Ai Weiwei’s Artistic Lesson on Living in a Surveillance State

The digital breadcrumbs you leave across the connected world could be poisonous.

By Chandra Steele

Beware your digital breadcrumbs. That’s the message at “Hansel & Gretel,” an installation at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory that takes place in two parts: a vast darkened room in which drones occasionally buzz overhead and a library-like space lit mainly by iPads and the glow of night-vision images snapped in the first part of the exhibit.

The artist behind it, Ai Weiwei, knows about living in a surveillance state. His comings and goings at his home in China are monitored by two government-controlled cameras mounted on the gate outside.

For “Hansel & Gretel,” Weiwei worked with architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, with whom he collaborated on for the Bird’s Nest Stadium at the Beijing Olympic Games. His open criticism of China’s policies regarding the games and acts of defiance against authoritarian rule led to those cameras outside his house, as well as to beatings and detention.

This dystopian world view is replicated for “Hansel & Gretel.” We’re all used to ceding our privacy for social reasons and convenience, but as you make your way through the installation, you get a picture of what that looks like.

The first part of “Hansel & Gretel” was conceived as a public park of sorts. But rather than grassy fields overshadowed by trees, you’re in the Armory’s Drill Hall, a cavernous space that is dimly lit and punctuated by infrared cameras overhead that imprint your likeness in fuzzy white on the black floor. Every once in a while, the threatening buzz of a drone overhead pierces the silence.

Unbeknownst to those in the room, cameras are live streaming their activity on the internet and beaming their photos to monitors in another part of the Armory. For the time being, everyone is too busy taking photos of themselves to be concerned about that.

Once you exit this frightening forest, you walk outside the building and around to the front of the Armory. A guard requests that you pause at the entrance for three seconds so your image can be captured. You are then guided into the very grand Gilded Age Head House created by design titans of the time, like Stanford White and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Incongruously, monitors on the wall show the blown-up visages of visitors from the first part of the installation, and iPads rest on heavy wooden tables. You can scan your face to find photos of yourself taken during your time in Drill Hall, watch a live stream of the installation, look through military drone statistics, and browse the weird history of surveillance — including Stasi fake-beard seminars and the $15 million the CIA spent wiring up a cat for spying purposes.

“Hansel & Gretel” probably won’t change your mind about what you share online any more than the story itself has warned children away from gingerbread houses, but it’s a delightful fable nonetheless.

If the point of the exhibit is lost on anyone, the gift shop — featuring items like iPhone cases emblazoned with “THE NSA HAS ALL YOUR SELFIES” — should prove illuminating.

“Hansel & Gretel” runs through Aug. 6 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave. in Manhattan. Tickets are $15.

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