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June 15 - September 26, 2004 at the Otis College, Ben Maltz Gallery, West Side

by Andy Brumer

Few things effect us as emotionally as buildings. Whether it’s a feeling of lightness and liberation inspired by Frank Gehry’s Disney Music Hall, the sense of physical vulnerability at the base of a skyscraper, or the security of turning the key of one’s own front door, architecture in its many expressions inextricably links itself with the human soul. Panopticon, a room-sized installation that forms part of Deborah Aschheim’s on-going Neural Architecture series, however, not only acknowledges the charged aura of edifices, it is one itself, complete with a human-like sensitivity wired into it. No wonder the series’ subtitle is, “a smart building is a nervous building.”

In an artist’s statement, Aschheim writes that “Neural Architecture is a series of site-specific installations that conjure up a fragile organism, a hybrid of surveillance electronics, neural sensing and architecture that emerges out of our post-Orwellian, post-September 11 ambivalence toward security and technology. . .My work has modeled neural systems literally as cognitive networks, and metaphorically as structures for considering the intersection of perception, consciousness, cultures and technology.”

The site-specific installation consists of ordinary transparent vinyl tubing and plastic bath mats that anyone can buy at stores such as Target. Aschheim has sewn the bath mats into “nerve cell sculptures” and otherwise configured her materials in the gallery’s room to suggest the tangle of long stemmed brain cells, tendrils and knotted nodes. Found by the billions in the cerebral cortex region of the brain, these architectonic structures coordinate higher nervous activity in humans. A lyrical three-dimensional “drawing in air,” the piece also alludes to the Surrealist’s philosophy about automatic drawing, which that group felt freed a boundless energy and dislodged an oddly orderly elegance embedded in the chaos of the brain itself.
Deborah Aschheim
Otis Prototype, 2004
Views of studio installation,
vinyl tubing, plastic, lenses,
incandescent light, infred motion
sensors, spy cameras, and pocket TVs.
Photo credit: Deborah Aschheim

This is, indeed, a very “smart building,” not the least because Aschheim has built into its fragile frame commonly available systems of electronic surveillance and monitoring devices. For example, small spy cam TV monitors lying cupped inside of the bath mat “nerve nodes” broadcast images of the viewers as they walk through the installation, just as people’s own skin trigger heat recording sensors that light up parts of the tubing. However, beyond this creative reciprocity, in which the viewer becomes the viewed, lurks the more sinister suggestion that someone is always watching us.

Aschheim installed another Neural Architecture piece earlier this summer at the Laguna Art Museum, and here palm-sized TV monitors play video clips run backwards of the previous show being dismantled and folded up. Next year’s version at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville will add clandestine microphones tucked into the pliant armature, which will overhear viewers’ comments and sounds, then broadcast them to the center’s other galleries and rooms. Such a rapid rate of evolution prompts Aschheim to point out that her piece “is developing memory and getting smarter and more neurologically complicated” with each iteration.

This fascinating and, in turns, whimsical and terrifying work raises obvious Orwellian issues about various ways authority and institutions intrude into our lives. It also addresses the ever blurring distinction between private and public space, and between the often pleasurable experience of being truly alone as against the paranoid anxiety of wondering if we can or will be ever again.