Behind heavy dark blue velvet curtains, catty-corner on the ground floor of New York’s Queens Museum, a screen offers a view of a cityscape from the inside of a car. American Artist’s 21-minute single-channel HD video 2015 (2019) is doubly framed, by the car’s windshield and the camera’s lens. Computerized overlays mar the views of expressways and side streets in Brooklyn. The words RAPE, BURGLARY, and MURDER scroll across the bottom right of the screen, along with statistics comparing the local frequency of those crimes in 2014 and 2015. Thin-lined neon maps flash, obscuring the setting sun. Another on-screen notice occasionally announces: CRIME DETERRED. But where’s the potentially criminal activity? Through the windshield, we only see an intersection, a few parked cars, some nondescript buildings. It’s clear now. Aided by algorithms developed by tech firms like PredPol, the police car transforms the world out the window into a criminal landscape by targeting locations and imagining infractions.
“My Blue Window,” Artist’s solo exhibition on view at Queens Museum through February 16, 2020, is a multimedia installation consisting of 2015, as well as 1956/2054 (2019), a smartphone app and one-minute animation displayed on a monitor outside the blue veil and available for free download. The app culls online news on predictive policing, surveillance legislation, and private investment in civic technologies, allowing users to access further reading materials and to take their own notes. Artist wants visitors to keep thinking about the work when they leave the largely state- and city-funded museum. The objects of the art’s inquiry exist on the outside, after all, in a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world (more than 25 percent higher than Russia’s and six times China’s), where black Americans are five times more likely to be arrested and 2.5 more likely to be killed by police than whites. Together, 2015 and 1956/2054 shine a light on the past, present, and future ubiquity of high-tech speculative crime-stopping methods, which were used as counterterrorism tools before they were shuttled into city police departments.
(Yes, the New York-based American Artist’s government name is American Artist. “Their legal name change serves as the basis of an ambivalent practice—one of declaration: by insisting on the visibility of blackness as descriptive of an american artist, and erasure: anonymity in virtual spaces where ‘American Artist’ is an anonymous name, unable to be googled or validated by a computer as a person’s name,” explains a bio on their website. Depending on where you are and on your past search history, googling them could yield their page or a Wikipedia list of American artists, that is to say, a list dominated by white men. Artist, who came of age as the internet did, evades the low-grade surveillance technology of the search engine by using it against itself.)
American Artist’s practice emerges from multiple contexts: the sociopoetics of black radicalism, where revolutionary mass movements merge with philosophical improvisations; the use of software as critique, as seen in the international collective Hyphen-Labs’s virtual reality project, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, which generates more mindful modes of thinking by immersing viewers in black women’s perspectives; the Black Lives Matter movement, which has made it impossible to ignore racially motivated police abuse. “My Blue Window” reminds us that the police are armed with much more than guns, that armature takes the form of so-called neutral technology, that crime forecasting is the same-old anti-black policing, albeit with shiny new information systems and sophisticated artificial intelligence.
“I’M BLUE (IF I WAS █████ I WOULD DIE),” American Artist’s solo exhibition at Koenig & Clinton gallery in Brooklyn this past spring, explored the psychic life of law enforcement. “Blue” alludes to the pseudo-movement Blue Lives Matter, a backlash against Black Lives Matter, positioning police officers not as aggressors but as victims. For the show, Artist fabricated a multimedia police academy that included the video Blue Life Seminar (2019). The animation features a blue-skinned avatar modeled after Christopher Dorner, a black ex-LAPD officer who, after being dismissed from his job, went on a shooting rampage in 2013, killing four people, two of them cops. The computer-simulated Dorner intones, “I’m not an aspiring rapper, I’m not a gang member.” The line is taken directly from the killer’s 6,000-word Facebook manifesto in which he casts himself as a casualty of a racist police force sounding throughout the gallery. “My Blue Window” springs from this satire—the absurdity of a “blue” worldview—but it feels more grim and more real. And it is, despite Artist’s evocation of science fiction. 1956/2054, the Android and iOS app, refers to writer Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story “The Minority Report.” Set in the year 2054, the story is about mutants who can predict crime before it happens and are recruited into a police unit called Precrime. The fictional 2015 is set in the recent past, marking the year the NYPD officially began using predictive policing. NYPD’s stop-and-frisk became a critical talking point in the 2013 mayoral election, but today new digital systems, touted as impartial, have replaced the biased programs activists fought hard to delegitimize. Watching 2015, we hear the hum of the motor, the sharp sirens, and the muffled crime zone announcements as the car moves through the city. The dashcam shot is Artist’s preferred language in this work. The driver is not seen on-screen, putting the viewer in the position of the police. The first-person perspective mines the aesthetic of video games, and puts weight back on the viewer. We are set up not only as spectators but also as actors.
And yet, rather than reducing police tactics to a single issue, “My Blue Window” traces its predominant themes—racist algorithms and the afterlife of slavery—to the most general place. In a January 2019 interview published on Open Set, Artist says: “I think the best way to understand how high technology is anti-black is to consider how the United States is anti-black.” Thus, what is bizarre about “My Blue Window” is just how conventional the intervention seems, just how familiar the view from the blue window is. Policing bleeds into the TV shows, apps, and news we consume every day. Web mapping services are commonplace—we hold location data in our fingers. News is procedural, obsessed with identifying perpetrators and victims. This is where we live: in a police state that refuses to recognize itself as one, even though the Fox television-vérité series “Cops” has been on air since 1989, the year American Artist was born. “My Blue Window” resists the spectacle, carrying instead the analytical impact of “fuck the police” whispered covertly on a street corner.