Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Ai Weiwei's Modern Take of Hansel & Gretel

Visitors being tracked by cameras up on the ceiling of the armory
We managed to catch Ai Weiwei's intriguing interactive installation on surveillance called Hansel & Gretel, in collaboration with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who you may remember designed the Bird's Nest in Beijing.

At the time Ai also worked with them on that Olympic stadium, but later pulled out, stating that he didn't want to be a puppet of the Chinese government in its coming out party in 2008.

Called the "thinking person's 'Rain Room'"
So it's interesting to see this prominent collaboration again -- maybe Herzog and de Meuron want to repent for what they did? Or they now understand why Ai didn't want any part of the Bird's Nest project? Or perhaps they sympathize with what he went through when he was held for 81 days without any official charges, though later it was for "economic crimes".

In any event, we went to the site of the show, the Park Avenue Armory, and were promptly instructed by one of the staff to go to the back of the building to purchase tickets and enter from there.

We were led to a door into a very dark space and told the exit was where the blue light was. At this point we didn't know what to expect.

Why were we in such a dark room where the floor seemed curved? And what was happening on the floor?

Soon we realized there were images of us taken from above and projected on the floor, and we looked up and saw a bunch of lights lined up systematically across the ceiling of the 55,000-square foot armory, but we couldn't exactly see what they were. They were drones that were recording our movements, literally following us around with photographic evidence of their surveillance.

Being tracked is simultaneously cool and disconcerting
At first it seemed like a novelty, having machines tracking and taking picture of us. How did they do that? Infra-red cameras attached to 56 computers. But why were they doing this to us? What had we done to deserve that?

It also dawned on us that this is how Ai probably felt when he was under surveillance in Beijing, when he returned home from his unofficial incarceration to find cameras all over his home to track his movements, which is unsettling and scary how easily one can be followed at all times.

There were also at least two drones that wandered around ceiling hovering over people that gave an uneasy feeling.

After a while we emerged from the giant space and back into the sunlight, where we were instructed to go back to the front entrance of the Armory.

When we entered the doors, we were told to look at a series of red lights, which we later found had taken a picture of us that was projected onto screens in the hallway. We looked like zombies, our pupils were blank, making them haunting images.

A peephole view of the installation from a distance
Here there wasn't much to see except a kind of library space where people could sit down and browse through the Hansel & Gretel website that chronicles the history of surveillance over the centuries.

You can also take a picture of yourself on the iPad and then it will try to find the earlier picture of you when you walked through the entrance. In my case it was a successful (and creepy) match.

There was also an area where you could look through a peephole back at the armory space to have a more bird's eye view of the project, though you still couldn't clearly see what was going on.

What to do about it?

In the gift shop you can buy special foil bags or plastic case to put your smartphones in to stop others from tracking you, or buy a giant magnet that says #resist, as well as giant tomes of Ai's body of work.

There's also a phone case that says "The NSA has all your selfies" -- which pretty much hits the nail on the head.

The title of the show is a reference to the Brothers Grimm fairytale of two children tempted by sweets by an old woman who holds them hostage. Some critics have surmised from the show that the more you post online, the more Big Brother knows about you and your friends.

Will that stop you from posting on social media? Probably not, but don't say you haven't been warned.

Hansel & Gretel
Until August 6, 2017
Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue
New York

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