Don’t go to Jon Kessler’s The Blue Period at Salon 94 Bowery if you don’t like to be watched. Actually, if surveillance makes you nervous, you should probably move to the remote landscape of Antarctica, because at least in Kessler’s installation the cameras are visible. The thousands of CCTV units that constantly film us in the streets and buildings of New York are not. Yet beyond just reminding us that privacy is dwindling, we see that there’s the trade-off in The Blue Period for enjoyable voyeurism.
The Blue Period is a disorienting spectacle. Once in The Blue Period, you quickly realize you are being filmed for the stack of televisions streaming footage from the gallery alongside film and TV clips of people painted blue. (Tobias in the Arrested Development TV serial, the Blue Man Group and the end scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot le Fou make appearances.) But you are not the only star of the gallery show. In fact, it’s rather crowded with young, ponderous people, life-size figures who are two-dimensional, but, through the flattening of the video screens and the tricks your eyes play, can be mistaken over and over for the real thing.
The two-dimensional figures were made from photographs of some of Kessler’s MFA students at Columbia University, where he is a professor, and they all are in the somewhat awkward poses of people who know they are being photographed and want to appear casual. It would be distracting, but since you are also trying to view the art while aware that you are being filmed by the twisting little cameras, the real and flat people make for a homogeneously self-conscious crowd. A few of the figures are smeared with blue paint below their eyes or over their mouths, which weakens the effect.
The feral splatters of blue paint across the wall add to the sensory assault and seem like manifestations of the roving movements of the cameras that observe you around the gallery. A carousel of faces sliced from magazines offer another visual for the televisions, and another camera turns inside a miniature version of the gallery, which is lined with small versions of the two-dimensional works on the wall: collages slapped with blue paint. When you look closely at these collages, you find more faces ripped from magazines staring back. The sky-blue color serves to connect everything together into a singular piece.
If this all seems like a lot then you should know that being immersed in the installation and trying to take in all the stimuli is exhausting. According to Salon 94’s press release, “this video-drenched panopticon is the culmination of Kessler’s longtime interest in surveillance, alienation and spectacle,” and is “a spiritual descendant of Society as Spectacle, Guy Debord’s seminal 1967 critique of the ascendant consumer culture and the general passivity and isolation it engenders.”
Consumerism, surveillance, alienation and spectacle were also at the core of Kessler’s 2005 show at MoMA’s PS1, The Palace at 4 a.m., which was another frenetic installation that used masses of television, pop culture finds and kinetic pieces. I wasn’t able to see the installation at PS1, but from photographs, it appears to be more aggressive than The Blue Period (i.e., more images of graphic porn than non-threatening 20-somethings), and was maybe more successful at evoking the paranoia of surveillance, rather than the entertainment of voyeurism.
Fitting the act of watching and being watched, along with ties to the way we watch others through mass media and movies, into one gallery space is a lot, and The Blue Period can feel excessive. However, I suppose it’s not that different from walking down the Bowery outside the gallery and passing below lamp post security cameras while glancing at strangers and advertisements that are pasted on walls and crown taxis. It’s just that out in the “real world” you are letting those engagements permeate your brain without trying to keep up with them.
The Blue Period was previously installed at Arndt & Partner in Berlin, another city familiar with mass surveillance after the watchtowers that lined the Berlin Wall and Stasi secret police of East Berlin and a recent government wiretapping scandal. Whether or not you leave The Blue Period thinking seriously about the implications of surveillance on society is dependent on whether you already have those issues on your mind, maybe from current news on the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims in New York and beyond or if you’ve been catching up on your George Orwell readings. Otherwise, those implications aren’t explicit in the installation, which creates an insular looping world of watching, only bringing in the outside world through commercial media, not current events. Yet it’s impossible to leave without a heightened feeling of being watched.
Jon Kessler: The Blue Period continues through March 10 at Salon 94 Bowery (243 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan).
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