Life as a House

Photo by Deborah AschheimDeborah Aschheim has done something nigh-impossible in these parts. Oh, it's not her “Neural Architecture (A Smart Building is a Nervous Building)” at Laguna Art Museum, though that twinkly installation is good and groovy (a viewer will be forgiven for chirping, “Oooh! I'm a synapse!” when she trips through the lighted ganglia of fiber optics snaking around the museum's basement gallery). No, what Aschheim has done is more impressive: she's written an artist's statement that brings up ideas the viewer might not have thought of but that are nonetheless completely un-nonsensical, and she's done it without once using the phrases dialogic crucible and ontological infinity.

On the surface, Aschheim's “Architecture” is a flat-out representation of the brain, with us inside it like we're riding an atom in the long-extinct Disney attraction Adventure Thru Inner Space. As one walks through, motion sensors light up the nearest tubing, and embedded deep in the neural brambles and coils are nanny cams and palm-sized monitors. The slight blurriness is very flattering—instant airbrush like a vaselined lens—but by the fourth time you see your very small face, you might be a little sick of you.

But Aschheim's got less fun and more Ashcroft on her mind.

She had begun by thinking of buildings and their relation to biology, from skeletal structure to respiratory systems, and then refined her analogy to the brain as metaphor for the buildings where we spend our days (she's forgotten to infuse her installation with sickly, fluorescent, headache-in-a-box mood lighting), and the sensors that track us there. And then she uses that as a metaphor for the daily spying to which we're becoming increasingly inured—and, post-Sept. 11, even addicted.

In the first of Aschheim's layers, she's equating the simple act of movement in her installation with the office lights that turn on when we enter, though she forgets the part where if you sit still too long, the lights fade and you have to jump up and wave your arms around. Technosentience, apparently, doesn't grok perfect Zen stillness. She discusses our increasing affair with those same technologies, the ones we install for convenience and even our own entertainment—we love our gadgets!—when everyone knows those technologies inevitably lead to HAL 9000.

But it was after Sept. 11 especially that Americans gave up whatever small niggles they may have had with cameras on stoplights and the government's all-seeing monologic eyeball on the Net. When she first began her installations, she had to use specialty spygear for the exuberantly paranoid; now she uses spying devices and motion sensors available at Home Depot and Target for as little as $14. Whenever the government doesn't watch us, we subcontract the job ourselves.

“[I]n theory you can try to conduct all your business using bankless cash to avoid being tracked by an electronic trail of credit card and ATM transactions,” Aschheim writes. “Increasingly, trying to avoid being monitored registers as a 21st century Thoreauan social protest. If we live in a panopticon (Jeremy Bentham's 18th century design for a prison as an 'all-seeing eye' that has become the critical synonym for pervasive and absolute surveillance), then it is a diffused and decentralized panopticon, growing organically like a garden of wild phototropic plants, multiplying like internet websites, like a cancer, like a colony of nerve cells arborizing to synapse with other cells in a network too complex to visualize.”

Throw some fiber optics and a nanny cam in, and you can visualize everything you need.

“Neural Architecture” on view at Laguna Art Museum, 307 N. Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Open Thurs.-Tues., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through July 5.

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