The State of the Art of Surveillance: "Blind House: Utopia and Dystopia in the Age of Radical Transparency"
The Institute for Humanities Gallery is currently housing "Blind House: Utopia and Dystopia in the Age of Radical Transparency," a collaborative installation by artists Paloma Muñoz and Walter Martin. Along the walls are digitally altered photographs of the architectural exteriors of houses and in the center of the room a miniature glass house. There is a school desk in the center of the glass house, on top of which sits a red typewriter.
Visitors are free to enter the space, grab a blank sheet of paper from under the chair, and try to create their own utopia on paper. On the desk there are instructions for the visitor in English and Spanish: “1. Read and throw the existing utopia in the garbage. 2. Write your own utopia and leave it on the typewriter for the next participant. Please feel free to look through the garbage.”
In front of the desk, there is a trash can, which was filled with crumpled up, discarded utopias, demonstrating the past participation of gallery visitors in the work.
The transparent house in the center of the space can feel unsettling. For a room made of glass walls, it had the strange effect of inducing claustrophobia in me. The artists’ highly metaphorical installation had a physical element that seemed to confirm, for me, their suspicions from their artist statement that the concept of the Glass House as a site of potential Utopia “is an anachronism of a bygone era, an era that at this distance looks like a golden utopia. Now when we think of the Glass House it is more often as metaphor for transparency in the age of connectedness.”
The artists intentionally create a strong contrast between the transparent glass house in the gallery space and the oblique architectural exteriors of the photographs. By photographing ordinary homes and removing their windows and doors, the artists create a secret, presumably safe space in the images. The glass house in the gallery, by contrast, is exposed to passersby, any of whom might look in and see the gallery visitor typing up an imagined Utopia.
Muñoz and Martin also discuss the idea of the glass house as a “dystopian flower of a utopian seed.” The seed of interest to the artists was “planted in 1949 when Philip Johnson built his famous glass house … in New Canaan, Connecticut (though the original glass house should be credited to the genius of Mies van der Rohe).” The glass house was, during the mid-20th century, an idealistic concept, and one that connoted privilege and ownership of view. The idea of being able to see 360 degrees of the natural environment from inside a home was appealing and desirable. This concept seems now-defunct, as our culture is increasingly aware of surveillance. The glass house is now commonly seen as a prime site for voyeurism and the embodiment of the total disruption of privacy.
Through the metaphor of the glass house, the artists explore shifting ideas and surveillance landscapes as technology advances. Muñoz and Martin begin their artist statement on the project by saying:
We live in a house with many windows, all of them problematic. The 45 glass windows offer us views and light but we sometimes wonder who or what might be monitoring us through them. We love to open our windows and breathe the fresh air that filters through the pine forest around us. But we wonder what we might be letting in when we open them.
The statement turns a critical eye toward the current state of surveillance, and how acceptance or apathy toward surveillance has changed immensely in the past decade. Now, the artists observe, we are surrounded by seemingly innocuous technology that mines us for data, the result impacting our lives in ways we do not yet fully understand.
Furthermore, the natural environment is full of dangers that range from natural disasters to invasive species that disrupt the ecosystem to human pollution. These concerns alone seem enough to warrant the want to hide indoors in a house without windows or doors (OK, maybe not doors). Thus the imagery of the house without entryways becomes a proposed future utopia, though with a simple shift in perspective the houses easily look like dystopias.
Even still, the artists say, “the most problematic windows in a house are the virtual ones. In our case, if you count our mobile phone, three iPads, Alexi, two computers and two nest cameras, our total number of windows comes to 54. Unlike the real windows, these last nine digital windows resist and elude every imaginable treatment.”
In the artists’ blind house, there may be no escape from surveillance, despite having removed all access to the outside world by removing traditional points of entry into the private domestic space. It remains that our virtual worlds become increasingly real sites of social and communal exchange. We are free to put down our devices, but most of the time refuse to do so. As the artists say: “though we are all to one degree or another aware that our connectedness comes at a price, we pay it.”
Though we know that our devices may be mining us for data, listening to our conversations, and silently hacking us for profit, we continue to rely on them.
The exhibition asks viewers to engage in the content in multiple ways, imagining potential utopias and dystopias, and realizing them in print on a manual typewriter. The Utopia project was started in 1998 and was “retooled as a counterpoint to the Blind House series” for this exhibition. The Utopia texts that visitors are instructed to crumple up and throw away are retrieved from the trash and posted on facebook.com/blindhouseproject.
Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.
The exhibit is on display in the LSA Institute for Humanities Gallery, 202 S. Thayer St., Ann Arbor, from March 14, 2019, to May 3, 2019.