Ai Weiwei Turns the Surveillance State into an Instagram-Friendly Game

  • Mockup of installation detail of Hansel & Gretel at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by James Ewing.

“Hansel & Gretel,” a disastrously misguided collaboration between Ai Weiwei and the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, brings drones, infrared cameras, and a whole lot of moody darkness to the Park Avenue Armory. Unfortunately, though, what the trio intended as an unnerving immersion in contemporary surveillance culture becomes something else entirely: an awkwardly whimsical exercise in seeing and being seen.

Visitors enter the Armory through the back entrance on Lexington Avenue, where they’re confronted with a stark message on the wall (“What would be a suspicious text?”) before meandering down a sparsely lit passageway that’s about as inviting as one of Bruce Nauman’s claustrophobic corridors. This is meant as a kind of visual or emotional palate cleanser for viewers before they step out into the enormity of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall itself, which has been transformed into a tableaux of spotlights and whirring electronics.

Guests are able to wander the floor of the hall, which has been given a slight curvature, as if everyone is walking across the top of a submarine. A series of 56 computers with infrared cameras canvas the area, tracking and photographing all human motion. Stand in one place for a few seconds and the technology will freeze and project your ghostly afterimage on the floor itself; with creative choreography (and perhaps a bit of spinning in place), it’s possible to generate a lingering chain of grainy portraits, one’s limbs multiplied, hazy, lo-fi.

At intervals, a suite of drones swoops into the space, their insectile buzzing a complement to the atmospheric paranoia Ai, Herzog, and de Meuron are trying to conjure.

  • Installation view of “Hansel & Gretel” at Park Avenue Armory.

The second component of “Hansel & Gretel” is accessed through the Armory’s traditional front entrance, and is a kind of debriefing exercise with an educational bent. Visitors who’ve just left the surveillance grid can explore the show’s major themes on tablets; they can also snap photographs of themselves, which are then fed into facial-recognition software that matches them with footage taken in the Drill Hall.

(The technology isn’t perfect—it first had 46-percent confidence that I was a completely bald, middle-aged man with a goatee—but, eventually, it found the real me.)

The tablets also offer a timeline of surveillance topics across history, including the IBM-facilitated “Hollerith punch cards” that streamlined the bureaucracy that made the Holocaust possible, as well as plans by the C.I.A. to weaponize cats in the 1960s as “eavesdropping devices.” It also namedrops others who have turned the trappings of surveillance into art, from Laura Poitras to Anne Imhof (whose Angst II (2016), incorporated drones).

Poitras is the easiest point of comparison for Ai, Herzog, and de Meuron’s installation. The trio should have done more to avoid the failings of her strangely uncompelling 2016 exhibition “Astro Noise” at the Whitney Museum, which proved how difficult it is to turn the surveillance state into an aesthetic experience. (In more general terms, it also raised the question of why one would want to turn the surveillance state into an aesthetic experience in the first place.)

  • Mockup of installation detail of Hansel & Gretel at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by James Ewing.

  • Installation view of “Hansel & Gretel” at Park Avenue Armory.

Which leads us to the ways in which “Hansel & Gretel” is not only flat, but counterproductive.

Park Avenue Armory president Rebecca Robertson, during press remarks, said she hoped the installation would be “mysterious and strange and scary, as surveillance often is.” Yet, it’s nothing of the sort. What’s meant to be a cautionary tale ends up merely as a game, one that will appeal both to kids and those posting surveillance-selfies on Instagram. (Did I mention that you can choose to have your facial-recognition portraits printed for $10?)

Tom Eccles, who co-curated this show with Hans Ulrich Obrist, seemed aware of the show’s pitfalls when he mentioned how, after several groups were brought into the space to experience “Hansel & Gretel” in previews, he “worried that people were enjoying themselves too much.”

Part of the challenge, he also acknowledged, was the broad audience that the Armory attracts. “How do we create a place that is playful, but serves some sort of criticality?” he wondered.

Some artists have achieved that blend, of course. Pedro Reyes’s excellent Doomocracy, commissioned by Creative Time, opened with participants being pulled from an unmarked van and harshly ordered around by militarized cops with flashlights. That experience felt playful at first, and then uncomfortable—a bit unhinged and dangerous.

“Hansel & Gretel” wants to be an eye-opening examination of the modern technologies that track our movements and enable drones to obliterate far-off places, but the installation ends up neutering its own politics in the pursuit of an interactive techno-romp that’s fun for the whole family.

—Scott Indrisek

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