How to steal
Two women examine scarves in a touristy stall, while a man reaches into one of their handbags, removing a wallet. He is wearing the hat of a 1950s gangster and the jacket of a bumbling English professor, a trench coat hanging limp around his arm. If you squint, he could pass for Cary Grant in Penny Serenade. The exact context of this black-and-white photograph—which was taken in former Czechoslovakia—is not immediately clear, even to Simon Menner, the artist who archived it and many similar instances of pilfering, during a month-long stay in Prague. Menner knows one thing: this isn’t a documentary shot. It’s a set up.
Of all Menner’s archival work, he is best known for found images of German Stasi agents in disguise. Almost 300,000 people were employed by East Germany’s secret police—neighbours were spying on neighbours—and Menner’s evidence of officials practicing camouflage as camera-toting, fake-bearded tourists were obvious crowd-pleasers; a palatable blend of discomfort, absurdity and humour. This new series, How to steal, is decidedly more menacing, largely due to the lack of any concrete information on why it was produced. All we can be certain of is that the StB—the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’s plainclothes secret police force—used these tableaus of pilfering for instructional material.
“I know from East Germany at least, that very often the people shown were in fact forced to repeat their ‘criminal’ acts for the camera,” Menner tells Museum. “We might not think much of this, if we are talking about thieves showing their work, but [German] activists were forced to reenact their arrests, people trying to flee the country were forced to stage their failed attempt for the camera … Keep in mind that this material was produced by and for [the StB], a brutal security apparatus. I have no doubt that they not only show how to detect a thief, but also how to become one.”
From his time spent with the Stasi archives, Menner learnt that breaking into the homes of ordinary citizens was undertaken on an “almost industrial scale,” and suspects similar practices here. He cannot speak Czech, making all the StB digging a slower process, but notes that while its bureaucratic nature was similar to the Stasi, its structure as a security apparatus was different. “The STB was part of the Interior Ministry of the CSSR, so they worked hand in hand with the police and the border guards. The STASI, [alternatively], was its own ministry. They spied on everyone, even the police and the heads of state. The peak of paranoia.”
All images courtesy Simon Menner.