Nowadays, over 20 years into the 21st century, an overwhelming presence of surveillance technology has been woven into the fabric of everyday life and infrastructure. It’s not uncommon for one to walk through a busy street, regardless of where they are situated in the world, to find a sea of people holding cell phones with high-definition cameras, or to cross an intersection that has discretely mounted CCTV cameras on its traffic lights, which capture videos of cars and pedestrians from all-seeing angles.

By today, most people have likely witnessed an unidentified object hovering in the sky––wondering, “is that a bird, a giant bug, or a faraway plane?”––to realize that it’s someone’s electronic drone floating through uncontrolled airspace.

Image courtesy of P&O Global Technologies, INC.

As Tim McKeough articulates, “It’s now almost impossible to disappear from the grid. With camera-filled city streets, buildings, and transportation hubs, not to mention smartphones that harvest personal data and track location, our movements are continuously monitored.”

McKeough poses a compelling inquiry: “In the age of social media, should we be keeping an eye on surveillance?” Even though technology has such a strong presence in human life, it’s easy to forget, or to be simply unaware, of the influence that these technologies have on everyday interactions.

Though the development of these technologies does indeed touch the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure - especially for developing nations that are trying to develop their states, economy and escape poverty - it raises some critical questions on what type of innovation is best for citizens, how it touches human rights and privacy, and whether the direction of our current development is morally good.

Illustration by Sarah Grillo, image courtesy of Axios

Over four years ago, the prolific contemporary Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, partnered, once again, with his long-time collaborators, the renowned Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, to create a site-specific, interactive installation called Hansel & Gretel. Open to the public and located at the New York Park Avenue Armory back in 2017, Hansel & Gretel is among many influential contemporary works that demonstrate the abundant existence of contemporary surveillance, while also bringing attention to the invasive nature of mass surveillance technologies.

Hansel and Gretel installation, image by James Ewing courtesy of Engadget

With Hansel & Gretel, the artist and architects developed an interactive space, and experience, for the public––taking away the general physically discrete nature of surveillance technologies–– to showcase precisely how interfering, prying, and terrifying surveillant technologies can be. Situated in the Amory’s 55,000 square foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, Hansel & Gretel employed “state-of-the-art surveillance technology…” to generate “an enticingly playful and unnerving experience of what it means to be constantly watched…” Visitors entered the installation by fist travelling through a long dark corridor. Once inside, they were met with darkness, the buzzing of drones, and subtle flickers of red and white lights.

Explaining the mechanics of the 2017 artwork installation, Chris Ip states that “everyone who enters is tracked relentlessly from above by 56 computers with infrared cameras, projecting bird's-eye images of visitors onto the ground next to them, outlined with red boxes.” According to iart Studio for Media Architecures, recordings of visitors “are processed in real-time by specifically engineered software and are played back into the installation, thus visitors are followed by a digital copy of themselves as they navigate the area.” Suddenly, visitors become acutely aware of their behaviours.

Today, after nearly a year of decreased social activity, increased human isolation and perpetuated human (virus) tracking in many areas of the world due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, looking back on artworks like Hansel & Gretel can remind us of the “Sometimes nefarious ways our data is used,” and documented in everyday life and society.

As the Armory’s President Rebecca Robertson communicates, Hansel & Gretel displays, “surveillance as one of the defining social phenomena of our time and provokes pressing questions about the right to privacy in a hyper-monitored world.”

For more information about arts events at the Park Avenue Armory visit here. To learn more about Ai Weiwei read these Arts Help articles here and here. To learn more about Herzog and de Meuron, visit the pair’s website.

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