New York

Julia Scher

Pat Hearn Gallery

During the ’80s, many artists expressed paranoia about the ways in which our actions, thoughts, desires, and ultimately fates are monitored, manipulated, and determined by forces beyond our individual control—notably the media, advertising, corporate interests, the government, and the military-industrial complex. One of the most cogent and inspired artistic embodiments of this fear has been Julia Scher’s knowledgeable manipulations of one manifestation of such forces, the security systems now used everywhere from convenience stores to high-tech laboratories to limited-access government institutions.

Scher typically installs functional security/surveillance systems in gallery spaces in a seemingly straightforward manner. But on the screens and monitors that present statistical information and live footage of the areas under surveillance, the artist also inserts menus with offerings such as “Regression Chemistries” and “Chemical Castration,” grouped under rubrics like “Anti-Contact Devices” and “Interrogation and Bio-Merge Centers,” thus integrating the jargon of psychosexual and biomedical engineering (more insidious ways of manipulating minds and bodies) into systems ostensibly designed for spatial monitoring.

In this, her most ambitious installation to date, Scher has infiltrated the entire gallery, including the director’s office and bathrooms, with cameras. The main exhibition space on the first floor features a sign informing viewers that they are entering an “ULTRA HIGH TECHNOLOGY SURVEILLANCE RECORDING ZONE”; monitors provide continuous footage of this and other areas under the cameras’ unblinking eyes. While it is momentarily diverting to glimpse back-room spaces (reversing the watcher/watched roles), it is even more fascinating to see oneself and other gallery visitors being filmed (intermittently and from unpredictable angles). But with regard to this aspect of Scher’s production, she is preceded by Bruce Nauman, who has been manipulating cameras turned on and at gallery visitors for some years now.

Scher’s contribution (aside from the deployment of her impressive technical know-how) lies in the introduction of the slogans and menu items from surveillance programs. Unfortunately, these terms are merely arrayed on the screens, gathered (or invented) but not critically filtered; their use here does not advance beyond the obvious control analogy to comment more specifically either on the ubiquity of surveillance or on a society obsessed with accumulating “useful” data—from urine samples to statistics regarding sexual orientations—about its unwitting citizens.

And what exactly does Scher, who designs and also installs security systems outside the gallery context for a living, think of all of this? I can’t tell whether Scher intends an earnest critique or whether the flip irony of her installations (this one is entitled “I’LL BE GENTLE,” and her company is called Safe and Secure, in a coy takeoff on couture and cosmetic marketing), merely reflects a precocious young mind playing with perverse manifestations of grown-up intelligence. Scher has identified one of the most absurd yet frightening developments of contemporary society, but until she infuses her installations with more pointed commentary, she risks being dismissed like the hackers who fiddle with computer systems out of sheer boredom, their desire to disrupt business-as-usual as twisted as the business they seek to obstruct.

Lois Nesbitt