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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008

The Public Eye

Art Review

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   When Richard Sennett published his provocative thesis on the diminishing boundaries between public and private selves in the late '70s, things like reality TV and the Patriot Act were unheard of. Today they're incontrovertible facts that have further breached this boundary. An exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center titled "Under Surveillance" prompts viewers to confront both culturally and institutionally endorsed forms of spying.

  Two of the most commanding pieces in the exhibit are Golan Levin's Opto-Isolator and a collaborative piece by Yevgeniya Kaganovich, Dale Kaminski and Mat Rappaport titled We. The former is a mechanical eye embedded in a shiny swollen appendage protruding from the gallery wall. The robotic eye swivels around to follow viewers, sometimes engaging them in an absurd staring match and at other times appearing disquietly human in its introspective gaze. Despite the fact that the piece blurs the boundaries between object and viewer, there is only a superficial reciprocity between the two. The device may well be recording what it sees, but our innate desire to be privy to any information regarding ourselves is in this case thwarted.

  We, whose title is more than likely a reference to Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin's influential 1920s novel, offers the most strongly dystopian vision of surveillance. The piece is comprised of two parts: One is a cluster of helium-filled weather balloons-age-old spying devices-that ominously float about the center of the room and force viewers to walk around the cats-cradle of strings that keep them in place. The other is a raised area resembling a pulpit on which is placed a headset emitting a stream of tangled sentences. Once the viewer puts on the headset, his conspicuously public position on the pulpit is belied by the intimate act of eavesdropping. The latter, however, becomes a futile experience in which one is submerged in an indistinguishable sea of voices from which only the occasional dislocated phrase floats up to our consciousness.

  In fact, the fallibility of the all-seeing eye (or in this case, ear) seems the prevalent theme in the exhibit. Rather than cloaking their wariness toward systems of surveillance in the playful ambivalence of artists like Camille Utterback or Steve Appleton, the artists here illustrate its flaws by exaggerating layers of physical or temporal distance between the object and the viewer. A good example is Daniel Goodwin's Chats08. Goodwin has created interior models of the homes of people who share his last name and offers viewers live images of these mock interiors via a computer screen nestled in a black briefcase. We can discern very little in these grainy images, and underlying their vagueness is the innate absurdity of the fact that what we're looking at is not a titillating view into a stranger's life but a pointless contrivance, like a window that faces a brick wall.

  Goodwin's work demonstrates the fact that everyday life has retreated so far into the private domain that its connection with actual physical space is sometimes more of a perceived connection than a tangible one. His work confronts us with the frailty of that connection, as well as the damning evidence of our own voyeuristic appetites. After all, who can claim that their initial surprise at the audacity of his piece wasn't followed by a pang of disappointment that it's not the real deal?

  "Under Surveillance" runs through Sept. 28.

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