CAVS Fellow Julia Scher has traced the gradual emergence of a ‘maximum security society’ since the 1980s. This is how sociologist Gary T. Marx describes the current era of encompassing surveillance technologies and infrastructures. Borrowing its title from Marx, Scher’s first institutional survey brings together a selection of works from the last 30 years: multimedia installations, video works, sculptures and print and internet projects. Scher draws on this array of media to make explicit how technologies such as video surveillance, image recognition and automated database queries have become entirely mundane and structure our everyday reality. By mimicking familiar surveillance scenarios, Scher’s works evoke guarantees of security and comfort.
The central installation, Predictive Engineering (1993-present), a new production for the presentation at Kunsthalle Zürich, gives the impression that visitors are being checked over for suspicious appearances or behavior. The mix of real and staged video footage leaves it unclear what form of protection (or threat) one should anticipate. The pseudo-brand ‘Security by Julia’ under which Scher has operated since the late 1980s, indicates the commercial interests that are behind much surveillance infrastructure. A sales catalogue from 1991 offers fictitious services and products such as ‘random public evaluations’ and ‘behavior and productivity deviance detectors’, while Scher has produced underwear, condoms and – more recently – hand sanitizer with the brand.
Maximum Security Society also brings together the three beds Mama Bed, Papa Bed and Baby Bed (all 2003) which, equipped with cameras and monitors, make evident how observation and communication (or, today, ‘sharing’) has permeated into the most intimate corners of our lives. The constellation of Mama/Papa/Baby also refers to another form of surveillance: that of the nuclear family and the normative constructions that are particularly evident in intimacy and sexuality – or violently dominate there. In concert with these, the 1988 film Discipline Masters is shown, a four-hour, confessional soliloquy in which the artist attempts ‘to preserve her understanding of [her] life history’.
Scher is best known for her numerous surveillance installations that address psycho-social dynamics and perversions which have turned out to be both visionary and prescient. The formal, sculptural quality of her work is often overlooked, however. It is precisely this aspect of Scher’s work that the exhibition Maximum Security Society seeks to also highlight, whether in works such as Girl Dog Hybrid (2005), Hidden Camera (Architectural Vagina) (1991-2018) or Surveillance Area (1994).