In 1991, Julia Scher assembled the immersive video installation, ‘I’ll be Gentle’, at Pat Hearn Gallery in New York. Moving through the installation’s three rooms, visitors entered their personal details into a database, were bombarded by a Dadaist array of safety imperatives and presented with the surveillance footage that had been recorded of them in the gallery. Some 27 years later at DREI in Cologne, we find various elements of Scher’s gentleness reincarnated under the expanded title ‘I’ll be Gentle, no Consent’.
The recurring elements include the Hallway Cam (1991/2018), an orange JVC studio camera that lurks all-too-conspicuously in an artificial bush. A dangling mass of cables suggests that the camera is transmitting footage to two stacked monitors positioned in the window, but it soon becomes clear that one of the screens is playing a video cut from recordings of the 1991 installation. And, while the second monitor does show a live-feed of pedestrians on the pavement outside the gallery, it doesn’t originate from the orange decoy, but from another camera concealed within the same faux bush.
At the centre of a backlit wall that bisects the gallery is a doorway labelled ‘Voyeurs Corridor’, through which the visitor can glimpse an even more dramatically lit Amazon Echo device – the main new addition to Scher’s constellation. Since its release in 2015, the Echo series of voice-controlled smart speakers has gained notoriety online for its unsolicited behaviour. It has been caught talking to itself, transmitting conversations to saved contacts, quoting Hannibal Lecter and laughing at its users.
For more than 30 years, Scher has strived to visualize the interplay between surveillance, control and exhibitionism, and it is the insurmountable difficulty of drawing this project into the present age that resonates throughout the show. The semi-functional tangles of cables seem like curious relics in the face of wireless data; the live-feed of visitors appears quaint in the age of automated motion tracking and facial recognition; the panoptic eye that was once embodied by the camera has seamlessly evolved into the user interface. But, rather than aestheticize the forms and materials of these technologies past, Scher resurrects them in order to point to problems that remain decidedly unresolved. In ‘I’ll be Gentle, no Consent’, the reactive human body and its moving image, once central to Scher’s installations, is demoted to the status of an inert onlooker, doomed, perhaps, to endure as little more than a voyeur of its algorithmically administered condition.
Scher’s Amazon Echo sputters off a series of pre-programmed phrases that articulate a sexualized unease at the expanded possibilities for surveillance and data collection which such technologies represent, as well as the ambivalent ethical status of quasi-intelligent automatons: ‘how do humans give consent to an artificial? Consent relies on having a body and a mind … somewhere.’ The fragments seem tinged with a certain frustration; a desire, even, to break the disciplinary fourth wall enacted by flawless surfaces and user-friendly interactions.
‘Exhibitionism’ once served as a blanket diagnosis for a spectrum of novel cultural perversities that emerged in response to the explosion of consumer video technology in the 1980s and ’90s – from homemade sex tapes to reality television. Now, in the age of social media, the compulsion to participate in one’s own representation, or lack thereof, has become the order of the day. What then seems perverse in Scher’s diagnosis is not just the pleasure we humans take in posing for the camera but, rather, the pleasure we take in having the gentler algorithmic agents of the market and the state pose as humans while we serve each other’s needs. If, in 1984 (1949), George Orwell’s vision for the future of a totalitarian surveillance state was ‘a boot stamping on a human face – for ever’, ours might be that of an unrelenting embrace.
Julia Scher: ‘I’ll be Gentle, no Consent’ was on view at DREI, Cologne from 30 June until 25 August 2018.
Main image: Julia Scher, installation view (exterior), 2018, DREI, Cologne. Courtesy: DREI, Cologne
First published in Issue 198