Brave New World, the poster announced. An exhibition based on three dystopian novels: 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. More than twenty artists from around the world present their interpretation of themes such as surveillance, consumerism, and social engineering. The location was listed as the Dox Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague.
I was instantly intrigued, but not completely sold on going. Contemporary art usually leaves me feeling insulted. I’m not impressed by abstract geometric designs, paint splotches, gratuitous vulgarity, and random scrawls. My capacity for artistic contemplation has its limits.
Then I saw the motto posted on Dox’s website:
“In an age when growing numbers of people tend to think dangerously alike, art´s capacity to suspend, even for a moment, our habitual ways of seeing may well prove to be of its greatest value.”
Even if it was only to support this idea, I wanted to go.
Part One: Life in a Cage
In the beginning was Orwell’s vision. A grim, gray world of total oppression. A large video screen played vintage scenes from totalitarian regimes. Swarms of uniform drones. Collective cheers filled the silence. Voices of fervor and desperation. Massive statues of past dictators loomed over a statue depicting a man struggling to break free. On the wall behind him, the totals of those murdered by their own governments.
A small television transmitted a much abridged version of 1984. The Surveillance Camera Players are a theater group that performs solely in front of surveillance cameras. In an ironic twist, the players are dispersed by the police just as the play comes to an end.
A plastic web was suspended from the ceiling. At first I thought that the ensnared bodies were mannequins, but then one began to wave at me. The entrance to the installation awaited visitors. The gaping, yet claustrophobic vortex reminded me of the webs that funnel web spiders build. When I was a child, I used to look for these webs. I’d tease the spider out by gently tapping the web with a tiny stick, imitating the vibration of trapped prey. When the spider lunged out, I’d jump back with a squeal. This was back in the days before computer games held children captive. Those splendid, lost days of singular imagination.
Lining the walls were photos and actual diagrams of buildings constructed for the sole purpose of controlling the most people in the smallest space possible. Haunting paintings of a world of perpetual fear.
“You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.” – George Orwell, 1984
Part Two: Freedom in a Bubble
In Orwell’s world, people were imprisoned against their will. Both Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury warned of voluntary enslavement through manipulation. Indeed, we have given away our privacy for the sake of convenience and trendiness. Revealing has become “sharing”. If you’ve got nothing to hide, why should you be afraid?
Rows of television sets stretched from floor to ceiling. A simultaneous, silent broadcast of the same scenes. Over and over. Smiling faces. Consuming. Behind a shimmering gold shopping cart, a colorful diagram entitled The Illusion of Choice depicted the ten mega corporations that control almost everything you buy.
Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey-Hagborg was the most disquieting work, for me, in the entire exhibition. It consisted of 3D portraits created from DNA recovered from cigarette butts, hair, chewing gum, and other discarded items. From these items, the artist could determine gender, ethnicity, and enough information to compile a realistic portrait using face-generating software and a 3D printer.
Burn, a short film by Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Jolley, is a chilling look at how many people prefer the comfort of living in denial as opposed to acknowledging the painful truth of reality.
“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Part Three: Disconnected
“If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Welcome to Detachment. Three identical booths. Three young men in the grip of apathy. These were the hikikomori, as they’re called in Japan. The “failures”. Those who close in on themselves because they cannot conform to society’s demands. Two of the young men faced the wall. I had the urge to try to provoke a reaction from the third one. Make him smile or something. However, by this time the museum staff that patrolled the floor had created an uncomfortable atmosphere. From the moment we had entered the exhibition, they had followed my husband and I around. When one reached the end of his or her area, another would take over. Crossed arms and steely glares. We were under suspicion. “Maybe they are part of the exhibition,” I whispered to my husband.
Part Four: Absolute Happiness
The young lady guarding the first floor of the three-level installation stood up and smiled at us. “Dobry Den,” she said. My husband and I returned the greeting and then exchanged a look. Did she break character? Were the other staff simply unpleasant? If so, this could be even more unsettling: young people who already have the habit of making people feel like they’re doing something wrong just because they exist. The same behavior found in many security guards and police officers. A zest for intimidation. This is exactly the type of personality that thrives in a dystopian society.
We stepped into Huxley’s realm of genetic and social engineering. The Conditioning Room. The Hatchery. The Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning Room/The Nurseries. Identical baby dolls ascended and descended the levels in clear plastic tubes. The vintage contraptions hummed and percolated. Plastic fetuses cooled in jars commonly used for canning food.
In the deepest recesses of the installation, rows of empty baby cribs lined the walls. Here, the babies learn to equate flowers and books with pain. Clear plastic masks covered the walls, all of them the same blank, malleable expression.
An aloof voiced droned, in Czech and English, a passage from Brave New World:
“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able …”
Up and down went the baby dolls. The pneumatic whoosh of the plastic tubes accompanied the voice. Sinister percussion. I lingered in that vacant, sterile, climate-controlled chamber. Nauseous and transfixed.
“One believes things, because one has been conditioned to believe them.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Brave New World continues until January 25, 2016
Dox Centre for Contemporary Art
Prague, Czech Republic