We watch a woman sitting in a small, sterile room, alone amid a bank of monitors and random office equipment. Fluorescent tubes radiate an even glow of artificial light around her. Time creeps by. There is no progression; the only movements in the scene are occasional glitches on the screens, a printer spitting out reports, the air setting the leaves of a potted plant aquiver, and the woman readjusting herself in her chair from time to time. These minor events, transpiring at the security control room of an unnamed Chinese seaside resort community, constitute the central component of Yao Qingmei’s multichapter video work The Burrow – Monitor & Control, 2021, the piece that lent the artist’s recent exhibition its title.
This underground control room hides beneath the resort’s serene landscape. Though the space may be invisible from the outside, the outside is fully visible within, as live feeds from all corners of the community are constantly uploaded, categorized, identified, and stored. Yao seems to suggest that such images—which, for the most part, go unseen—are the means by which any micro-society can achieve full self-surveillance and management. People are almost dispensable. In the control room, only one woman is required to oversee daily operations. When in a few shots we catch glimpses of her silhouette behind a thermal ventilation screen, it feels as if a ghost in the machine, or perhaps just the machine itself, is surveilling this singular life inside the desolate room. (Likewise, in a subsequent scene, staff members, working aboveground, are glimpsed only through fragmented views of the back of their heads, side profiles, close-ups of their bodies, or even through just a movement.) The woman told the artist that, after staring at the monitors in the basement day after day, she has gradually begun to perceive changes to her environment only through the mediation of the screens. In a poem by Yao that accompanies the film, she describes watching the fruit of a hawthorn tree ripen and mourns willow branches that were trimmed because they obstructed the camera. Such an extraction of real-life matter is but one subtle form of violence that pervades a panoptic society.
During her 2019 residency not far from the resort, Yao invited its crew members—janitors, security guards, waiters, maintenance workers—to reenact their usual work duties on stage, in the resort’s amphitheater, developing the theme of daily performance in a public space. With its deadpan, anti-aesthetic approach, the work—along with The Burrow – Monitor & Control—encompasses the movements of other figures, such as the team of security guards training under reiterated commands in Worrub eht – Guard & Quietness (whose title is “the burrow” spelled backward), or the tourists with their repetitive behavior on the beach in Worrub eht – Landscape & Spectacle (work in progress). The artist hardly needs to set rules or direct any roles, since a perpetual border-blurring performance—similar to the ones we saw on the monitors in the basement control room—is already happening. For The Burrow – Poetry & Songs, Yao invited two crew members to read excerpts from Franz Kafka’s story “The Burrow” (1923). The tale follows a strange creature that creates an underground den in which to escape imagined dangers. Interestingly, if we consider the surveillance-induced manipulation of reality, epitomized by the removal of the willow branch, to be a fundamental threat to real life, this lair—which claims to be a safe fortress enabling the eradication of public threat—is paradoxically where the danger originates.
Translated from Chinese by Jy Deng.
— Li Jia