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On our watch: Art exhibit explores surveillance culture

A visitor to the Brew House Arts gallery looks at Shori Sims' "Ultraviolet LED Ghost Hunting Lamp (da waves)" through a smartphone.
Chris Uhren
A visitor to the Brew House Arts gallery looks at Shori Sims' "Ultraviolet LED Ghost Hunting Lamp (da waves)" through a smartphone.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

Most people would agree it’s undesirable to be the target of surveillance.

Yet we’re thoroughly used to security cameras in stores and on doorbells. In England, streetlight cameras — including some employing facial-recognition software — are widely used, despite concerns about privacy and accuracy. And most everyone knows how social media companies track and sell our preferences, a process most of us submit to knowingly, if not entirely happily.

“Blank Tape,” a group exhibit at the South Side’s Brew House Association gallery, offers fresh takes on surveillance society.

“We can no longer be separated from mass surveillance and, in many ways, we have become the surveillants ourselves,” writes curator Lena Hansen.

In a show whose title references videotape’s bygone reign, six of the 10 artists and artist teams present short, video-based works. In “Ultraviolet LED Ghost Hunting Lamp (da waves),” Shori Sims offers two wall-mounted video screens. Each shows a dimly lit stairway seen from above, as via security camera; on each monitor the stairs appear twice, in mirror image, so that the woman perpetually descending them in one frame continues her journey in another. Also onscreen are chroma-key-blue rectangles, while headphones relay the sound of ocean waves and a childlike voice loosely harmonizing with a woman in a spoken meditation on topics including the color blue. “I am the ghost that little birds envy,” they say. It’s a closed-circuit haunting.

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One curtained-off corner of the gallery hosts a welcome reprise of “OnlyBans,” Lena Chen and Maggie Oate’s incisive digital game, previously seen at the Miller Institute for Contemporary Art. “OnlyBans” puts visitors in the role of online sex workers trying to earn $200 in tips only to run afoul of censorious online authorities.

Azzah Sultan’s affecting installation “The Fabrication of Memory” conjures a living room, with an area rug laid before a small TV showing a video collage consisting mostly of kids and young adults at play. Hands digitally layered atop the images seem to grasp (or manipulate) them. Are home videos a form of surveillance?

“Do You Reckon That My Fingernails Are Touching Right Now or Do You Also See That Gap Between Them,” a video diptych by Ajunie Virk, seems to critique our desire to surveil ourselves by way of online branding or auto-curation. On the left, a computer screen features an email account whose owner is applying to college. The right-hand screen shows a gallery-like room where various personas of the applicant participate in a photo shoot while wearing different costumes — a sports bra and shorts, a lacy white mini-dress, a long skirt while cradling a baby in her arms.

Surveillance is integral to political repression, and in Tooraj Khamenehzadeh’s projected-video triptych “I’m Not a Song to Be Sung,” a series of life-sized, fully dressed young people descend into each of the rectangular frames, which are filled with water. They then speak briefly — releasing air bubbles instead of audible words — before swimming upward and out of the frame. (According to the gallery guide, the work specifically references repression in Iran.)

In Or Zubalsky’s single-channel video “Decentered,” two halves of the artist’s face frame the image of a computer screen as their voiceover recounts how they “decenter” in response to the “horrific violence” against Palestinians they’ve witnessed as an Israeli citizen. The file folders on the computer display start out all labeled with expressions of identity or states of mind — “Isolation,” “Trauma,” “Zionism,” “Safety” — but by the end are mostly blank.

Among the non-video works, Jamie McArthur’s “Dollhouse: Meat” is a 2-foot-tall domicile with latticework walls, its second floor occupied by a pair of anthropomorphized (and apparently postcoital) pigs. Art is for looking, it’s true, but don’t tiny pigs deserve some privacy, too?

Some of the works, which also include pieces by Negin Mahzoum and Caroline Yoo, require reading the gallery guide to glean their full meaning. For instance, the sharply composed black-and-white photos in Jonathan Ellis’ “Heartland Studies” series, all drone-shot aerials, are striking; one depicts a Florida parking lot, sun-baked and slashed by the long shadows of trees planted in small plots of earth. But all viewers might not gather from the photos themselves that they are meant to highlight “neighborhoods and areas that have historically been inaccessible and dangerous to Black people.”

Nonetheless, as curator Hansen writes, “’Blank Tape’ prompts us to consider the complexities of living with surveillance, and to engage new perspectives and ways of thinking as we make sense of this reality.”

The Brew House Association is a nonprofit launched back when the old Duquesne Brewery housed an artists’ live/work co-op. Though the building is now privately owned, the art center still provides artist development programs as well as year-round gallery space.

“Blank Tape” is a product of the BHA’s “Prospectus” program for emerging curators. Programming includes a Thu., Feb. 22, artist and curator talk. The show continues through March 9.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: