Julia Scher at Kunsthalle Zurich

Julia Scher at Kunsthalle Zurich

A wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispenser hangs discreetly next to the curtained entrance leading to “Julia Scher: Maximum Security Society,” the artist’s first institutional survey. A now-ubiquitous presence in any public arena, even if often running on empty, such disinfectants are an easy-to-miss hallmark of the corporate and political interests that govern our day-to-day lives, and to which we so (un)wittingly subscribe. Bearing the corporate branding of its maker, Security by Julia (Dispenser), 2020, is among the twenty-odd recent and historical works—including multimedia installations, video, sculpture, as well as print and online projects—that lay bare the networks, capital, and aesthetics of a surveillance culture in which authority and seduction are not-so-distant relatives.

A constellation of three artworks titled Mama Bed, Papa Bed, and Baby Bed, all 2003, occupies the main gallery of the exhibition, emphasizing the formal and conceptual strands at the center of Scher’s practice. Each “embedded” bed, to use Scher’s term, is fitted with different configurations of cameras, monitors, microphones, and cabling, as well as a unique set of accessories to facilitate identification. Children’s fairy tale books (including Goldilocks and the Three Bears) and a leather whip are displayed on Mama Bed’s mattress, while Papa Bed is undoubtedly the one littered with crumpled army fatigues—underlining the overtly gendered nature inherent to observation. If this installation connects the dots between military technology and the modern nuclear family, then the video Discipline Masters, 1988, allows Scher to further blur the division between the private and public spheres. By far the most hypnotic piece in the show, this four-hour-long confessional recounts, ad nauseam, the minutiae of the traumatic memories that make up the artist’s childhood and adolescence. Long before the internet heralded the advent of WikiLeaks or Love Island, Scher was already privy to the unscrupulous ideologies behind security culture, slowly unravelling the prevailing cult of vision through her own clandestine operation.