Ai Weiwei Puts You Under Surveillance at the Armory

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei is watching us. Photo: Gao Yuan

“Political art is boring, but art that is not political is also boring,” according to the Swiss architect Jacques Herzog, speaking at a recent panel discussion about the installation Hansel and Gretel at New York’s Park Avenue Armory (on display until Aug. 6). Herzog collaborated with his architectural partner Pierre de Meuron and the activist Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to create the site-specific project, an exploration of the nature of public space in a surveillance-saturated era.

Has technology outpaced morality?

An intensely experiential, participatory work that only comes alive when visitors interact with it, Hansel and Gretel’s openness to varying interpretations renders it either intriguing or menacing. Depending on how much you value privacy, the take-away impression will be delight at the cool gadgetry or dismay at government overreach. Judging from visitors’ reactions, the thrill of being observed prevails over shrinking from public image-capture — perhaps a sign of our narcissistic age? Despite well-meaning intentions to educate the public, the high-tech project seems a missed opportunity at consciousness-raising.

Ai Weiwei Herzog & de Meuron Armory
Visitors interact with overhead cameras that project their image on the floor. Photo: James Ewing

Part I takes place in the vast 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, which covers most of an entire city block. You enter on Lexington Avenue through a claustrophobic, dark corridor leading to a giant space — dark as midnight. You hear the buzz of drones overhead, and as you meander about in the murk, you notice a grid of white lines and red boxes on the floor tracing your steps. Infrared cameras tethered to the eighty-foot-high ceiling snap your picture, throwing a ghostly white image on the floor that seeps away into blackness. This is your heat signature, and visitors consider it a selfie bonanza. They fling themselves down or spin around, pirouetting and flinging out their arms, then snap shots of their zombie image on the floor.

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The creators’ aim wasn’t to convey a specific political message. “It’s much more powerful politically,” Herzog explained, “if art has something complex with many layers of seeing it and enjoying it but also making you doubt.” In Part I, the “enjoying” aspect is more in evidence than “doubt.”

For Part II, visitors must exit the Drill Hall and walk around the block to enter the Armory through its official Park Avenue entrance. A long room inside holds tables with iPads. This is the “surveillance laboratory” where doubt should intrude. Here you can read about the history of surveillance, from its beginning in 1274 BCE when an Egyptian pharaoh employed embedded spies (called “the eyes of the pharaoh”) to report on his enemies. A timeline lists other innovations in espionage like hot-air balloons that took photos of suspicious activities in 1860 and the invention of fingerprinting in the 1880s. The first satellite image was beamed to earth in 1960, inaugurating the modern age of snooping. You learn there are 17,000 surveillance cameras in New York City and that the first drone strike in the Afghan War, controlled remotely from CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, occurred in 2001.

Ai Weiwei Herzog & de Meuron Armory
Infrared cameras cast images of visitors’ thermal signatures on the ground in the Drill Hall. Photo: James Ewing

But more than reading Fun Facts, you can actually spy on your fellow visitors. A live-stream video shot by drones shows people cavorting in the Drill Hall, and these are viewable online, as well. The images of their bodies and clothes are very clear; only faces are a white blur. You can also check out camera thermal images where you see chalky outlines of bodies projected on the floor. A Find-Your-Face feature allows the iPad to take your picture and then match it with a photo taken earlier, identified through facial-recognition software. Mine was found instantly, even though I almost didn’t recognize myself in the grainy, gray portrait, a sinister version resembling a suspected serial killer more than an art critic.

The title of the installation, Hansel and Gretel, refers to the Grimm Brothers fairy tale in which children leave a trail of breadcrumbs in a dark forest in order to retrace their path and not get lost. Yet birds scarf down the crumbs, leaving brother and sister at the mercy of a cannibalistic witch. In the Armory version of the tale, participants leave vanishing traces of their trajectory on the floor, which are captured forever by Big-Brother-like cameras and drones. What’s missing in this contemporary iteration is the element of danger.

Ai Weiwei
Sculpture by Ai Weiwei showing him in a detention cell flanked by Chinese soldiers, shown at 2014 retrospective, “Ai Weiwei: According to What” at Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Carol Strickland

Ai Weiwei knows a bit about surveillance. After he criticized the Chinese government for shoddy construction of schools that caused the death of thousands of children following an earthquake in 2008, he was stripped of his passport and under constant surveillance by the state. In 2011, Ai was “detained” — code for imprisoned — for 81 days, accused of “economic crimes,” after which he was placed under house arrest and subjected to 24/7 monitoring.

Ai Weiwei was just becoming known as a dissident artist when he first collaborated with the Pritzker Prize-winning architects Herzog and de Meuron. In 2008, their “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics astonished viewers with its basket-like exoskeleton. In an Armory press preview, Ai insisted, “The installation is not simply a warning. It’s like a mirror of daily life. As a New Yorker you expose yourself to surveillance all the time, no matter where you go.”

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Both architects and artist stressed the dual aspects of digital spying. De Meuron pointed out technology’s bivalent neutrality: “A drone is like a car. It can be positive or negative. A car can kill, but it can also save lives like an ambulance.” The team wanted “to involve people not just as perceivers but in an active way.” He further added, “The problem was how to make it playful but with criticality.”

Ai Weiwei Herzog & de Meuron Armory
Swiss architects Pierre de Meuron (left) and Jacques Herzog (right)

In Part I where visitors are being observed, playground frolic predominates; most seem to relish the spotlight. Just as millions post pictures of their every activity for public consumption on Facebook and Instagram, the potential misuse of such exposure apparently seems remote. In Part II where visitors become the observers, the opportunity for reflection is available, but serious examination of the ethical issues seems mostly absent.

The iPads do present information about deaths caused by Hellfire missiles fired from Predator drones, directed by joystick-wielding Air Force personnel in Nevada. From thousands of miles away, these video-jockeys have caused thousands of confirmed kills in the Middle East, estimated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as between 6,382 and 9,240. Of those, between 739 and 1,407 were civilians, including between 240 to 308 children. The rationale for a drone strike is that it avoids committing ground troops and precisely targets the enemy — an assertion belied by the “collateral damage” of innocent civilians’ deaths. Also worrisome is that a drone operator sees the enemy as a distant blob, which dehumanizes the act of assassination, outsourcing it to an unmanned killer robot operated by remote control. One wonders: has technology outpaced morality?

Do we have a blind spot when it comes to that all-seeing Eye in the Sky?

The Espionage Act discourages whistle-blowers from divulging exact data about secret drone warfare. The threat of prosecution for treason hangs over them, as Sonia Kennebeck’s 2016 documentary National Bird shows. In one case of automated murder — a 2010 attack in Afghanistan — 23 unarmed civilians, including children, were killed by a drone strike. Eighty-six countries have now developed and use drones. In two cases in June, US fighter planes destroyed armed drones targeting American-backed fighters in Syria and their American advisors.

Besides the lethal implications of drone spying, there’s also a debate about ubiquitous surveillance of civilian populations. In London one CCTV camera for every fourteen people keeps track of the public. The National Security Agency, FBI and Department of Homeland Security argue that visual and digital monitoring bolsters our security and protects us from terrorist threats. The tradeoff is an erosion of privacy and dignity, decreasing one’s autonomy and increasing pressure to conform. Misuse of the vast databases collected (revealed by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning) is also possible.

Because of the expansion and intensification of such data collection and surveillance, has our culture reached a turning point foreshadowed in George Orwell’s novel 1984? These are issues one wishes had been brought to the fore in the installation, which could have been a catalyst for critical thinking more than for playful interaction. Yet even the gift shop associated with the show takes a light approach. Surveillance-evading tchotchkes are for sale, like “shield hats” or “thermal signature blocking capes” (Mylar space blankets used by the Taliban to hide from drones and infrared cameras). Other souvenirs on offer are spectacles called “reflectacles,” which disrupt face-recognition software.

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Nothing at the Armory drives the gravity of digital death home as Laura Poitras’s exhibition Astro Noise did at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2016. In a work called Bed Down Location, visitors reclined on a cushy platform, looking up at the stars in a projected night sky over Yemen. Only in the next gallery did you see the scene again, this time viewing a live-stream video of supine star-gazers as green thermal signatures targeted by a drone for extinction. It’s not just a lark after all. You can be looking at the sky without knowing that someone in Nevada is looking at you as a terrorist. Do we have a blind spot when it comes to that all-seeing Eye in the Sky? Is dropping a bomb as casual as dropping a pin on our smart phones to mark our GPS-determined location?

Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei’s installation of Lego portraits of political prisoners at the 2014-15 exhibition “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” staged in the prison on Alcatraz island, CA. Photo: Carol Strickland

Installation art has the potential to elicit social participation, to take you out of your comfort zone to explore different experiences and gain new insights. Ai Weiwei’s 2014-15 installation @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz boosted visitors’ awareness of violations of human rights and the number of political prisoners incarcerated around the globe for opposition to repression. Those who expect a similarly harrowing experience at the Armory will be disappointed.

Yet Ai Weiwei continues to be a voice for individual freedom and tolerance. His latest crusade is on behalf of refugees and migrants. In the last year, he has visited forty refugee camps. Speaking for technology as a positive force, he said that the first thing a refugee fleeing war-torn Syria does on arriving by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos is pull out a plastic-wrapped cell phone. Refugees call family to say they’ve made the crossing safely or call a friend to ask the next step to a safe haven, guided by GPS location-tracking. “Technology plays a great role,” Ai said, “in their hope and their courage.” Not to mention their survival.

The next phase in our relationship with evolving technology is unknowable but probably unstoppable. “We should calculate how much we gain and how much is lost with this fast development of technology,” Ai Weiwei said. “As humans, it’s our character and our fate to have curiosity, to turn the page to see what’s there and to predict how many pages are left.”

We don’t know if there’s a “happily ever after” in our future story. Will it be a grim tale where the lure of delicious treats symbolized by a candy-laden gingerbread house traps our brother and forces our sister to submit to a superior power? We must hope that Hansel (and all of us) will not be gobbled up by a malevolent authority and that Gretel (again, all of us) will save the day by resisting an omnivorous tyrant.