TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1995

DANGER DIRTY DATA: A PROJECT FOR ARTFORUM

IN HER COMBINATION of obsessive paranoia and tenacious social science, Julia Scher evokes a female Harry Caul (antihero of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation) with a weathered copy of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish under her arm. A typical, quietly disturbing installation, Predictive Engineering, 1993, involves video cameras, both hidden and visible, that feed monitors hovering over the gallery space; hapless viewers are multiply scrutinized—by the cameras, other gallery-goers, themselves, and, by implication, some sinister omniscient database. This endless mirroring is occasionally jammed by disruptive prerecorded images—naked women fighting in the gallery, a guard with a dog—and by surreal “status updates” rendered in declamatory san serif caps: “DATA HARVESTING. CONTROL SEIZURES . . . ON NOW.” Although Scher and her “staff” may patrol the space clad in kitschy, vaguely S&M-ish security uniforms, the Machine, a female HAL whose ominously ingratiating voice oozes from hidden speakers, is clearly mistress.

Scher is one of a number of emerging artists who deliberately misuse technology to expose its hidden ideological mechanisms. Demonstrating our complicity in the proliferating technologies used to surveil both our physical and our virtual identities, she toys with the notion of scopophilia, the cheap, reflexive thrill of looking. A constant stream of pleasantries from the speakers reassures us that although “DATA HARVESTING” is “ON NOW,” we are “free” to “enter the system” for our own benefit, and the benevolent Machine will keep us informed of its actions. The general effect is of courteous efficiency, though the Machine occasionally burps out troubling signs of self-awareness and doubt. “WHERE ARE THE CONTROLS?,” one of the monitors asks, its quizzical anxiety revealing that the paranoiac’s nightmare of a supercomputing Central Scrutinizer is not an accurate profile of our surveillance society. Still, surveillance technology’s spread goes unabated, preempting debates on privacy. Infinitely interconnected but centerless, the Web is controlled by everyone and no one. It is a machine we cannot turn off because we live inside it. In Macintosh parlance, the surveillance network “cannot be deleted because it is in use.”

Given that one of Scher’s recurring tropes is “Information America,” a fictional data-web named after a real on-line personal–information–tracking service, it is not surprising that she has extended her activities to the World Wide Web. “Securityland,” a multipart project for Artforum, may also be found in the “Project ”cluster of a website called adaweb.1 In one section, “Access Control,” virtual visitors are asked to fill out a questionnaire; their answers determine how they will interact with the rest of the project. “Securityland” also allows Scher to indulge her predilection for absurdist technobabble, promising that her system uses the “brightest, newest and fastest . . . MASTER AND SLAVE VOICE READERS, CONSPIRATORIAL ELECTRICIANS AND ROOM DEBUGGERS, CLEAVAGE TONGS AND BUTTOCKS ANALYSIS TONGS.”

With its infinite links to packets of (potentially “dirty”) data and its decentralized, labyrinthine design, the World Wide Web is an ideal medium for Scher. Indeed it might almost have been created by Scher herself, in her ongoing search for increasingly user-friendly surveillance systems that attract as they track. Scher is currently working on an interactive morphing installation for San Francisco’s MoMA: museum-goers will watch themselves literally become one with the institution’s glitzy new building.

Andrew Hultkrans

NOTE

1. “Securityland” will be on the Web for eight to ten weeks beginning in the second week of September. The address for the website, which is coordinated by Benjamin Weil, is adaweb.com.