Hansel & Gretel at the Park Ave. Armory

Hansel & Gretel, a meditation on surveillance by Ai Weiwei and Herzog & De Meuron, is running at the Park Ave. Armory through August 6. I hold these artists in high regard, and was eager to see this work. The technology behind the piece was impressive, but it fell short of the mark for me, both as an interactive installation and as an examination of surveillance’s impact on everyday life. Neither the setting, nor the narrative, nor the activity expected of the audience were strong enough to convey the warning the work intends to give.

When you enter the Armory from the Lexington Ave. side, your ticket is scanned, you stop for a brief photo by an unseen camera, and proceed down a darkened hallway. An attendant is pointing a flashlight at you as you walk down the hallway. When you reach the end, you’re directed into the main drill hall of the armory, also darkened and totally empty of anything except visitors. Projections on the floor show images of you and other attendees as you walk through the space. Your projection follows you like a digital shadow. Drones occasionally fly overhead, presumably taking your photo as well. The hall was sparsely populated when I attended with a colleague; fewer than a dozen people were in the space.

When you’ve had your fill of wandering through the drill hall, you exit and are directed around to the Park Ave entrance into the main lobby for the second half of the exhibit. The lobby is populated with screens and projections showing blurry digital images of the drill hall and the people moving through it. Wait a few minutes and your own face will show up on one of the screens. There are also several iPads mounted on tables, where you can sit and review the cameras live, or have the system search for your own image from the drill hall archive by comparing a selfie taken on the iPad. You can also review a historical timeline of surveillance.

The timeline is impressive and a fascinating read, but it would be more comfortable to review it in your own time and place. I was surprised not to find it on sale as an ebook in the gift shop. I’d have bought it. The image search is perhaps the most technologically impressive piece of the show. The images that it finds of you are blurry and difficult to recognize, but the system accurately finds you nonetheless. (Full disclosure: the image tracking was done by Adam Harvey, and alumnus of the department in which I teach, so I am biased.)

I agree with the artists that surveillance is an insidious part of our culture, and we are not aware of the depth to which it is woven into our everyday activities. But the reason that the work didn’t have much emotional impact for me was that they didn’t give me enough reason to care about this surveillance.

There was no reason for me to be in the drill hall other than to be observed. The activity was an example of a type of physical interaction I often describe in class as “body-as-cursor“: the actor is not given anything to do with their body other than to move through a space. Often, their position is used to move a cursor on a screen. To be successful, it requires that actor be given a reason to move throughout the space: to play a game, explore a maze, or to solve a puzzle. Designing an interactive exhibit is a bit like directing a stage performance: if you don’t give the actor an objective, then their actions are meaningless. Without an objective, the actor is left asking why move one direction or another. In many exhibits, movement produces patterns of light or sound or projection which are enjoyable to see or hear. The space becomes an instrument in those cases. Hansel & Gretel has some of this effect, as you chase your projected shadow, but there is no objective once that fun is exhausted.

Having wandered the space without purpose, it was no surprise to see my image onscreen in the main lobby. The only reason I was there was so they could capture my image, and of course, by entering I gave my consent. Had they shown me images of myself in the pizza joint around the corner, or on the subway as I came to the Armory, I would have been more alarmed. That’s what makes surveillance insidious. It’s an implicit interaction (cf. Wendy Ju’s excellent dissertation) in which we all engage, and to which we are not given the opportunity to consent. In Hansel & Gretel, surveillance is an explicit interaction: it’s our only reason to be in the space.

Beware your digital breadcrumbs,” says PC Magazine in review of the show. Yet the show stops short of connecting our bodies, our everyday activities, and our identities. This intersection is the most disturbing aspect of modern commercial surveillance. Although many visitors do leave a digital breadcrumb in the show (did you buy your ticket online, or use a credit card like I did?), it’s not connected to the physical surveillance that is the center of the show. When visitors enter the show, their tickets are scanned by an usher, and a photo taken. Why then, did my name not show up on the iPad when I took a selfie? They have a photo taken and a ticket scanned at the same time, and the ticket is connected to my identity through my credit card. Seeing my face and my name onscreen in the lobby would be truly disturbing. On the one hand, the restraint they practice in not doing so shows good ethical sense; on the other, isn’t the artist’s job to push boundaries?

Surveillance is both a ubiquitous and a potentially corrosive force in our culture, in part because our technological ability to gather information has fast outpaced our ability to consider its ethical consequences. Most of us are aware that we are constantly trackable, but largely ignorant of exactly how. Though I’m grateful for the artists for starting the conversation, I wish they’d done more on that score. Other than showing how sophisticated facial recognition software has become, Hansel & Gretel does little reduce our ignorance.

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