Panopticon at UMOCA
Most Americans are ambivalent about surveillance, whether they realize it or not. Our happiness is now dependent on Amazon, iPhones, and GPS, and data collection is integral to this new way of life. So too, is the potential for surveillance, as companies, governments, and individuals grope for control in the infosphere. A new exhibition of global artists surveys the dilemma of privacy in 2015, when access has undoubtedly become a two-way street.
Panopticon, now on view at UMOCA in Salt Lake City, approaches the many-sided issue of surveillance with respect for its complexity. Some of the works act as direct social commentary, while others convey a more ambiguous message. Artist Mahwish Chishty produces simple images of drone-silhouettes, filled in with the decorative patterning used on buses and trucks in her native Pakistan. The admixture of military technology with the culture of its target is unsettling. It reminds us that the fate of the two groups is bound up together, and this theme of perverse-interdependence runs throughout Panopticon.
A less political but equally suggestive work is Evan Roth’s Slide to Unlock (2014), the largest work in the exhibition. Measuring the whole height of the Main Gallery’s southwest wall, Slide to Unlock shows an enormous mobile thumbprint, streaking from one side of the panel to the other. The thumb, we may assume, has just unlocked an iPhone, and with it a whole world of digital access. In addition to its convenience and familiarity, the gesture also has the cynical implication of opening the floodgates, the Pandora’s Box of our private information. And, as Slide to Unlock mainly emphasizes, this was our choice.
Some of the most memorable works in the exhibition are the pressure monoprints of Kate McQuillen and the fashion design of Adam Harvey. McQuillen’s ghostly images of x-rayed apparel, underwear beneath a skirt for instance (with matchbooks visible in the pocket), deliberately provoke the paranoia of TSA scans. In one image, a necklace of razors hangs visibly beneath a milky camisole, pressed in semi-transparent folds against a black ground. Other weapons, including a pistol and serrated knife, were in fact made out of paper to create the monoprint—a taunting gesture which is nonetheless visually elegant. Needless to say, these transparent garments also carry an erotic charge, suggesting that what surveillance perceives is always something desired as well as something feared.
Adam Harvey’s designs are even more provocative because they can be purchased by ordinary consumers. The Brooklyn-based artist has created a line of drone-proof clothing: a burqa, hoodie, and hijab made of heat-concealing material, shielding the wearer from thermo-surveillance. As a political statement, the work has the force (rare for an artwork) of a practical solution; as a fashion statement, the Stealth Wear combines the flamboyance of chrome with the austerity of the burqa and hijab. Like McQuillen’s X-Ray Series and Chishty’s decorative drones, Harvey’s apparel suspends an attractive and even mesmerizing aesthetic before a sobering political struggle.
The variety of works displayed in Panopticon, which include vacant sex-cams, Twitter hacks, a model city and a robotic vanity mirror, clearly stress the ubiquity of surveillance as an issue. It is no longer a matter of a government watching its people, or even of hackers watching their victims—but rather, of everybody watching everybody, in both directions, in a system of maximal informational access. Privacy, in such a system, is clearly undergoing a paradigm shift, the danger, potential, and even humor of which Panopticon sees with a clear eye.
Panopticon Runs through July 25th
Utah Museum of Contemporary Art
20 South West Temple
Salt Lake City, UT 84101