A rather unusual party went down in central London last weekend. In the halls of the Royal Academy of Arts a throng of people wearing headphones, black eye masks and cardboard boxes over their heads were dancing in silence. But this wasn’t just any silent disco — one channel played music, the other live surveillance straight from New York.
Welcome to Digital (Dis)connections, the latest Royal Academy late show built around Ai WeiWei‘s first full exhibition in the UK. Taking inspiration from Ai WeiWei’s show — which explores creative freedom, censorship and human rights — the evening featured encryption lessons, CCTV detection avoidance, a virtual reality installation and surveillance games that morphed the audience into a collective mass that was at once surveilled and spying.
“We invite you to wear either a CCTV helmet, or to censor your face by wearing a black censor bar,” said a flyer introducing the silent disco designed by Sam Phong Nguyen and Meret Vollenweider, called #watchingme #watchingyou. “We want to raise the question of who is being watched and by whom. Is CCTV watching you? Are you watching the system? With this project, we would like the audience to question the paradox of surveillance technology in the information age.”
On entry to the Royal Academy each member of the audience was given a slip of paper and asked to answer two intrusive questions, including: Where is home? What are you looking for? What did you last type into a search engine? Where did you fall in love?
Having given away who I last texted and what I last bought, I was then collared by a suited man with a clipboard that said “WANTED HIDERS” on it.
“Me and my colleague are trying to steal information,” said Rob Reynolds, who was acting for the Royal Academy. He asked that I keep my eye out for “Hiders” wearing “encryption suits” and lurking behind curtains, under tables, and within art pieces. These people, hidden from CCTV detection, were in possession of our answers to the intrusive questions.
“When you see them, tap them on the hands and you’ll get the information,” Reynolds said.
This was all part of an interactive art installation called Data Dash – designed by Ellie Power to engage the audience in a game of cat and mouse where they played both parts — losing data then stealing it back.
Another work simultaneously taught audience members how to encrypt their names and decrypt those of others. Using a tool called “the common cipher,” I encrypted my name with a time and date stamp. “Cara” at 20:00 on October 24 became “of time into child.” It’s unlikely this encryption method will catch on — it took a lengthy five minutes to encrypt my four letter name.
As for the decryption, “if for this big you over be” at 18:54 translated to “Vinkent” — which I’m not sure is quite right.
But it wasn’t all Edward Snowden and GCHQ. Another piece that garnered excitement was the Emoji Café, a kitsch look at the language of emojis through real-world replicas of the bright little symbols. There was a slice of cake, donuts, a purse and a cup of coffee made to look just like the ones on your keyboard.
Emily Groves, the artist behind the café, wanted to create “sweet, sterile and sinister environment,” according to the work’s description. “Refining our language to emoji symbols would narrow our minds and culture.” But the visitors seemed more interested in how tasty the cake looked and how strong the coffee smelt.
It was the Ai WeiWei exhibition in the main gallery that brought home the message of the late show games. Among his works from the last two decades, the exhibit includes a meditation of Ai WeiWei’s time in prison and the reconstructed skeleton of his destroyed Chinese studio.
The late show additions to the Ai WeiWei exhibition — albeit fun — couldn’t help but feel trivial in comparison to the sincerity of his show. Rumours went around that Ai WeiWei was going to appear at some point in the evening. And maybe the event would have felt more cohesive if we’d seen him dance in the silent disco and eye-up the emoji cake.
The Ai WeiWei exhibition includes works from the last two decades and pieces created for the London show. It is at the Royal Academy of Arts until December 13