Shambling around in a large, dark space with uneven floors and walls sounds like a particularly avant-garde brand of art installation. Over-head, flying drones buzz unseen while you bumble into your fellow art appreciators. And on the floor below you, the only light in the room projects your own path.
The projections are an infrared recording of the view from above, a moment-to-moment digital footprint of all occupants in the room. There’s enough delay that they make paths, hence the title of the installation, “Hansel and Gretel,” on display in the Park Avenue Armory.
“Hansel and Gretel” is what the creator, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, calls surveillance art. Everyone participating in the exhibit is under surveillance, their images used as a part of the whole from the moment they step in through the doors. After the dark room, visitors pass through a richly decorated corridor lined with images of themselves and everyone else who has visited, taken candidly. Facial recognition software matches most visitors with their own images, taken by the drones.
Weiwei, who teamed up with artist/architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, has always been a political artist, to the extent that he spent several days in prison in China after a photoshoot filled with thinly veiled political criticism was released.
“It felt very uneasy, unsettling. I think we take for granted that we’re always constantly being watched…all the information that we give out is being tracked in some way or another,” a “Hansel and Gretel” visitor told NY Daily News.
Whether it’s the drones or the facial recognition software, it’s very clear that the intent is to bring that feeling of being observed to the surface, to make viewers carry it back with them to the real world and examine just how private their real lives are… Or are not.