On viewChapter NY
March 31 – May 5, 2019
In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff describes our contemporary political and economic regime, in which physical movements and online social relations are carefully tracked in order to mine activities related to consumer choices and habits. She argues that, following upon previous stages of industrial capitalism, managerial capitalism, and financial capitalism, our present reality might be called “surveillance capitalism.”
Perhaps most terrifying of all, Zuboff shows how the goal of this system is not simply to predict consumerist patterns, but also to modify and direct them—a theme that artist Aria Dean takes up in her exhibition (meta)models or how i got my groove back at Chapter NY. The primary material used in the pieces on view here is two-way mirror glass—the sort found in commercial, legal, and medical environments, meant to facilitate the observation of human subjects. Two flat humanoid figures made from this glass jut perpendicularly from the gallery walls; another is attached directly to the rear wall, while a fourth stands upright on the floor (all works 2019). Although not life-sized, they connote a human form somewhere between joy and vulnerability, and their mirrored surfaces are ready to reflect both the viewer’s gaze and whatever preconceptions viewers project onto them. Monitoring these figures, as well as the gallery-goers peering at them, is a fake surveillance camera—Dummy Cam (icon)—lodged in a corner near the ceiling, its red light blinking behind smoky plastic.
During 2014, protest marches held across the United States in the wake of the police shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown, one of the chants that echoed in the streets was “Hands up, don’t shoot.” The chant describes a gesture of pure exposure, yet one that registers very differently—and with very different possible repercussions—for white and nonwhite bodies. At Chapter NY, Dean’s four silhouetted figures raise or wave their arms in the air. All four need some form of support to keep them upright, whether attached to the wall or slipped into a wooden base. All four share the subtitle fam. Yet their ghostly qualities keep them elusive: they mirror the world around them without divulging much about themselves. Their open arms may be signaling distress, the beginning of an embrace, or something in between (one figure might mimic a crucifixion). They are only as real as their viewers make them, a quality that their reflective surfaces augment.
The rise of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology has rendered suspicious the idea that the human mind, even aided by science, can completely “know” an object. The other central work in Dean’s exhibition is a 6:04-minute video entitled (meta)models: “I” is a crowd (demo) (note the I in quotations). We hear a debate among three male, African American voices mostly concerning ontological issues (the thing, the void, substance, nothingness). Meanwhile, a camera circles a rectangular cube made entirely of mirrors that is placed in slightly rundown outdoor urban locations, and inside a bar or club underneath the shimmering lights of a slowly rotating disco ball. The object is shot from below, from above, from a slight distance, close up. And yet, neither the videographer nor any other human figures are revealed, although the mirrors occasionally catch shadows.
A metamodel is a model of a model, an abstraction of an abstraction. With works made from the same reflective material, rendered in multiple shapes and set in varied locations, Dean seems to be playing with the idea of differences within the same. A voice in the video says as much when describing how the existence of one thing also announces the existence of something else, just as “‘I’ is a crowd.” That this is also an ontology of blackness is not exactly made explicit—there are no overt visual representations of humans in the show; yet the signifiers accrue throughout the exhibition, especially in the video’s dialogue between African American vernacular and a traditionally—although of course not exclusively—white, European discourse around ontological thought (there are echoes of Adrian Piper’s practice here).
Dean is seeking to loosen concepts of Blackness from Blackness as a category, while at the same time showing—or reflecting—how much that category is the result of what has been projected onto it. This projection, in turn, is a form of surveillance and containment that has been fundamental to the violence inflicted for centuries. It is not a coincidence that the ending of Jim Crow laws in the United States was followed by a surge in prison building. Dean’s silhouetted figures aim partly to elude this epistemological and physical entrapment. There may be much to see and read into them, but viewers do so partly at their own—and the figures’—hazard.