When you buy a ticket to Hansel & Gretel, a new installation by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, you might not notice the fine print on the back: “Your attendance at this event shall be deemed your consent to have your image or likeness appear in any video display or reproduction in whole or in part.” That’s part of the exhibition’s mystique. You might not even realize you’ve given your consent to be watched or recorded–much like the terms of service agreements we routinely accept every day.
Little by little, corporations and the government have whittled away our privacy. Security cameras, traffic cameras, and, increasingly, police body cameras record where we go and what we do in public, and they’re becoming more sophisticated with the introduction of facial recognition software. Social media sites mine our every like and click to create profiles they can then use to target us with ads. While the general public has often met this encroachment on privacy with apathy, some artists are working to highlight just how deeply it impacts our lives. Weiwei’s Hansel & Gretel, created alongside the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron at the Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is the latest piece to tackle the effects of constant surveillance with a focus on its impact on public space.
“It’s part of our reality as architects and artists,” Weiwei tells Co.Design. “We are all very keen about the human condition. We are very interested in how our lives are interpreted and to see how we act under certain conditions.”
The installation is an enormous, interactive environment of voyeurism. Instead of entering the armory from its grand, ceremonial entrance on Park Avenue, you’re funneled through a back entrance and a long, narrow, dim hallway before reaching the Drill Hall, a 55,000-square-foot space with an eight-story-tall ceiling. The cavernous interior is pitch-black and the floor has a slight slope, making it disorienting to explore at first.
When I first walked inside, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but as I took a few steps toward the center of the space, I began to notice static projections on the floor. Then, I realized that these projections were actually still photographs of my body taken from overhead. As I was looking around trying to make sense of the installation, the installation was quietly doing the same to me. One of the most chilling moments involved a drone buzzing overhead. Periodically, it would make a sweep of the space, then disappear. It caught me off guard when I suddenly heard its propellers buzzing over my head and felt the breeze it was generating.
“I know nothing about [surveillance] technology, but what has been said is it’s inevitable, it’s everywhere,” Herzog tells me. “Here in the Drill Hall, what you see is the camera and images from the camera shooting pictures of yourself as you’re walking. You’re aware of being surveilled. But there are other parts where you are not.”
The “other parts” to which Herzog is referring are hidden cameras installed elsewhere in the armory that silently take your photograph and file them into a database. In another part of the installation–which visitors are routed to after they’ve meandered in the Drill Hall–you’re invited to take a photograph of yourself on an iPad, and the facial-recognition software then searches the database to find your file photo. (It worked on the first try for me, while another colleague got three mismatches before giving up.) Elsewhere, black-and-white portraits of people who have visited the installation are displayed on large screens. The final element of surveillance is a live stream of people in the Drill Hall, projected on a screen.
“I think the whole installation is not too easy to explain in a few senses, and that’s also the idea, that people can experience it on different levels,” Herzog says. “It’s not that we had one idea, and this is it.”
While Hansel & Gretel is about surveillance in general, it’s also about the personal relationship between Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron. The three have collaborated for over a decade on works like the the Beijing National Stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest) and 2012 Serpentine Pavilion, in London, and are close friends. They began planning this installation a few years after Weiwei was released from prison (he was arrested and investigated for “economic crimes”) but wasn’t allowed to leave China and was being watched by the government.
“It’s very critical, all these issues that are treated here,” Herzog says.
While the installation is evocative, the artists are agnostic about what reaction it evokes. I initially walked through the space with curiosity and trepidation and took a more somber interpretation of being watched. This was Big Brother at work. Over time, as I noticed how other people in the space were interacting with it, I gradually loosened up. They were spinning around to try and make patterns with the projected pictures, lying on the floor to make “surveillance angels,” and subverting a mechanism of watching into a creative tool. Perhaps that’s an allegory for the state of surveillance today: creepy–until we get used to it.
“Maybe this also has an entertaining moment,” Herzog says. “I think it’s strange to see your own picture—you like it, you don’t like it; it’s very psychological. It’s a learning process. But we are not moralists. We don’t say you have to learn this or that. It’s not that we are teachers, but we reveal levels of perception.”
While Hansel & Gretel isn’t meant to impart a singular experience on every visitor, it’s certainly a space designed to be moved through physically, and in person. Unlike most experience-driven installations today, it’s impossible to take a good picture in the space; its true impact can’t be communicated through a been-there-done-that selfie.
“What you experience can’t be captured by technology, which is very often opposite,” Weiwei says. “Many works look better in a selfie or through technology, but this work certainly requires a total experience. The sound, the kind of volume, the kind of darkness is the power that cannot be captured with a camera.”
The installation invites us to perceive privacy and surveillance differently than how we might perceive these issues based on a news report. As we’re confronted with story after story about surveillance in our society: Does it make us safer? Does it make us more just? Does it make our lives more convenient? How many civil liberties do we sacrifice with each data point collected? And as surveillance becomes more subtle and normalized, its consequences seem more abstract in turn. What an interactive art installation like Hansel & Gretel does is give us an opportunity to engage with the subject from a new angle. “It’s another way of look at yourself,” de Meuron says, “and the world as a whole.”
Hansel & Gretel is on view at the Park Avenue Armory until August 6, 2017. Admission is $15. Visit armoryonpark.org for more.