Everybody’s Watching

"Cloud Farming" (2014) by Addie Wagenknecht

“Cloud Farming” (2014) by Addie Wagenknecht

People wander the streets of New York City, electrons in the metallic veins of a million machines. Where the Manhattan Bridge leads to Brooklyn, you can see the way the islands are connected—the synapses we have created in our collective human mind. Through the air fly billions of ideas, the ones and zeros of wireless internet. We are living in a world where we know about Snowden, wondering if the birds above us are in fact drones, if our footsteps are being tracked, what eyes are gazing at us as we go about our daily lives. The ideas that fly can be captured, and in the Bitforms Gallery, there is one such fishing net—the piece Cloud Farming (2014). Addie Wagenknecht, has created Shellshock—an exhibition dedicated to the eyes that watch in a post-Snowden era. Are we being seen? Or is it worse to be watched not by humans but by blind, clumsy machines?

Eerily enticing, you see it from the gallery window: Cloud Farming—a jagged mass of black plastic triangles hanging from the ceiling. The sculpture harvests Wi-Fi signals from the air around it—everybody’s internet, everybody’s phone. This machine sees all our information, and displays it to the world in a code of flashing green lights which pepper the piece from underneath, like sores from a strange, 21st century plague. They flash in a seemingly random, disconcerting pattern, and one wonders what it all means: which of the green lights are a porn video? Which are a conversation between the family of a recently deceased mother? Which are hackers, or the NSA themselves? We have no way to know what exact data these lights represent, but we know the machine knows; it knows more than we do. The jagged but beautiful form of the triangles echo the larger formation. They are arranged in two wing-like masses, which stare at each other like partners in crime. The energetic, upward curves of the wings, however, are balanced out by the downward curves of many Ethernet cables, which connect each wing to the other. Altogether, this contraption gives the appearance of a bird weighed down by wires. The thick black wires somewhat distract from the rest of the sculpture, like scribbles on top of a painting, reminding us to consider the limitations of machines. It is perhaps not too late to stop them from overtaking. And yet, the entire premise of the sculpture is that it ‘farms’ Wi-Fi signals—the ultimate wireless form. This irony continues with the juxtaposition of the sculpture with a small, white, cement bird perching on the floor in the corner. Its wings are stretched as if in flight, with no wires weighing it down. But it is on the ground, and its head would have been flying into the wall, if the bird were not beheaded. The delicate, curving, smooth whiteness of this poor creature contrasts the black jaggedness of the large machine. In this world, beautiful nature is overshadowed by a superior, aggressive, mechanical counterpart.

As we walk further into the gallery, we are greeted by two men dressed as traditional sweets vendors, who offer you bright pink cotton candy from a bright pink stall. Since Cloud Farming is separated from the rest of the gallery by a wall, the candy stall gives the impression of entering a theme park, and enjoying the art for its entertainment value. Contextualizing this obvious social commentary with images of childhood entertainment satirizes the consumerism behind the government institutions critiqued. The gesture of eating this candy as we walk around also serves as our playing of characters: naïve members of the consumerist masses. Perhaps we will try to break free from this character, but perhaps we are enjoying our candy too much. The childhood reminiscence of the candy embodies the coddled feeling of an overly protective government: how much freedom are we willing to give up for comfort and security?

On the right-hand wall, is a piece that continues the Cloud Farming machine. Five large microchip boards hang in a line on the wall, with more eerie green lights crawling across and between them like ants. They are connected with masses of the same thick, black wires, jumbled in curls and accumulating on the floor on the left side. The disorganization of the wires comes across not as weakness, but as a fearsome carelessness which does not stop the data from shooting around at incomprehensible speeds. XXXX.XXX (2014) is an ominous reminder of the data’s ceaseless movement.

The opposite wall has a piece about seeing -r-xr-xr-x (2014). Two surveillance cameras, encased in gold leaf, are placed diagonally staring at each other. One at the bottom-left corner of the gallery, one at the top-right. The extravagance of CCTV is mocked here; presented as surveillance for its own sake—what good is a camera staring at another camera? The surveillance state has been taken to an indulgent extent, where we have replaced our own eyes with cameras, documenting for the sake of documenting. From iPhones to the NSA, our seeing is as artificial as the preservatives in our food. Instead of discerning human eyes, we are watched and overpowered by clumsy technology, which blindly follows instructions.

At the back of the room, there is a painting which is part of a series called Black Hawk Paint. It is a series of  paintings created by flying drones over the canvas and using simple commands to fling black acrylic paint onto the work. The splattered formations on the canvas are reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, especially since Wagenknecht uses the same term he did— “action painting.” However, where Pollock’s action paintings are a gesture of liberation from the established use of easel and brush, Wagenknecht’s action paintings are an ironic ode to the callousness with which drones shoot, and the callousness with which the government engages in surveillance. The liberty of the government to be so callous is the imprisonment of the citizens, powerless under big brother’s watch. In Wagenknecht’s vision, seeing is now about utility—killing, protecting, selling—a utility for which the goals can be achieved without the people being killed, protected, and sold to actually being seen by human beings. The seeing is now done by machines: they do not perceive or empathize—they just process data. The results of this are messy. Two rough, thick horizontal lines drag across the bottom of the canvas, with thorny, spike-like lines slashing through them, reminiscent of barbed wire. On the right-hand side, there is a circular blur, like an explosion. At the top-left, there is also an implied epicenter from which the rest of the form seems to be emanating. Other than the lines at the bottom, the painting is blank but for splatters that resemble shrapnel, exploding from this epicenter in three clusters. To remind us how these paintings were created, there is a miniature tank in front of the canvas, 1:24 Tank, Black (2014), which appears to be shooting at it, replacing the role of drone. The drone may be a machine of surveillance, providing images of the world, but it is a machine of war, too, and its images are clumsy and harmful. The tank is black, and bejeweled with a coat of glass crystals. Again, we are reminded of consumerism. Will we subscribe to the glorification of warfare? Will we ignore it and continue allowing arms companies to make business for themselves?

Though the scope of machines will change, the questions will remain the same—what will the power of surveillance machines be used for? Will we remember that we are being watched? At the end of their visit, the viewers leave the gallery, iPhones in hand, cameras overhead. They rejoin the river of people on the street, each one a byte in a social data-stream. They think and they worry, chat and debate, and live their lives under the watch of a violent eye. And in the Bitforms Gallery, by the Manhattan Bridge, green lights continue to flicker, as our lives fly naked through the air.