California exhibitor helps festival-goers explore
of access, privacy and technology
By GARY DeMUTH
The Salina Journal
There are secrets being uncovered
at this year's Smoky Hill River Festival.
All weekend, potential spies have been stealthily creeping to
the Smoky Hill River Outpost, a multileveled hideout that sits
at the north end of Oakdale Park under the watchful gaze of
the park's Statue of Liberty.
Once at the outpost, curious
explorers have searched for a secret passage that leads to a
room filled with surveillance cameras, bugging and listening
devices, police scanners and pinhole cameras. They also have
discovered a touch of the mystical, with crystal balls, Ouija
boards and tarot cards strategically placed among the electronics.
For those who wanted a view
from above, a scissor lift carried observers 20 feet into the
sky, parallel to a pyramid on top of the outpost, providing
a bird's-eye view of the festival area.
So what is this mysterious combination
of high-tech buggery and mystical muggery?
For artist and designer Aaron
Gach, the purpose of creating an electronic outpost was to explore
ideas of access, control, security and public and private space.
"I was looking at the
mystification of technology -- how magic and technology overlap,"
said Gach, 28, who lives in Oakland, Calif. "Many people
don't understand how technology works -- how its purposes are
often hidden from us and used for advertising and capital gain."
As for the crystal balls and Ouija boards, Gach wants to show
that mysticism and technology have an entwined history.
"Science has always been
connected to magical practice and has often been shrouded in
mysteries," he said.
Gach wants his outpost to be
entertaining as well as instructive.
"I want people to have an experience, something that encourages
them to have conversations with other people," he said.
"I'm interested in secrets, not in being secretive."
The outpost is an official
festival exhibit sponsored by the Salina Art Center, 242 S.
Santa Fe. Gach built it with help from high school students
enrolled in the art center's Young Artists in Action, a program
that allows students to participate in the conceptualization
and construction of artistic projects through the summer months
and during the school year.
Gach was invited to create a
work for the Smoky Hill River Festival after conducting an earlier
art center project this year, the SACred Art Bloodrive with
the American Red Cross.
"For the past several years,
the art center has worked with the Salina Arts and Humanities
Commission to co-sponsor an artist at the festival," said
Stacy Switzer, exhibition coordinator at the Salina Art Center.
"If possible, we like to tie an artist project to the context
of an exhibition we've had this year. After soliciting ideas
from several artists, we suggested Aaron do a project because
we felt the nature of his work was a natural fit for the entertainmentlike
atmosphere of the festival. "He takes a lot of heavy questions
dealing with information exchange, access and privacy, and makes
them physically tangible in a really inviting, engaging way."
As visitors approach the outpost, they come across a fence that
Gach said serves as a security access point. At a registration
desk, a group of people are given access to the lower level
of the outpost, a living room area Gach called a "comfortable
"It's an open room where
people try to find a secret passage that will give them access
to an audio-surveillance room," Gach said. "This is
not a guided tour but is designed to encourage people to explore
Gach confessed that a sliding
bookcase in the room served as the secret passageway.
Once in the audio-surveillance
room, visitors can clandestinely eavesdrop on other people who
come into the comfortable containment unit -- albeit in a very
"There's a figure of Superman
in the containment room that appears innocuous, but in actuality,
people in the audio room can listen and speak through Superman's
ass," Gach said. "Located on the other side of Superman,
behind his butt, is an acoustic amplifier that lets people speak
through the wall or listen to conversations going on in the
There are several levels of
the outpost: From the audio room, visitors can climb up to the
observation deck, an open area about 15 feet from the ground.
Above the observation deck is a pyramid made from PVC pipe.
"When you get to that level, you can choose your own adventure,"
Gach said. "You can either go to the control room or ride
a scissor lift that takes you about 20 feet in the air."
The control room houses most
of the other surveillance equipment, including cameras placed
at various angles, radio scanners, bugging devices and listening
"It's there that people
have the opportunity to see how surveillance equipment works
and what drawbacks there are to using them," Gach said.
Gach ships and transports his
own electronic equipment from Oakland, which he admits can be
risky. Several expensive pieces have been lost, broken or stolen
during previous exhibitions.
heartbreaking, but you try to deal with it the best you can,"
he said. "If anything teaches you about the temporality
of life, it's art."
Gach is a longtime social activist who believes in looking at
life both as an adventure and a game. He is a member of the
Center for Tactical Magic, a global organization based in Oakland
that explores the connection between art and magic. He has spent
the past year observing and working with a private investigator,
a magician, a ninja and a locksmith, exploring the way these
individuals deal with power and how that power affects the world
"I'm somewhere between
a cultural explorer and an aesthetic bounty hunter," he
said. "Art is about creative problem-solving. If the problem
is oppression, art is used to liberate. If it's apathy, art
is used to inform or ignite. If the problem is boredom, then
art is used for fun."
The outpost is designed to be
a combination of information and fun, and the students of Young
Artists in Action who worked with Gach said they learned a lot
from the experience.
"It's a really cool project,
and I think people should really come and see it," said
Natasha West, 14, a student at Salina Central High School. "Aaron
is fun to work with. He makes us think we're the ones building
it, so it's like it becomes our project too."
Chris Riley, 15, another Central
student and son of Salina Art Center publication coordinator
Lori Brack, agreed.
"He listens to you and makes you understand what he's trying
to do," he said.
Chris Pahls, 16, a student at
Sacred Heart High School, is a budding painter who signed up
for Young Artists in Action to work with and learn from more-experienced
artists. He admitted working on the outpost was a unique experience.
"I think it's something
that should raise a lot of questions from people," he said.
"I know I've never seen anything like it before."
* Reporter Gary Demuth can be
reached at 823-6464, Ext. 109, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.