Julia Scher

Maximum Security Society


Julia Scher (b. Hollywood, CA, 1954; lives in Cologne) has traced the gradual emergence of a «maximum security society» since the mid-1980s. This is how sociologist Gary T. Marx describes the current era of surveillance technologies and infrastructures. Borrowing its title from Marx, Scher’s first institutional survey brings together a selection of more than 20 works from 1987 to 2020. It will feature multimedia installations, videos, sculptures and print and online projects. Scher draws on this array of media to make explicit how technologies such as video surveillance, image recognition and automated database queries have become entirely mundane and structure our everyday reality.

Mimicking common surveillance tropes, Scher’s works conjure up the promise of enhanced security and convenience. The installation Occupational Placement, 1989-90, pretends to screen exhibition visitors for suspicious looks or erratic behavior. Its mix of misinformation, ambiguous warning messages, and live and staged footage leaves it unclear what kind of protection (or threat) one should expect here. The mock-brand Security by Julia, which Scher inaugurated in the late 1980s, points to the commercial interests that undergird much contemporary surveillance infrastructures. A 1991 sales prospectus offers fictive services and products such as «random public evaluations» and «behavior and productivity deviance detectors» but Scher has also produced SBJ-branded underwear, condoms and, most recently, hand sanitizer dispensers. These latter works point to aspects of care and safety in the face of public health emergencies like AIDS and Covid-19. What would it take for us to actually be safe, rather than feel secure while being caught up in the power dynamics of surveillance? Scher’s work serves as an urgent reminder that the mitigation of risk in the name of security does not guarantee safety if you are «caught not looking just right».