“Hansel & Gretel” is on until 6 August 2017 at the Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory in New York.
Art Radar reviews the collaborative art installation exploring surveillance, created by the team behind Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, the Bird’s Nest.
“Hansel & Gretel” is a collaborative installation about surveillance by Pritzker Prize winning Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei at the Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory in New York. The architects, who also participated on the Armory’s renovation, were previously Ai Weiwei’s partners for the ill fated, political soup that became the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic stadium project for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and was ultimately disavowed by Ai.
The curatorial statement for “Hansel & Gretel” released by another powerhouse duo, Tom Eccles and Hans Ulrich Obrist, states Herzog and Meuron’s collaborations with Ai Weiwei are “exceptionally fruitful”, and that the visitor “experiences both psychological menace and exhilarating wonder”. However, if one really wants to know what it means to, as they state, be “constantly watched (in) public space without anonymity”, one need look no further than Oni Timoner’s We Live In Public (2009) to really understand the implications of constant surveillance in real life – including the psychotic breaks inflicted on more unstable individuals.
Ai Weiwei certainly knows the meaning of that type of 24/7 surveillance as evinced in his chilling prison diorama series S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-2013), the result of his 81 days in detention by the Chinese police. The “Hansel & Gretel” team wisely brought in artist and surveillance technology expert Adam Harvey who assembled from scratch the facial recognition technology. Rather than creating something with a strong impact, the combination of these two powerhouses of covert and overt surveillance have produced an installation that follows the curator’s original concepts: “a place of free movement and play”. This translates into surveillance experience with a fun, non-threatening and aesthetic element. A series of infrared squares and negative images are snapped and projected on the floor, and people lie down, make snow angels, dance with each other, or take selfies with a drone.
Harvey and drone collaborators IArt, certainly know their technology, and that is what makes this installation even possible. Instead of using standard versions of facial recognition technology from the 1990s up to 2000, Harvey used deep neural networks that in controlled test environments have a 99 percent accuracy rate, though in “Hansel & Gretel” that rate falls far lower. A grid of 56 computers use infrared cameras and specially designed infrared floodlights not visible to the human eye to crisscross the cavernous Drill Hall section of the Armory. A special tracking algorithm follows each individual, triggering a red rectangular laser outline from the grid system.
Multiple drones deploy custom GPS technology with 32 specially designed sonar beacons enabling them to understand not only their individual location in the Drill Hall, but also the spatialised location of the other drones. A unique Drone Safety Suspension System (DS3), or pulley and tether system, was also constructed to ensure safety between the drones and the audience.
The exhibition takes place throughout two entirely different sections of the Armory. The opening to the Drill Hall, incredibly well lit with blazing spotlights leads to a vacuous corridor. Entering the overarching space of the drone events one feels a slight breeze, and hears a low buzz from their whizzing rotators, as they hover about like overweight dragonflies.
For the second part of the exhibition, visitors need to walk outside onto the street and around the corner to enter the old wood panel, fireplace and chandelier part of the Armory. In an ostensible reading room, iPads are set up so that visitors can take a selfie and locate their own face from within the database of images generated by the infrared drone cameras. It compares the iPad photo with the eerie infrared black-and-white drone facial recognition technology match. The resulting selfies can be printed out for a small fee.
However, the abuse of the power of this type of technology is completely left out of the equation, and only by digging deeply enough into the brilliantly compiled linear notes on the exhibition’s website detailing the history of surveillance from 1274 BC to 2016, written by Berit Gwendolyn Gilma and Hanno Hauenstei, can one even begin to realise the implications. There are also large electronic flat screens displays where one can view the live time infrared goings on in the Drill Hall. However, for a final low tech hit of voyeurism, one needs to climb up to the mezzanine where there is an actual peephole. Visitors can swing a flat metal circle incised in a wooden door and peep through into the cavernous Drill Hall.
Then there is “Hansel & Gretel”’s inevitable gift shop, an idea Adam Harvey certainly used well in his 2013 New Museum “Privacy Gift Shop” pop up display with Johanna Bloomfield. The shop and its offerings is in extreme contrast with the implications of facial recognition surveillance in the exhibition, offering from Ai Weiwei’s f*ck you pillows to humorous gadgets related to the current surveillance installation.
This installation is a surveillance experience one can bring their toddlers to, discuss among friends at the libations bar, post on Facebook or its equivalent (if its allowed in one’s home country), and otherwise enjoy on a thoroughly PG level. The underlying message is incredibly laisse faire: surveillance is here anyway so relax, get used to it, resistance is futile.
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