Evading Detection in the Digital Panopticon

George Heintz and Victoria Duffee, "Ghost Ghilli Suit"
George Heintz and Victoria Duffee, “Ghost Ghilli Suit,” jute and mixed media (filtered Instagram photos and Vine by the author for Hyperallergic)

BOSTON — A six-foot-tall sculpture of a figure wearing a ghillie suit, a collaborative work by artists George Heintz and Victoria Duffee, hides in the corner of the windowless Distillery Gallery. The way the figure is installed, he stares curiously at a photograph printed on Tri Poplin of a tropical hotel balcony, by Brooklyn-based artist Carly Planker. This camouflaged man, very far from an enemy-ridden woodland and seemingly unarmed, interacts casually with the nearby piece of art; if he were alive, he might think, ‘really, how did I get here?’ as the palm trees depicted in Planker’s photo casted shadows against the soft moonlight of a Dominican nightfall.

Crypsis, the ability of an organism to avoid detection from other organisms, is the apt title for this exhibition curated by Randi Shandroski. Coming together at Distillery, a South Boston alternative space, the show was installed during a pivotal time to be thinking about camouflage, between the endless US conflicts overseas and revelations about our government’s mass monitoring of private emails and phone conversations. Titled “Ghost Ghilli Suit,” the piece was created in 2012 as a response to the fabled doomsday reports, when Heintz and Duffee were thinking about how to disguise themselves during the potential apocalypse. While the artists constructed the figure to be menacing, “Ghost Ghilli Suit” is more of a tongue-in-cheek reaction, reflecting upon the more fantastical elements of warfare in a contemporary landscape overloaded with information and opinion.

“We were thinking of camouflage in broader terms that were not limited to war tactics,” Shandroski told Hyperallergic. “Now, war is beyond the confines of the body and manifests itself through chemical and technological attacks where it doesn’t even need to be disguised, because it is already made invisible. In these works, we were dealing with the stylized iconography of war and how it is portrayed through film and fashion, making it seem so far removed from our actual everyday life.”

George Heintz, “STARgeist,” wood, mirror, fabric

“STARgeist,” an installation also by Heintz, takes up the concepts presented in the 1990s franchise Stargate, a military science-fiction series in which the US government hides a secret wormhole to another dimension from the general public. Heintz built a “triangular portal” from wood and cloth, which catches rays from a television projecting white static. An Ouija board sits next to the work, intended to allow viewers to psychically “summon whatever they wish.” The television static also references the classic horror film Poltergiest, and the structure was loosely built for Carole Anne, a little girl from the film who is sucked into a portal by spirits haunting her suburban home, after she’s communicated with the dead via her television set. Heintz’s eagerness to build a kind of technological intelligence that can manipulate the laws of nature (i.e. death) highlights the overpowering importance technology has assumed in terms of communication, awareness, and self-identity.

Shandroski assures me that the exhibition isn’t exactly meant to reflect a war against technology, but rather a snapshot of human experience as technology grows too integral to fight: “You can’t find everything about a person online. On the internet, you can create and control your identity, but no one looks like that image in real life,” she says. The online avatar, which I describe to her as “personal camouflage,” conceals our true identity because it blurs our birthed form in the physical world with the appropriations of ourselves we construct digitally.  “It is increasingly difficult to keep your identity as a consumer private,” she continues. And regardless of how carefully self-curated we are online, these fragments of our identities are constructed in a system that’s constantly changing, due to the rapid evolution of technology. Shandroski later refers to advances in facial recognition devices as an archetype of digital intrusion. And, as of the release of the iPhone 5s, our beloved smartphones can now tell exactly who we are based on our fingerprints.

Florencia Escudero, "At the Mercy of Brute Force”
Florencia Escudero, “At the Mercy of Brute Force,” glass, paper, plastic, 2′ x 20′ (click to enlarge)

“At the Mercy of Brute Force” by Florencia Escudero, a series of colorful and abstract drawings on a long scroll and accompanying sculpture, was made after the artist saw ancient Japanese prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While the Japanese references are prominent, the abstract nature of the piece gives viewers a sense of sadness: meticulously crafted objects have been overtaken by their consumerized versions. Plastic plant pots built to look like ancient clay and wood grain contact paper covering up real wood panels are the artist’s comment on the absence of nature.

Another reference to Japanese culture comes in Duffee’s “Terrarium,” which turns the small, typically glass enclosure filled with plants into a square panel that collages faux plants. Drawing on the concept of ikebana, a traditional method of Japanese flower arrangements, Duffee considers the implications of human experience within a controlled environment, like a real terrarium. If humans were to live in glass jars with all necessities included, would their lives be safer or restricted?  Duffee’s piece emphasizes the security of what is known, allowing viewers to consider an existence without the dangers of the wild.

“There is no more personal camouflage,” Shandroski states firmly. Presenting works that analyze aspects of disguise within our culture, Crypsis is a subtle reminder that the individual still aches sometimes to remain concealed.

Crypsis is on view at Distillery Gallery (The Distillery Building, 516 East Second Street, South Boston) through October 19.

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