Continuing from October.
I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about Ai Weiwei. I’m not totally sure why—definitely a reaction to hype but there was more going on too. Anyway, I was in the Bay Area for a week and while there were many other museums I wanted to see, the big Ai Weiwei show on Alcatraz was not on my list. But my family bought tickets and we had a nice outing to Alcatraz to see the show. I’m glad I went and I can report that Ai also completely won me over.
Ai Weiwei’s work presented a very interesting double bill with the Trevor Paglen show I’d seen a few days earlier. There are overlaps—specifically the Edward Snowden area—where the effect of surveillance on free speech and national security and how observation and confinement are often two sides of the same coin. But where Paglen is concerned about surveillance and our lack of awareness of being observed, Ai instead addresses the situation where we know we are being observed and his art concerns the resulting cost to freedom that this entails.
That scary thing about governmental surveillance is that it makes no sense unless there is some consequence for saying the wrong thing. Most of us assume that what we say is if little importance yet at the same time, the observer effect does seem to apply to more than just physics. Being watched does imply a certain amount of being controlled.
Situating the exhibition on Alcatraz is a masterstroke. There are few prisons with an international reputation as a prison space—let alone a maximum security space—that also function as a tourist destination. Repurposing a tourist prison, with its already-existing information about how prisoners are controlled and watched, allows for visitors to physically experience how closely surveillance and incarceration can be related.* Experiencing this exhibition involves walking through both prisoner-exclusive spaces and guard-exclusive spaces and really seeing how they inform each other.
*After all, the panopticon was a prison design.
Ai Weiwei’s point though is that as much as this crackdown on free speech is bad, it’s imperative that we continue to speak—even after you know the state is trying to silence you. And as heavy as this subject is, Ai treats it as something joyful and beautiful. To exercise your freedom of speech is to be free—no matter that the state is doing everything in its power to restrict your freedom.
His kites are a joyous, beautiful way of making this point. The juxtaposition of flight and color with the heavy content and the situation inside prison allows for so many different interpretations. Taking flight from within the walls of a prison. Or being restricted from that freedom. Desiring to fly but being weighed down by all the heavy baggage that comes with that freedom. Or being free and carrying and accepting the inherent risks of that freedom. They call out individual countries for restricting speech while implying that free speech will always be trying to take off and free itself.
The Lego portraits also touch on this by being creative free-expression* childrens toys used for a serious purpose. They also demonstrate how so many small pieces can work together to deliver a message. I can see what he’s trying to do with these and they do look kind of cool. But even with all that they don’t quite work for me since everything feels a bit forced and the result is less than the sum of its parts. But the parts are still good—especially the list which forces us to think about who’s pictured** and what they are being silenced for saying. The medium in which the portraits are realized doesn’t add much to this. Portraits alone, and the acknowledgment that these people exist and matter, are enough.
*Well, ideally. In practice Legos have become a bit too model-like and instruction-based for my taste.
**And who’s not. For example, doing a gender headcount is recommended here.
I really loved Stay Tuned though. Sitting in a jail cell and listening to the words or music created by people who the state has tried to silence through incarceration? Quite a powerful way to experience their voices. And an even more powerful way to prove how those words have also lived on and not been silenced. While not quite the same experience as being in a prison cell, I highly recommend listening to the the recordings on the @Large website.
The sense of listening to all this is both that free speech cannot be silenced and that governments from all over the world—including the US—have tried, and will continue to try, to silence people anyway. I had a special soft spot for the Víctor Jara room* because I can understand Spanish but hearing languages from all over is a wonderful demonstration at how this is a universal human right.
*I also wondered whether Aloha ʻOe could/should have been included here.
Ai’s global point of view in selecting the detainees in this section is wonderful and deserves special note. I’m not sure a western artist would have been so sensitive about selecting from all over the world. That Ai manages to both show a global awareness while not letting the US off the hook for its own abuses is a perfect balancing act.
Blossom is also great. Where the other works on display are pretty heady, it’s nice to have something at such a smaller, subtler scale. The porcelain flowers are so delicate and beautiful. It doesn’t matter whether they represent hope or joy or just whatever small amount of fragile humanity you can hold on to while being imprisoned. Where the Legos ended up being less than the sum of their parts, these are more—most dramatically for me in the empty rooms where you can’t get close to the flowers and have to take in the entire, empty space with just a trace element of humanity and freedom present in one far away corner.
It’s Ai’s Illumination piece that sealed the deal for me. So. Smart. Just two rooms with a sound recording to listen to in each one.* But rather than being about individuals, this piece is about cultures—American Indians and Tibetans—that have seen attempts at governmental erasure and silencing. That a Chinese artist making a piece for specific installation in the US is making this comparison between the two countries is smart. Locating this piece in the psychiatric observation rooms as a way of commenting on how this erasure works is brilliant.
*As with Stay Tuned, the recordings are on the @Large website. They’re worth listening to even without the psych ward experience.
And the site-specificity goes beyond brilliance. Ai doesn’t just use a “native” chant, he uses a Hopi one—with the full awareness that Hopis were some of the first governmental prisoners on Alcatraz and that their imprisonment was specifically because of the fight to keep their culture and freedom. That Alcatraz was later occupied by American Indians just emphasizes the importance of this piece in this location. There are deep wounds here and acknowledging and learning about them is something all of us non-natives need to do.
The parallels with Tibet are also interesting. I think they’re completely valid both in a government eradication way but also in a whitey appropriation way.* It’s a good reminder to us that as much as we like to shake our heads at what the Chinese government is doing, we would do well to look at our own government, and its history, as well. As for the appropriation stuff, I can’t help but wonder how much the attempts at erasure have made it easier to do, whether it’s perceived as an orphan culture or as a way of raising “awareness.”
*Similar to what Annu Matthew’s work reminded me of.
Still, despite the attempts at erasure, Tibetans and Native Americans are present and continue fighting for their freedoms. As sobering as it is to see all the oppression in all of the artwork on display, Ai’s point about continuing to speak and be free carries the day. I didn’t come away from this exhibition depressed at the state of things. This is artwork that reminds you, pushes you, to use your freedoms. There’s inherently uplifting about that.
As has become somewhat standard*, the San José Museum of Art put together a show featuring non-white modern artists in a way which works as both an introduction to another culture while being tremendously relevant to the existing San José community. In this case, it’s their Postdate show of Indian photography.
Walking through this show reminded me a lot of Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show in how it features a highly visual culture which is using and remixing old images into new artwork, creating pieces that not only reference the old meanings but also evolve the imagery into something that’s currently relevant. In this case, a lot of the old imagery references India’s colonial past and got me thinking a lot about photography as it applies post-colonial cultures dealing with the legacy of colonialism and colonial images.
Despite photography’s (correct) description as being a democratic medium, there’s also its history of tropes and power dynamics which still informs a lot of the way we approach and react to images. As point of view gathers historical momentum that it’s good or noteworthy, it becomes increasingly difficult to break away from it and see other points of view. This isn’t a function of copying as much as there’s momentum built up in the idea of “good” that most people can’t escape or don’t know how to break. It’s one thing to be able to represent yourself. It’s quite another to do so in a way which breaks free from all of what you’ve learned is the “correct” way to view yourself.*
*Something I explore a bit in an older post on self representation, this time involving American Indians.
Postdate breaks out of the traditional views. While none of the photos at San José explicitly reference The People of India, they reference similar works, or works which grew out of the stereotypes in there, or the stereotypes themselves which have become the face of India in the West. This isn’t just photography as self-representation, it’s reappropriation of non-representative works. Which is very cool to see.
Pushpamala N.’s photography in particular is relevant and notable here in how, similar to Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems, she’s actually performing a lot of the cultural baggage which she absorbed and grew up with. But these themes are in a lot of the photography on display. I especially liked Guari Gill’s work and how, in addition to addressing the representation issues in how India and Indians have been photographed by the west by showing non-trope images and collaborating with her subjects, a lot of her work is also evoking the physical history of photography by being printed on glass and becoming a physical object which feels more like an ambrotype or glass plate than a photographic print.
I also really liked Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya’s work of photographs of the National Instruments factory and how, while it looks like ruin porn, it explicitly looks at the history and infrastructure behind producing cameras made by, and made for, Indians.* It’s not just seductive aging textures. What was made here, who it was made for, and the implications of the manufacturing (and its cessation) matter. In this case, these photos ask what it means to produce your own tools of self-representation as well as what it means to no longer have those tools available in the modern globalized world. Does it matter where a camera is made?
*That the National 35 appears to actually be a King Regula Sprinty because National Instruments purchased the production equipment from the original German manufacturer adds a whole new layer of interesting complications and food for thought here.
I saved Annu Palakunnathu Matthew for last. Partly because her work was very funny. But mainly because she loops in Native Americans and tries to deal with what it means to be Indian in a culture which defaults to a very different image of what “Indian” means. Her reenactments of the Edward Curtis photos work on so many different levels. When displayed in an American museum, they remind us of our own colonial history while also calling out the falseness of the supposed truth in those images. They also draw parallels between how elements of both cultures are appropriated by progressive white Americans. And they capture the humor that results in trying to distinguish which kind of Indian we’re talking about.
One of the constant discussions in photography has been about the issues of surveillance and voyeurism and the appropriateness of observing and recording the lives of other people. Much of this discussion is as much about the identity of whoever’s doing the recording as much as it’s about the actual act itself. Some people get upset by government surveillance while others find individual photographers more threatening.
I’ve seen numerous projects over the years which push the issues with regard to individual photographers. Hidden cameras, infrared flash and film, telephoto lenses, anything really that allows you to take pictures of people in situations they wouldn’t want to be observed in. At their best, these kinds of photos make me think about the nature of photography and my practice of it. At their worst they end up being creepy and creepshotty. But the experience is always as much about the individual photographer and his technique in capturing people candidly as it is about the subjects themselves. Looking at the photos makes it easy to put ourselves in the photographer’s shoes; we see what he sees and our enjoyment of, or reaction to, the image often aligns itself with his intent.
Trevor Paglen though is one of the few photographers who addresses the other side of the discussion. Paglen investigates the pervasive surveillance by the state and its effect on all of us as subjects, or possible subjects, of that surveillance.* His show at the Altman Siegel gallery is small** but extremely thought-provoking in this regard.
*His Last Pictures project is sort of related in that it covers the infrastructure of surveillance but is a much different provocation in that it asks questions about what kinds of images and things humans will leave behind after our extinction.
**You can see everything in the show on the website.
It’s especially interesting in that rather than being angry or outraged, Paglen’s work is very quiet and contemplative. It’s easy to be upset about rights abuses and blame politicians for prioritizing immediate comfort over principles. It’s quite another thing to really think about the nature of how much we, as a society, have invested in watching ourselves and what it means to have that subtext lurking underneath everything.
The photos are pretty in a minimal, natural, elegant way.* Which is exactly the point. Just underneath the quiet scene is a ton of infrastructure dedicated to watching and monitoring and controlling us. All of us. A few images are paired with maps that feature a lot more information** about the location and the nature of the infrastructure there. This information demonstrates the magnitude of the surveillance while also giving it a material presence. As clean and elegant as the photos may be, the maps show the messiness we’re not supposed to know about. They work really well together as diptychs and really increase the sense of wrongness and unease that I get when just looking at the photos.
*I happen to like minimalist seascapes anyway so that’s a bit of a bonus.
**Much of which comes from the Edward Snowden disclosures.
Paglen’s photos are also especially noteworthy here because they’re photographs where the actual subject of the image isn’t just hidden but is actually incomprehensible without any of the provided context. This isn’t merely hard to do with photography, it’s not how photography is supposed to work at all. Yet Paglen manages to not only make it work but turns all the potential problems into features. How do you take photos of hidden infrastructure? Don’t show it at all and instead imply that it could be anywhere and everywhere.
Rather than showing what we think of when we think about surveillance—cities and security cameras and other places where physical crimes may be expected to occur—these quiet scenes tell us that we can’t get away from that eye. And that it’s not being watched physically that’s the really creepy part of the surveillance state.
What’s creepy is the sense that the surveillance is everywhere and watching everything. What’s creepy is that we’ve all bought into the system that supports this. What’s creepy is realizing that as much as this upsets me, there’s part of me that’s glad it’s there.
Which makes it nice that Autonomy Cube is also in the gallery. It’s always fun to have some artwork that you can interact with. And while this isn’t a major bit of interaction—just connecting to a Wireless Access Point which routes everything through Tor—it’s enough make me start to think about the alternatives. The idea that it’s part of an ostensibly private/anonymous internet is comforting. At the same time I also felt myself questioning whether or not I could trust it. Or whether anonymity is even all it’s cracked up to be.
As much as I may not trust the government, it is the devil that I know. Anonymousland meanwhile is unknowable. And the internet so far has not been particular good about demonstrating that anonymous cowards are any better.
Plus there’s the whole question about the wisdom of changing your behavior because you can’t trust the government to act responsibly.* I totally understand wanting to protect yourself. But this is also the first step toward victim blaming. The scale and scope of surveillance should prompt us to think about reining it in or providing proper guidelines about its application, not how each of us should protect ourselves better on an individual basis.
*A point Snowden himself makes at the end of this video.
Got away for a weekend in Half Moon Bay last August. Didn’t do anything besides wander on various beaches. Stopped off at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Tried out the brand new Devil’s Slide walk. But spent most of the time in Half Moon Bay proper just wandering up and down the coast.