Artist Julia Scher: cable clutter of the brave new world

At the Abteiberg Museum in Mönchengladbach, artist Julia Scher observes how we have been monitored for 40 years.

Exhibition view: Screens showing surveillance camera footage are attached to crossbeams

Ambivalence of camera eyes: The exhibition “High Security Society” by Julia Scher Photo: Achim Kukulies

When George Orwell was working on his dystopian novel in the 1940s, the year 1984 seemed appropriate to disguise his fictional future scenario of total surveillance as a warning prognosis. In the actual year 1984, the artist Julia Scher had been dealing with new media and technologies, especially surveillance technology, for a long time.

And in 1975, nine years before 1984, which had long been regarded as a metaphor for modernity’s promise of freedom and progress, which was turning in the opposite direction, the French post-structuralist Michel Foucault had presented his work Discipline and Punish. As is well known, it was to become a publication in the humanities and social sciences that is still influential today.

Julia Scher, who comes from Hollywood, was not prophetic when she dedicated herself to the topic of “surveillance” in the 1980s. What is more surprising is that not many more artists discovered it for themselves.

An exhibition in the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, the idiosyncratic, post-modern building by architect Hans Hollein, is now providing an overview of Julia Scher’s art from the 1980s to the present day for the first time in Germany.

“Don’t worry” – or rather?

As soon as you enter the porch of the museum, a friendly off-screen voice prepares you for the fact that everything is under surveillance here. “Don’t worry,” she flatters. A few steps further, a monitor then shows recordings from the vestibule that you had just passed.

“High Security Society” is the title of the show with around 39 groups of works and individual works by the Cologne-based artist. In the 1990s, Scher anticipated much of what is now commonplace with the installation of camera and audio surveillance systems.

And early on, Scher took aim at the ambivalence that emanates from the ubiquitous camera eyes: the tension between the desire for security on the one hand and the desire for privacy on the other, the desire and fear of control and fascination, increasing watch and be watched.

Scher often illuminates these gray areas with humor. When, for example, surveillance cameras are wreathed in frivolous red feathers and the artist’s voice sounds seductively harmless from the loudspeakers. She warns, soothes at the same time and invokes the certainty that nothing is a problem at all. And thus anticipates the attitude of the daily digital consumer of the 21st century, who carelessly clicks away the small print on privacy on the Internet.

In fact, the feeling of being constantly observed and controlled is hardly ever perceived as a threat. Because it has long been everyday life. As with more recent installations by Scher, which experiment with systems such as Siri and Alexa, which light up green according to mysterious laws and call up music files.

Julia Scher: “High Security Society”, Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, until August 20th

Into space with “Planet Greyhound”.

Older works are particularly impressive. “Planet Greyhound”, for example, a video work, can be experienced in three old hairdressers’ chairs: the legendary bus line flies into space, on board are clever-looking dogs on their way to a better world.

The installation “Embedded” tells of the primal scene of control in patriarchal family structures with “Mama Bed”, “Papa Bed” and “Baby Bed”. The bed is staged as the place of elementary events such as birth, sex and death. Cameras, monitors and army uniforms denote the father’s bed, while mum’s bed has a whip and children’s books on it, “Baby Bed”, on the other hand, has a glass plate instead of a mattress and a blanket covered in transparent material indicating early sexual control and voyeuristic abuse.

The earlier works, which are also interesting from a documentary point of view, are less depressing, more playfully cheerful, and their ludicrous tangle of cables overgrows equipment from the 1990s. Such as in the installation “Wonderland”, in which children take control of the monitors and control centers in a loop of voices, noises and thunderstorms.

In an interview, the artist stated that while technology is changing, the DNA of her work remains the same, namely the amalgamation of technical development and artistic reaction. An example of this is the almost four-hour video work Discipline Masters from 1988. Julia Scher appears in it as a karaoke singer, whose expression usually clashes strongly with the simulated song lyrics. A key work, a soliloquy as a confession, an attempt to “preserve her understanding of her life story”.

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