Hansel & Gretel
In the darkened hall, a city-block wide, tourists and ballerinas sit on the floor, do push-ups, throw their arms back, as their images are recorded on the floor and tethered drones whirr overhead.
This is what Ai Weiwei and Herzog and de Meuron named “Hansel and Gretel” and ostensibly freighted with the message that Surveillance Is Bad.
What this installation inadvertently pre-supposes is: maybe surveillance can be fun too?
The cameras, constantly tracking viewers, photographing them at intervals, and projecting their images constantly on the floor, turned everyone in the space into performers. The effect is less chilling than it is joyful.
In Part 2 of the piece, the standard agitprop about military drone strikes, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden is transmitted via iPad. Also on this iPad are access to live video feeds from cameras at the exhibit, in grainy black and white, handled via YouTube.
As I left the building, I observed behind a desk a video monitor, showing color feeds from other cameras still. And here is where the failure of the piece was most clearly rendered, in its unwillingness to truly expose the backstage of surveillance: to show the chain of custody for the video recordings of the Armory gift shop. To identify and feature the private security agency charged with responding to incidents they observe through video surveillance. To show how data from website visits is matched up to live visitor data in order to create what we in the business call “omnichannel journeys.” To outline in plain terms how my credit card information, used to pay the $17 admission, might be used in other ways, the agencies of anonymous white-collar workers who will receive that information, bundle it, return it to the artist for re-publication.
Surveillance without threat is just photography, and the massive funhouse mirror is really just fun.
Surveillance, conflated with voyeurism, requires multiple parties. Rather than implicating any party directly in the spotlight, it fails to do more than gesture in the direction of a seemingly unknowable monster with unlimited reach.
Perhaps the more concerning and perhaps unspoken thing about surveillance is that it has proven to be genuinely helpful. Photographic surveillance is one species of the photography family, with its applications in art and its use as a freezer of memory. In final images of Princess Diana and Dylan Klebold we see examples of how artifacts of surveillance and emotionally fraught snapshots can be conflated.
In the age of emails, metadata is a useful tool for verifying the veracity of an otherwise anonymous party in a two-way communication. In the prosecution of a crime, it can bear witness.
What threatens Hansel and Gretel is not the abstract presence of The State, but the direct threat of the wolf. Though the two can overlap, they do not overlap enough in this experience to deliver the message that Surveillance Is Bad. They do not introduce any new information to augment our fears of the state.
It is live photography, a funhouse mirror at its most joyful. But that wasn’t supposed to be the point.
The thing about art about surveillance as voyeurism: the audience knows they are being watched in that moment, but without any concrete, immediate truth to the questions of “by whom” and “why,” does being watched really matter?
Here is New York
1. Move to New York City. Preferably Manhattan.
2. Go to a bar during a daylight hour, by yourself. A wasteful, decadent one. Order a drink.
3. Read E.B. White’s “Here Is New York.”
Resist the temptation to smile from heartbreak. At what this city was, and what it still is.
Rising tension, three parts
What the Justin Bieber remix of “Despacito” and Dunkirk have in common: summer pop featuring three parts, interwoven in constant, rising tension, until the ticking of the watch stops, this is how we do it down in Puerto Rico, only to build again till the credits roll.
Songs of Summer
I haven’t made a mix CD in a long time, but the two songs that sit at the ends of a bipolar magnet in my head, both opening and closing a mix that seems too obvious for a technology practitioner in his mid-30s, c. 2017: LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” and Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.”
The Half-Life of Wonder
At the Rei Kawakubo exhibit – Art of the In-Between – line up next to a fairly mundane piece, a proportion play in Prince of Wales check, for ten minutes or so. Watch a pair of middle-aged American tourists arrive, snicker “weird,” and leave. Wait till the next pair arrives, a father and young daughter.
“What do you think?”
My back-of-the-napkin estimate is 7-9 years.