Say you needed to disappear—what would it take to go truly off the grid, impossible to track down? Cameras are ubiquitous, credit cards are tracked, and devices can be geolocated. Consider another scenario: finding yourself a dissident in a rapidly shifting political climate. How would it feel to have every move monitored by the state, knowing your day-to-day activity could be used to silence you?
Surveillance, and our increasing acceptance of it, is at the heart of a creepily prescient immersive installation by Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, and Ai Weiwei at the Park Avenue Armory this summer. Hansel & Gretel interrogates the changing nature of public space and our acquiescence to being watched, in an era rife with data mining and warrantless government spying. We know that corporations are profiting off our internet activity and recording our conversations, but one looming question remains: Do we care?
The Park Avenue Armory is a menacing building to begin with. It's a red brick behemoth, occupying an entire city block on New York's Upper East Side. Inside a pitch-black hall the size of a football field, a trio of surveillance drones whir overhead, honing in on visitors when they detect movement. Infrared cameras rigged to the ceiling record activity, projecting grainy portraits of bodies, limbs, and foot traffic patterns on the floor below. The sense that an art installation is watching you comes second to the narcissistic joy that compels visitors to pose and dance for the camera, imprinting patterns and silhouettes like surveillance-driven snow angels.
"To come back to the title, Hansel & Gretel, the people project their traces, so that adds something scary but also playful," Herzog tells Creators. The Armory installation marks 15 years of collaboration between Herzog and de Meuron, Pritzker Prize-winning architects, and Ai, a world-renowned multidisciplinary artist.
"Public space, because of surveillance, is much more dangerous than we thought it was. That metaphor, their name for it, Hansel & Gretel, is kind of perfect, because the idea is that Hansel and Gretel live next to a forest that they probably played in every day. And then they find out that there's actually menace in the forest," adds Rebecca Robertson, President and Executive Producer of Park Avenue Armory.
Of course, Ai, widely known as a dissident artist both in Beijing and abroad, is no stranger to government scrutiny. "As an artist in China, my life have very different conditions," the artist tells Creators. "I've been heavily surveilled through internet or my telephone being tapped and real people following me wherever I go. So, those become part of my life. You always see yourself or a record somewhere or being recorded the way you can never even imagine or cannot really comprehend of why that's necessary. But this is today's life, and willingly or not, we are being recorded."
Ai is more comfortable than most with the idea of being watched. He's hacked the system, in a way, making the job of the Chinese government easy by meticulously documenting his own life on social media. During the press conference at the opening of Hansel & Gretel in June, he snapped selfies and posted them for his followers on Instagram and Twitter.
Most of us living in the digital age lead dual lives, maintaining online and offline personas. Routine surveillance begs the question, if we're all being watched anyway, is it smarter to take control of the narrative that's out in the world, before it's crafted for you? One of the most dynamic and understated aspects of Hansel & Gretel is an interactive timeline illustrating the history of surveillance. In a world where leaks, hacks, and wiretaps are already the norm, maybe awareness is the best we can hope for.
Hansel & Gretel at the Park Avenue Armory is on view through August 6.