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‘Hansel and Gretel’ (and Ai WeiWei): Exploring and Exposing the Reaches of Surveillance

"In an age of constant scrutiny and data storage beyond the knowledge and control of ordinary citizens, 'Hansel and Gretel' is perhaps less fantastical and more menacing than it may at first appear."

Elements of psychological menace, wonder, fear and surprise are part of a new immersive, interactive installation at the Park Avenue Armory — cheekily named

Hansel & Gretel

— that brings to life what it’s like to live in a dystopian, eerie landscape where our lives are under constant modern-day surveillance.

The cavernous space of the Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall (as well as the elevated first floor of the Head House) have been transformed to give a glimpse of what it’s like to have your every movement tracked, monitored and recorded. The installation runs from June 7 through Aug. 6. Created by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the project marks 15 years of collaboration between the three, who previously worked together on the 2012 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion and the National Stadium in Beijing.

The work pulls together Weiwei’s understanding of the impact that immersive environments have on the artistic experience, and on Jacques and Pierre’ experience showcasing the emotional interplay between the public and private domain, says Pierre Audi, the Armory’s Artistic Director.

Slipping inside the Armory, visitors weave through bunkers in the dark before encountering a 5-foot high bluff that fills the cavernous space of the Drill Hall. Once in the open, visitors are followed by a bright, white spotlight that tracks each person as they walk across the hall. Attempting to navigate a disorienting terrain, visitors’ movements are recorded by dozens of infrared cameras, instantaneously broadcast to a global online audience, and then fed back into the installation, all without the visitor’s immediate knowledge. Surveillance drones buzz overhead, while images of visitors are projected randomly onto the floor.

The installation twists the Hansel and Gretel fairytale by insinuating that instead of being lost in the forest, we modern day Hansels & Gretels are tracked so voraciously that one cannot hide at all. When entering the first-floor Head House, visitors can see the impact of that tracking. Confronted by their own image from the Drill Hall, the installation makes clear just how pervasive surveillance can be. This project is designed to provoke pressing questions about the right to privacy in a hyper-monitored world, said Rebecca Robertson, executive producer and president of Park Avenue Armory. The work “explores how surveillance transforms public space into a controlled environment where individuals forfeit their anonymity.”

Utilizing state-of-the-art surveillance technology, the installation is both an enticingly playful and unnerving experience of what it means to be constantly watched, of public space without anonymity, said the project’s curators, Tom Eccles and Hans Ulrich Obrist, in a statement. “In an age of constant scrutiny and data storage beyond the knowledge and control of ordinary citizens, Hansel & Gretel is perhaps less fantastical and more menacing than it may at first appear,” they said. The Armory’s website offers additional resources and a live video stream. 

The Armory’s site offers additional resources and a live video stream.  

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Hansel & Gretel Dedicated Site and Live Stream

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