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Ai Weiwei makes 'Hansel & Gretel' unsettling in a new way

Visitors experience the
Visitors experience the "Hansel & Gretel" exhibit at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City.
James Ewing
Visitors experience the
Visitors walk through the "Hansel & Gretel" exhibit at the Park Avenue Armory.
James Ewing
Visitors experience the
"Hansel & Gretel" explores the meaning of public space in our surveillance-laden world.
James Ewing
Visitors experience the
Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei collaborated with architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron on "Hansel & Gretel."
Chelsea Beroza

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Surveillance, drones and facial recognition technology are the kinds of things you’d expect to be in a spy movie or a Senate intelligence briefing, but you can also encounter them in an art installation called "Hansel & Gretel" in New York City.

It’s in a cavernous exhibition hall at the Park Avenue Armory, not far from Central Park. The nearly pitch-black space is at first disorienting. Soon it becomes clear that you're being followed as drones and infrared cameras pick up your movements from above.

With all the focus on various modes of surveillance, it’s perhaps not surprising that one of the artists behind this exhibition is the Chinese activist Ai Weiwei, who himself has been under house arrest, imprisoned and surveilled 24/7.

Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron worked together with the Chinese artist on "Hansel & Gretel." Their previous collaborations include the Beijing National Stadium (also known as the "Bird's Nest"), built for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Rebecca Robertson, president and executive producer of the Park Avenue Armory, spoke with The Frame's John Horn about the artists' vision for the exhibition:

The idea that the artists had for this particular space was that it be treated like a public park, like a public place, where you generally feel some level of comfort and freedom. And that as you come into the space, it's very dark. The architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron had this notion of creating kind of a rolling hill that is in a dark space, so it's both pastoral and there's something comforting about it, but it's also a little disorienting as you walk into it. And then as you walk, there are these infrared pictures, photos of yourself, that are created on the floor, and there are lines that follow you. So you're kind of creating your own breadcrumb trail, hence the title "Hansel and Gretel." And while it's fun, the darkness makes you feel a little unsure of yourself, a little disoriented, and then the drones come in ... and people become more aware of the fact that perhaps something else is going on.

"Hansel & Gretel" is open at the Park Avenue Armory through Aug. 6.

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