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Spying on the spies: from James Bond to Edward Snowden, Mata Hari and Hedy Lamarr

The exhibition ‘Top Secret. Cinema and Espionage’ delves into the history of the world of secret agents and its intertwined depiction in television and movies

James Bond
One of the exhibition rooms, with drawings, posters and costumes from the 'James Bond' films.Jaime Villanueva
Gregorio Belinchón

From “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling — a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension — becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it” to “I have not made public anything that endangers people. I think European governments are afraid of me” there is not only a time lapse of more than six decades, but also a huge journey between fiction and reality. A journey between the first sentence of Casino Royale, the first novel starring James Bond, which its creator, Ian Fleming, published in 1952, to a September 2019 interview published in EL PAÍS with Edward Snowden, a CIA computer security expert and the source of one of the biggest leaks of state secrets in history when he brought to light a program of mass surveillance on a global scale by the CIA and the U.S. National Security Agency in 2013. For some, a hero; for others, a villain.

This game of mirrors, the double-face of espionage, of who is a spy and who is spied upon, who is a patriot and who is a traitor, forms the basis of Top Secret. Cinema and Espionage, an international exhibition currently being staged at the CaixaForum in Madrid after its run at the La Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Top Secret discusses real espionage, that which inspires glorious fiction, and how both have fed back on each other. As happened with the mafia and The Godfather (members of the Italian-American criminal organization decided to adopt the manners and attire with which they were characterized on screen), espionage and cinema have been communicating vessels since the birth of the latter, to the point that, during the Cold War, the secret services of each side watched the movies created by their opponents to gauge their state of mind and to learn from their methods.

Going deeper philosophically, “actors spy to build their characters and spies have to act when on covert missions. Certain gadgets of movie espionage and the technology used in real life by the secret services have ended up being the same, and even film directors use sound and image recording systems to stage what they want to tell, like secret agents do,” says Alexandra Midal, professor of art and design at HEAD University in Geneva and curator of the exhibition along with Matthieu Orléan of the Cinémathèque.

Part of the exhibition focuses on spies, with the bust 'Extase' (2020), by Nina Childress, which pays homage to Hedy Lamarr, in the foreground.
Part of the exhibition focuses on spies, with the bust 'Extase' (2020), by Nina Childress, which pays homage to Hedy Lamarr, in the foreground.Jaime Villanueva

The exhibition brings together 270 pieces from 30 private collections and institutions: movie posters, drawings, paintings, videos, installations, film fragments, original film costumes such as Daniel Craig’s tuxedo from Casino Royale (2006), historical documents and numerous authentic spy gadgets: a poison-tipped umbrella with which the Bulgarian secret services assassinated a dissident in 1978; watches with tape recorders; cigarette cases, bags (the only piece in the exhibition from China) and lighters concealing cameras; a pipe with a poisoned dart; dollar and ruble coins with microfilm compartments; a camera that actually takes pictures from the side; a hat with a holster designed by Britain’s MI6; shoes with a retractable blade, and the “Kiss of Death” lipstick, so named because it conceals a single-shot 6mm-caliber pistol.

There are also personal albums kept by the real Mata Hari and makeup sets used by the Stasi, the feared secret services of the former German Democratic Republic, as well as all kinds of message encryption machines, from the mythical World War II-era Enigma to the Soviet Fialka, whose secrets the Western agencies never managed to crack. “If it’s here, it’s because of Stéphanie M., a collector who has bought material on the black market in the Baltic States, moving in the shadows with great care,” Midal points out, in another metaphorical game of Russian dolls: to acquire spy gadgets, you have to behave like a spy.

Real spy gadgets: Center, a camera that takes pictures from its side. Right: a Chinese secret service women's bag that hides a camera.
Real spy gadgets: Center, a camera that takes pictures from its side. Right: a Chinese secret service women's bag that hides a camera.Jaime Villanueva

One of the art installations included in the exhibition occupies an entire room: Probably Chelsea, in which Heather Dewey-Hagborg builds 24 completely different faces of Chelsea Manning, from DNA donated by Manning herself and generated with algorithms, presented as a clear indication that DNA alone is not sufficient to recreate a human face. Four drawings by David Lynch address the complexity of the human mind, a painting by Andy Warhol (Star) portrays Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, and the tour opens with an immense chandelier by sculptor and filmmaker Cerith Wyn Evans, the turning on and off of which narrates, in Morse code, Georges Bataille’s 1949 essay The Accursed Share: it is as important to spy as it is to send the message.

Another more curious installation delves into how easy it is to obtain personal data. A briefcase with rubber stamps bearing the ten fingerprints of a high-ranking official is the result of a French artistic investigation in 2006: its author attended a book signing by his country’s Minister of the Interior, and with a fountain pen stole his data. The minister’s name? Nicolas Sarkozy.

The 'Probably Chelsea' art installation, in which Heather Dewey-Hagborg constructs 24 completely different faces of Chelsea Manning, using DNA donated by Manning herself.
The 'Probably Chelsea' art installation, in which Heather Dewey-Hagborg constructs 24 completely different faces of Chelsea Manning, using DNA donated by Manning herself. Jaime Villanueva

Modern espionage emerged at the end of the 19th century, and that’s why Top Secret’s story starts at that time. One of the intentions of the curators is to desexualize the image of spies, whose work has been marked by the legend of Mata Hari and the myth of the honey trap, the use of sex to gain access to state secrets. For decades, the spies of the big screen have been more femmes fatale than effective law enforcement officers, and therefore far removed from the reality.

Among these hard-working spies there were famous artists, such as Marlene Dietrich or Joséphine Baker, who during World War II collaborated with the Allies, or Hedy Lamarr, researcher and inventor, a renaissance woman who earned her living as a movie star and therefore participated in films of the genre analyzed by the exhibition, such as The Conspirators (1944), by Jean Negulesco, or the comedy My Favorite Spy (1951), with Bob Hope.

As an example of the symbiosis between spy movies and reality, a fragment of Fritz Lang’s The Spies (1928) shows the character of a Russian agent named Sonya Baranilkowa. Sonya/Sonja would be the nom de guerre adopted by the German Communist Ursula Kuczynski, a devoted mother in Oxford, England, who passed nuclear secrets to the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s without ever being detected. In 1950, she moved to East Germany and become a writer. Thus was born the myth of Sonja, the most successful communist spy of the 20th century.

A section dedicated to the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. At center, a poison-tipped umbrella with which the Bulgarian secret services killed a dissident in 1978.
A section dedicated to the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. At center, a poison-tipped umbrella with which the Bulgarian secret services killed a dissident in 1978.CaixaForum

In moving from Paris, the exhibition has lost some contributions from the fruitful French spy genre and a very curious piece that attracted attention in the French capital: a “rat-bomb,” fake in its animal aspect, but very real in its criminal element. “Its fragility has prevented it from being moved,” explains Orléan. The promotional poster for international sales of Argo, the fake movie whose fictitious filming served as a cover for the CIA to enter Iran and rescue six compatriots hiding after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in November 1979, is featured. The Hollywood version, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2013.

The exhibition’s ending addresses the debate about whistleblowers in the 21st century. For some, the term refers to snitches and informers; for others (including the curators of the show), it refers to people like Snowden and Manning, whose work underpins freedom and democracy, the last bastions against the disappearance of privacy in the digital age, something to which visitors to the exhibition have been playfully subjected: when leaving, it is revealed they have been spied upon throughout. The digital world knows no borders or secrets.

The exit of the exhibition, where visitors discover they have been spied on throughout.
The exit of the exhibition, where visitors discover they have been spied on throughout.Jaime Villanueva

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