Art

Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron Turn Surveillance into a Gimmick

Their new installation at the Park Avenue Armory features drones and facial-recognition technology, yet seems to have no politics at all.

Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, and Ai Weiwei, Hansel & Gretel at the Park Avenue Armory (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the Park Avenue Armory’s latest commission, a collaboration between artist Ai Weiwei and architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, you can enjoy the experience of being watched. Hansel & Gretel begins in the massive Drill Hall, where drones buzz overhead and the space is nearly pitch black, but for gridded rectangles of light on the floor and periodic flashes. These are the infrared cameras photographing and tracking you, leaving your image imprinted on the ground — sort of the opposite of casting a shadow. The effect is jarring at first, particularly when your likeness doubles or triples and the cameras train red boxes on it, making you out to be some sort of target. It quickly morphs into a playful curiosity, though, as you find your agency and move your limbs or even lie on the floor, testing what kind of shapes you can create for the cameras to capture.

Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, and Ai Weiwei, Hansel & Gretel at the Park Avenue Armory

When you’ve had your fill of darkness and drones, you head outside to walk to the second part of the installation, housed in a different part of the Armory, the Head House. As you enter, an attendant asks to take your photo — yet another picture that helps produce a “gotcha” moment when you sit down in front of an iPad at one of the communal wooden tables inside. On the iPad, the first menu option is “Find Your Face,” for which the computer attempts to match the face it’s looking at with one captured by the artwork’s many cameras. If you’re lucky or somehow recognizable enough (a woman next to me was not), you’ll be found. If you’re gullible enough, you’ll pay $10 for a printout.

Facial-recognition technology at work in Hansel & Gretel

The second element of the second part of Hansel & Gretel is also a “gotcha” moment (spoiler alert): a huge upright screen shows a live aerial view of the Drill Hall, where you came from, confirming that your movements back there were, indeed, being recorded. Now you can be the one doing the surveilling, rather than just the surveilled. The revelation — if you can call it that — is disappointingly obvious. It stakes all of its claim on pure visualization (this is what surveillance looks like) and none on the prospect of deeper thinking (this is what surveillance means). In this it recalls filmmaker Laura Poitras’s artwork “Bed Down Location” (2016), which was made for her show at the Whitney and similarly hinged on surprise.

Because surveillance is intended to be invisible, there’s a certain bald power in rendering it seen. But that power is diminished when what’s being unveiled is an artificial system of the artists’ own making, and not an especially meaningful one. Trevor Paglen has made a career of exposing surveillance, but he does so by attempting to decrypt the workings of real governments; his photographs demonstrate how surveillance tools have been literally embedded in our modern landscape. Other artists who’ve made successful work on the subject have often implicated themselves, whether Jill Magid being willingly watched by the police in Liverpool or Ai himself making stunning dioramas about his time imprisoned by the Chinese state. Still others have attempted to equip the public with tools for evading government observation.

The author taking a photo of her double self in Hansel & Gretel

In Hansel & Gretel, nothing is at stake, either for those who created it or those who experience it. The technologies and equipment used to monitor visitors are state of the art (and no doubt extremely expensive), but what should we make of that without any indication of how they relate or compare to what’s being used by the US government, or any government for that matter? The installation seems to have no politics, beyond a basic message of “surveillance is bad” — which is itself even debatable, given the ultimately playful nature of what transpires in the Drill Hall (I saw some attendees break out in yoga poses). Most visitors to the Armory are used to seeing pictures of themselves, and most will likely augment the show’s images by taking their own (I did). The trick is in making us think about the line between selfies and surveillance — in drawing out the difference between a media-saturated and a government-watched world. Hansel & Gretel fails to do so, or to sustain an atmosphere of fear or foreboding. In the end it’s just more spectacular art fodder for your Instagram feed.

There may be, however, one moment when a visitor could try to pry open an unexpected outcome. When the attendant at the entrance to part two asked to take my photo, I said “yes” unthinkingly, as so many others surely will. What would have happened if I’d said “no”? What would transpire if a viewer asked why or how such an image would be used? At that point in the show, you’ve already sold away your rights. But there could be a bit of redemption in pushing back on the powers that be.

A drone flies overhead in the Drill Hall

Hansel & Gretel continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 6.

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