December 5, 2017. Berlin, Germany.
In the heart of Berlin, there’s a dungeon scrapyard exhibition overseen by a delightful and charismatic Russian who’s definitely a serial killer. Google assured me that it would be a “surreal museum”, but neglected to mention how similar it would be to that awful J.Lo movie The Cell. The similarities were only emphasized by the fact that I, too, am a thicc bilingual headshrinker, though she is admittedly a better dancer.
Panoptikum is a German word, meaning Panopticon. Helpful, right? Well, the Panopticon was a decidedly Lawful Evil brainchild of social theorist, philosopher, and institutional bastard Jeremy Bentham. Boiled down to its essence, it’s a big round building made of glass, with a spot for a guard in the middle, enclosed by one-way mirrors. The inhabitants of the glass cells have no privacy. They can see each other, but they can’t see the guard, who obviously can’t be watching all of them at once… but you never know where he is looking, behind that smoked glass.
Bentham, sweetheart that he is, suggested the Panopticon could work equally well for a prison or a school. He described it as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”. As reasonable as it might be to want to flying dropkick the dude off a rope bridge, his figuring isn’t wrong. It’s been common knowledge that social expectation and the old “what will people think” instinct is a deep-rooted and effective behavioral modulator, but it’s on such a hair trigger that even the suggestion of being watched can promote a sort of bastardized honesty. A Newcastle study put coffee and tea out for their department with an honesty box next to it with a little note, “Please pay for what you take!”. On the rear wall behind the box was a poster, rotated weekly; either a bunch of flowers, or a pair of eyes. On the eye weeks, the researchers found a lot more honor-system money than on the flower weeks.
Of course, that might not generalize to all people, it might just be that college students are more inclined to feel anxious about being stared at, or eye contact in general. You ever met college students? They love to feel anxious.
When Bentham named the Panopticon, he was making an allusion to Argus Panoptes, a giant from Greek mythology with a hundred eyes. Panoptes translates to “all-seeing”, and that he did, right up until Hera assigned him to guard Io to make sure Zeus didn’t knock her up while she was a cow. Long story. Ultimately ending with Hermes getting recruited by Zeus to sneak up on Panoptes (how that happened is unclear), cast a god-tier Sleep spell, then brain the poor doofus with a rock.
None of those things gave me any inkling of what Berlin’s Panoptikum was gonna be about, but I’m a sucker for anything surreal, probably as compensation for all the ADHD and disdain for sleep.
All alone, with nobody holding my hand through it, I figured out how buses worked. Turns out, they’ll take you in different directions depending on what side of the street you board. The bus numbers will be the same regardless! You just need to know the incredibly German name of an area near wherever you’re going.
Well, I didn’t, so I took the first bus a half mile in the wrong direction, then leaped off and grumbled my way back to the bus stop. It started to rain, because of course it did.
The correct bus eventually dropped me off in central Berlin, a little more than a block from the Panoptikum. I was greeted by an enthusiastic Russian in flawless, German-accented English, who then explained to me that a heavy Russian accent was part of his shtick until 6 pm. He lapsed into it and started giving an overview on the Panoptikum as I marveled at his terrifying sculptures.
“Form and function,” he said. “Once, they are the same thing. Once, form was secondary consideration. The product of the function. Now everything is so artistically designed and… and… ergonomic, so all of these things must be beautiful as well as functional, but they don’t look like anything. Certainly they don’t look like what they are for. But we have come so far from that, that we no longer recognize things by their functional form. Take this, for example.”
He held up an odd looking metal clamp, sort of like two L-shaped pieces of steel with a long bolt running between them. The steel slid freely, if noisily, along the threads.
“Do you know what this is?”
I shrugged. “Metal?”
“A good guess,” he said, “And technically correct. But this is something specific. This has a function. I ask everyone this question, no one has ever gotten it right. Take time, look around, think about it. I will ask again before you leave, after you see museum.”
I looked at it again. It wasn’t a clamp. There was no way to tighten it. Still looked like giant metal pincers, about a foot and a half long.
“You use it every day,” he assured me. “You have to. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”
Then he set me loose in the grown up version of Sid’s room from Toy Story.
The basement had that cloying, stale grease smell of a disused garage.
“Do not go to the museums,” he warned me. “Not if you want to see art. You want art, go to the junkyard. Art everywhere. Costs much less.”
“Form and function. Do you know what this is?”
I looked it over as he crouched down and slapped the thing. A low-pitched BONG sound echoed through the eerie silence of his subterranean trophy case.
“Well, I was gonna say a land mine, but I guess not.”
“Close!” he said, opening the hatch. “Washing machine. Back when they were first invented, only rich people had them. You put the clothes in, the motor shakes them up, cleans them. No motor now, of course, so now it’s just… this thing.”
He was insistent I take selfies with his zany assortment of hats from the dump. I didn’t want to wear the deflated punching bag on my head, although he was really pulling for it.
We compromised on the World War I helmet. I’ve since learned it’s called a Stahlhelm.
“Do you know why the helmets had those little horns?”
I did not.
“It is not like a viking thing, and it is not like they came to terms with being the bad guys, dressing up like devils. It is an example of… German overengineering. Germans are a very efficient people, and sometimes they get too focused on it, and they lose sight of what’s practical.”
“I know,” I said. “I used to have a Jetta.”
“See, the steel helmets were good for protecting against shrapnel, but back in the trenches, you would just poke your head up and shoot. The metal was not thick enough to stop a direct hit from a bullet. But the scientists at the time, they thought, what if we installed a plate that was thick enough to stop a bullet? Their trench fighters would be almost impervious to gunfire, then! So they manufactured these heavy steel plates that click into the little buttons on the side of the helmet, protecting the head. This did not work for three reasons.
One, it was very, very expensive. That’s a lot of steel, and you need to give one to everyone in the army. Germany ran out of steel.
Two, it was too heavy. People running around with 2 kilos (4.4 lbs) of steel on their head, it interfered with their balance. The helmets would also slip down over their eyes because it’s so much heavier in the front.
Three, in the instances when the plate did actually stop a direct hit of a bullet? The force of the impact would break the soldier’s neck in 80% of cases anyway. So for all that money, and all that effort, and all that steel, they’re only saving one out of five direct hits, which are rare enough to begin with.”
It hearkened back to something he’d said earlier when we were looking at an old iron lung.
“See, in America, life is precious. In Russia, Asia, the Middle East, life is cheap. I get Chinese tourists in here, I tell them this woman lived sixty years in this iron lung, and they are incredulous, they ask me ‘why not just die’? Well, because she was an American. They had the resources, so she lived in that iron lung, she did university from her hospital room, and she eventually became a depression counselor. Helped a lot of people. But not everyone could have done that, I don’t think. Most people would rather just die.”
I was reflecting on all this when I turned the corner, caught sight of this little number.
“Don’t worry, it’s not a sex doll,” he assured me.
“That’s not what worried me.”
“That is part of typewriter,” he said. “Sort of a duality thing, you know? Because of the mouth, and the typewriter, and both of them use words, both of them are for words.”
“That’s Yuri Gagarin,” he said. “You know who that is?”
I laughed. What a Russian thing! “Yeah,” I said.
“First man in space,” he told me, even though I just said yeah.
“So is that how they did it? Dr. Strangelove style?”
He grinned. “More or less.”
We made our way back to the front door and he picked up the weird metal clamp thing again.
“So! Any guesses?”
I squinted at it, then nodded.
“Is it a doorknob?”
“It is!” he said. “It is a doorknob! And hopefully, your time here at the Panoptikum opened some doors to some new ways of looking at things for you. Thank you much for coming.”
“Thank you,” I said. “This was incredible.”
“You got it right, here,” he said, “Take one of postcards, for free. Whichever one you want. Go ahead.”
I decided on the one that he had explained in the gallery as representing the German spirit.
Refreshed and disturbed, I walked back out into Berlin’s perpetual rain to find the lauded East Side Gallery.
(If you liked the crazy bullshit you saw here, there’s plenty more where that came from. If that site is too hard to navigate [and it fuckin’ is], there’s also a Facebook page. It’s in German, so if you like it, everyone will think you’re cultured.)
Above board, the guy who owns it and gave me the tour is an artist and photographer named Vladimir Korneev. I’d love to link to his gallery or something, but he shares a name with a Russian songwriter so there’s way too much foreign-language smokescreen for me to find anything.
I strongly encourage you to hit up this headtrip if you’re ever in Berlin. He’s probably not a serial killer. He didn’t serial kill me! But they never really seem to.