government and military research programs, social engineering and ideas of the control society, conspiracy theories, cybernetics, scientific projections of the future, and counterculture. Henrike Naumann will present a new adaptation of a work called “Tag X”, which was initially conceived for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The spatial installation depicts a series of networks that became known in 2018 for seeking to enact violent, systematic change in Germany in connection with the police, the German Federal Armed Forces, and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. 

Surveillance and censorship are central themes of the exhibition

A performance by Dora García restages an espionage tactic used by the GDR Ministry for State Security during the Cold War. Agents were known to deliberately establish personal and sometimes intimate relationships with secretaries of West German politicians in order to obtain confidential information. Surveillance and censorship during the Cold War are central to the works by Cornelia Schleime. In addition to the photographic self-portraits, she will also present a series, where the artist, with irony, uses self-portraits to counter the Ministry of State Security’s file on her. Thomas Demand directs his artistic strategy at the construction of reality through the media. His photographs show true-to-detail reproductions made from paper and cardboard of political and social scenes that have inscribed themselves in the collective visual memory through their dissemination in the media.

Cornelia Schleime, Ich halte doch nicht die Luft an / I won't hold my breath after all, 1982, Foto: Bernd Hiepe

Through his artistic practice, Jonas Staal explores the relationship between art, democracy, and political propaganda. In his project, Staal examines the long-standing work of the former advisor to US President Donald Trump. Through the deconstruction of central visual motifs and conspiracy narratives, the artist makes visible the ideological breeding ground of Trumpism. The design duo Metahaven, founded in 2007 by Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden, advocates freedom of information in the post-factual age. The investigative conceptual artist, author, and filmmaker Jill Magid examines current methods of state secrecy. Magid will be presenting parts of “The Spy Project” (2005–10). The project was commissioned by the Dutch Secret Service (AVID), later partially censored and confiscated, and thus entangled the artist herself in the concealment strategies of the organization.

The multidisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture investigates hidden cases of human rights violations, state violence, and disinformation worldwide. In their interdisciplinary approach of forensic architecture, they collate a multitude of sources of evidence such as video and image material, witness statements, and material analyses to reconstruct the circumstances of an incident. Central to Simon Denny’s artistic practice are the links between design, technology, and language in how secret services communicate. Trevor Paglen, who is a visual artist, geographer, and author, explores the infrastructures of global mass surveillance and data collection. Known for investigating the invisible through the visible, Paglen uses highly developed technology to take photographs of secret military bases from several kilometers away, in remote or restricted areas.

Jill Magid, I Can Burn Your Face: Miranda IV (Detail), 2019, Bridget Donahue, New York, Courtesy the artist and LABOR, Mexico City
Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with David Darchicourt Commissioned Map of Aotearoa New Zealand, 2015, Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Buchholz and Petzel Gallery, Photo: Nick Ash

We never sleep

24 September 2020 to 10 January 2021

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