Monthly Archives: April 2017

Notes on a surveillance apparatus

Peep/Show reframes surveillance and voyeurism as a question of innocence and experience and plays with the hierarchy of power determined by subjectivity and the knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of when one is being watched or has been watched.

I’m still ultimately not sure how I want the interaction in the peepshow booth to work. On the one hand, the “email” paradigm might be the strongest – a misdirection away from the mirror towards another instance of surveillance, namely reading a stranger’s email, only to find out that that was a red herring and really it’s you who has been surveilled. Additionally, it could be strengthened by opening up a bunch of surveillance-y/voyeuristic content on the computer – closed-circuit camera feeds, lurid gossip websites, etc.

But that in some ways sacrifices one of the juicier psychological elements of the two-way mirror (which is really the star of the show), namely that it’s an instrument that in one mode reinforces ideas of privacy and aloneness-with-self, and in the other constitutes an absolute inversion of the same, invading the privacy of another while their sense of privacy is falsely reinforced. That the means of making the switch is the transition of a space from light (pride, security, obviousness) to darkness (shadows, hiding, scandal) is icing on the cake.

I’m therefore still trying to come up with something that makes use of the mirror in creating the situation that keeps the mark (perhaps soon to become the spy) engaged and performing for the delectation of the other. That’s what makes Ripley’s exhibit so good – the thing on the wall about rolling your tongue, in an oddity-museum space where such a suggestion makes complete sense, turns the participant’s attention directly to the mirror while blinding it to the real truth of what’s going on.

A similar setup using computers would be to have nothing on the wall, just a laptop open. You sit down and start reading, and then at some point (when your voyeur leaves and the next person comes in) a window pops up on your screen with a camera feed from their laptop (the camera light having of course somehow been disabled). It would even have the added benefit of being able to be staged in two totally separate spaces, thus reducing the possibility that the participant would “get” the trick before it was played on him or her.

But it loses something that way… there’s a viscerality to the mirror trick that I don’t want to discard in favor of the hyper-mediated electronic version (although, of course, that’s the situation in which you are most likely to encounter actual hidden surveillance). There’s something dreary about webcam footage, in contrast to the joy of the two-way mirror. And perhaps we’re already semiconsciously aware of the potential for surveillance inherent in electronic interactions, having tacitly bargained away our privacy in exchange for access to the world.

So the quest remains – find the right interaction. It needs to use the mirror; it needs to reinforce the idea that the mirror is a mirror, not a window; and it needs to encourage people to reveal something that they would not reveal if they knew someone was watching.

Putting the Audience through a Difficult Evening

I have neither read nor seen Aunt Dan and Lemon, so can’t comment on any of the specifics of the piece, but reading through Wallace Shawn’s justification (or “justification”) put me in mind of another work touching on how we process atrocity (and specifically the atrocities of the Second World War), Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones.

The Kindly Ones is a thousand-page doorstop of a book narrated by a fictional SS officer who leads us through the war and the Holocaust as he participates in them, first reluctantly and then with increasing enthusiasm (and here I keep typing variations of “until he eradicates his humanity entirely,” but that feels wrong – much of the point of the book is the very humanness of evil).

In his introduction (framing the novel as a reminiscence years after he has slipped back, unpunished, into the general public) he makes the point that “in most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying … at the bottom of the pit.” And it’s both a repellent, self-serving justification for participating in evil, and true. Tracing his experiences, the reader is pulled sickeningly through a set of circumstances and decisions where one is forced to ask “what would I do differently?” Not in a general sense (“I wouldn’t have been a Nazi!”) but in the moment – how do all of these small actions and inactions add up to the greater horror? And what, in those specific circumstances, is the just, moral, ethical thing to do?

We are deeply reluctant to admit that we have anything in common with people whose behaviors we rightly see as monstrous. We want to see fascism (or indeed any system of brutality) as inherently and totally amoral. And yet, if you concede one small central point, that outsiders are not human (or not sentient, or the implacable enemy of the insiders), the system becomes completely moral. Who wouldn’t take the initiative to eradicate what he or she sees as evil (the depravity of the outsiders) and defend the virtues of love, purity, the home, the family, etc., even if it means doing something hideous?

So perhaps that point is the one to stand on and guard with your life – that the true evil is not the atrocity itself but the division of the world into “us” and “them.” I’ve often thought that there’s really no such thing as true altruism – nobody acts on behalf of others, at the bottom of it. But we can and often do act on behalf of our families and loved ones, which is a sort of selfish selflessness. We see those we identify with as extensions of ourselves. If we wish to avoid repeating atrocity, the trick is therefore to grow our sense of “us” until there is no more “them.” Not to behave benevolently towards outsiders, but to recognize everyone as an insider.

Five works from the Whitney Biennial

Jordan Wolfson, Real Violence

Of everything I saw at the Biennial, this is the piece that has stuck with me most doggedly. I felt sort of glib standing in line and reading the warnings – I was sure, given my lifelong exposure to representations of violence (and the fact that I’m a sophisticated cool jaded person) that no matter how disturbing the subject matter, I would (indeed could) not actually be disturbed by it.

And then I experienced it and was very disturbed.

I’ve been unable to figure out whether I think it’s a successful artwork, although on a number of levels I have to think it is – I continue to dwell on it, it uses its medium to create an experience that fully utilizes and depends on the medium, it gets people talking about important questions… but on another level there’s something that feels like complicity in a gross phenomenon, to credit such an assaultive piece with profundity when it is remarkable mostly for how much it “goes there”.

I think that virtual reality changes the representation of violence in that the viewer doesn’t have the normal option to look away from mediated atrocity. Instead of being able to look away from a screen or a photo, and thus back into a world where The Thing isn’t happening, one can only look away to other views within the diegetic world, and in that moment the violence becomes real in a new sense. I found myself staring at the cars passing on the street, and wondering if they were aware of what was going on, and if so, at what level?

Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes

I am, at the moment, especially attuned to the creative possibilities of mirrors, and so Samara Golden’s amazing installation was particularly intriguing to me. In one sense, it’s a jaw-dropping confection – a relatively small space rendered into a variegated infinity with clever positioning of mirrors, use of floors as ceilings and vice versa, playing with scale and perspective and all of the tricks of convincing the eye to believe the impossible. On a deeper level, it’s a profound hallucination – layer upon layer (stretching upward and downward endlessly) of spaces right on top of one another and yet seemingly isolated: the lavish apartment, the office, the gore-stained institutional bathroom (not coincidentally nearest the viewer’s eye). It seems to be an especially New York piece, where the rigors of proximity encourage us to ignore whole worlds above our heads, below our feet or standing right next to us on the subway platform.

John Riepenhoff, The John Riepenhoff Experience

More mirrors… It’s an intriguing idea, to try to stuff visual endlessness into a tiny space, and from the outside, the piece is joyful and hugely appealing – a small unprepossessing white step ladder, where the viewer climbs up and inserts his or her head into a white box. But inside, the visuals are sort of a mess (the scale really does render the mirrors less effective, and the brown tinge of either the light or the surface doesn’t help matters) and the other sensory experiences are jarring. At this size, the lights give off enough heat to make the space rather warmer than is comfortable, and the lack of ventilation means you are bathed in the accrued moist breath of everyone who has been in it before. It’s all very close. Which is unsettling. And not in a good (or seemingly intentional) way.

Jon Kessler, Exodus and Evolution

The political implications of Exodus were lost on me, though on the level of technological representation, I was fascinated by the algorithmic color and detail reduction in the kaleidoscopic feedback loop as the video reached the center of the screen, going from being video-of-a-thing to video-of-video-of-a-thing and so on. Which I guess serves as proof that the politics were indeed lost on me. Evolution was somewhat more graspable, though I still got a feeling of an artist exuberantly at play, somewhat sheepishly attaching the work to political critique in order to give it substance. That said, it all worked pretty well as a half-ironic celebration of artifice.

George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo

We walked right past this one, and it’s not in the Biennial, so I’m not sure if it’s within bounds to comment on it, but it’s a remarkable piece and it felt very relevant to look at it right after experiencing Real Violence. I think one of the most horrifying aspects of Wolfson’s work is the non-reaction of the beaten man – his submissive posture at the beginning (as he must on some level know what’s about to happen), his total failure to fight back, his blank abjectness. It seems to implicate the bystander more because he refuses to fight – he is only a victim, and becomes our responsibility on some level, which we can do nothing about. That calls to mind many situations in life, but is in this case rather a manipulative posture, forced as we are to absorb our bystander status without being able to change it.

Dempsey and Firpo is very different, in this case the heroic mode of violence. The bystanders aren’t looking away, they’re cheering. They embrace the man who has just been punched out of the ring and thrust him back into it, both for their delectation and for his eventual triumph – he is merely knocked down but is fighting back, and we know he will actually win the bout. There’s a sense of fair play to it, violence as a contest of strength rather than an act of victimization.

This is of course the story we prefer to tell ourselves about violence, especially as Americans. Yet the other, seemingly more authentic picture (no sugar-coating, just brutality) is also not entirely or always true.