"It’s my beloved issue. Watching," Julia Scher wrote to me in a recent email exchange.
Over a long career marked by many critical and institutional accolades, the multimedia artist has explored the vast array of means, reasons, and feelings related to the practice of surveillance. As Scher wrote for Frieze in 2016, "My interest in this topic started in 1985—at that time, I was still mainly making paintings, and had been working on a landscape diptych with a camera mounted in the middle. Behind the partial wall holding up the painting was the nine-inch monitor. The work was called Hardly Feel It Going In (1985). Even then it was about the question: Who is watching whom, how, why and at whose expense?"
The subject of surveillance drove the first work she presented at the Wex for its inaugural exhibition in 1989—Occupational Placement, a video installation that set up an interactive surveillance system around the building—and it has exploded in public consciousness in recent years, as more tools are rolled out to capture our every physical and virtual move (and sometimes share them with hackers or companies we've never heard of) and more individuals are taking it upon themselves to turn a camera on those in power. "It’s growing in biological, electro-mechanical, chemical, numerical, linguistical and political forms... New explosions of formerly unimaginable concepts, discoveries, and senses of TIME," Scher emailed, explaining that the expansion of the field has brought a new term for its study: "veillance."
Scher's inquiry continues in The Box this month with lip sync 2015, the latest work in a series of short videos started by the artist in the mid 1980s that reflects evolving ideas about being watched.
In each, the artist performs lip sync renditions of popular songs. The earliest pieces show Scher in all-out performance mode, channeling the energy (and some of the moves) of the Jane Fonda's Workout video series as she mouths along to Prince's "Baby I'm a Star." Over time, the enthusiasm in her performance gives way to a sense of wariness, and the songs change from "look at me" anthems to songs with lyrics about watching (Mr. Mister's "Watching the World"), possessing (Live's "I Alone"), or worse (Nirvana's "Rape Me").
For lip sync 2015, Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball" is Scher's anthem of choice. She begins in the same stance as previous videos, facing and playing to the camera, but soon begins to flee from the watchful mechanical eye through the nondescript hallways of her office space at the Academy for Media Arts in Cologne, Germany, where she teaches on the subject of "Surveillant Architectures." At one point she shuts the lights off to hide but the camera keeps following. Scher repeatedly looks back as she runs. One questions whether this move stems from fear of her pursuer, a desire to be pursued, or both.
There's an inherent element of humor in the watching, from the incongruity of sound and image and the mental juxtaposition of watching Scher running through beige hallways in a gray turtleneck and sneakers while remembering the song's video, in which Cyrus swings through the air on a massive metal orb wearing underwear and a perfect red lip.
But Scher finds little humor in her subject at this point, just an endless fascination.
"I see the challenge as a dramatic one—not a very lighthearted one. Public space is being destroyed," she noted at Harvard University's Hyperpublic Symposium in 2011, where she took a few minutes at the podium to lip sync to Linkin Park. "As an old lady lip syncing songs that are usually done by 14 year-old boys, the point is many fold: to disrupt the normal form of distribution of anthem lyrics, inserting it into a conference setting, but also to be lip synching others, not being able to speak from the heart by only through the words of commercial other. It's something that happens in surveillance space today and it's interesting and important issue."
Anyone visiting for film screenings or this Friday's Inherent Structure preview is encouraged to absorb Scher's work in the Box and consider the many ways monitoring, and the awareness of being monitored, affect our everyday existence. While you're at it, take a moment to appreciate what Miley Cyrus on continuous loop does to the atmosphere of the Wex lobby.