Taking Liberties
California exhibitor helps festival-goers explore
the topics of access, privacy and technology

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."

Secret passages
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 containment unit."

"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 and experiment."

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 unconventional manner.

"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 containment room."

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 equipment.

"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.

"It's 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."

Adventurous life
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 around us.

"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 sjgdemuth@saljournal.com.