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Gema Álave: Observational Awareness

Observational Awareness is an exhibition of two series of drawings, Silences and Reflex, by Queens-based artist Gema Álava that explore surveillance, behavior and memory.

Exhibited for the first time, Álava’s Silences series (2008) began as a reaction to the clandestine nature of Fluxus-like performances that took place over a several month period at MoMA when the museum was closed to the public. Álava engaged fellow artists in a series of one-on-one private conversations about the collection as they toured the museum. The only recordings of these dialogs were the surveillance cameras of the museum, recordings long since lost. The dark, moody atmospheres of the drawings pierced by shafts of directional light, created in ink on paper on the NYC subway, enroute to the secret conversations at MoMA intimate the surreptitious, underground nature of the performances. Divorced from this context, however, the combination of gloomy, allusive shadows and stark illumination suggest conflicts in both the physical and psychological aspects of light and dark as well as the paradoxical nature of human existential experience.

Beginning in 2010, Álava’s Reflex is a response to two performances titled Trust Me (2010) that she orchestrated in two separate major museums in New York City. In those performances she guided 11 fellow participants on tours of the museum and verbally described the artwork they encountered to her guests, who were blindfolded with opaque sunglasses, as they passed through the museum surrounded by other non-participant patrons, guards, etc. Álava created the drawings in pen and ink back in her studio through a combination of photographs of the museums surveillance cameras and her memories of the performance participant’s conversations about the artwork as it was described to them. The temporal nature of both the actual performance and Álava’s recollection of it constitute the imagery in the drawings as seen reflected in the panopticon of the camera lens cover and offer us a visual metaphor for the experience of time and the hazy, ephemeral essence of memory.

An ironic take on situational awareness (the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed) the exhibition Observational Awareness explores the meaning of observation in contemporary society. Álava writes, “We need to be aware of the way we observe; the way we have been trained to observe; who is observing us, and why.”