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Privacy Perspectives | What Surveillance Art Can Teach Us Related reading: Bots and the Privacy Pro



Eyebrows were recently raised when a Florida-based art gallery announced plans to exhibit the work of the artist XVALA. Was this controversial exhibition another spectacle featuring elephant dung wiped on canvas? Or was it a human skull encrusted with diamonds? Or what about Marina Abramovic’s “Rhythm 0” exhibition?

No. XVALA will exhibit hacked naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton as well as other victims of nonconsensual pornography.

Celebgate, as it’s known on the Internet, has garnered much attention, and rightfully so. Reddit and 4chan have been criticized for allowing public forums that share the stolen property. They eventually caved to pressure and took down the forums—but even Friday, as Kashmir Hill reports, employees at Imgur are undergoing constant whack-a-mole takedowns of continuously reposted images.

So is XVALA’s exhibit criminal?

He said the goal of the exhibit is not a publicity stunt. “This is a commentary on who we are today,” XVALA said. “It’s a dialogue about stolen property and privacy, and (in the Internet world), how much we give and how much it takes. We’re not trying to do anything illegal, not posting or sharing or leaking. It was all found on Google. We don’t condone hacking. We have a message and sometimes you have to go to the extreme to get people to see.”

Certainly, Celebgate has brought many privacy issues to the forefront, and perhaps, just maybe, some will learn a thing or two about vulnerability to hackers from the incident: Even when images are not shared between users and strong passwords and two-factor authentication should be the norm. But XVALA’s exhibit attempts to demonstrate that non-celebrities simply have much less to fear.

Would anyone go to an exhibit of leaked photos of random men? Would it make news?

Maybe it would.

Take “The Neighbors” exhibition. Renowned photographer Arne Svenson was taken to court by irate … well, naturally, neighbors, over the photo series. The images, taken without the neighbors’ consent, include shots of unremarkable people napping, cleaning their homes or going about other mundane activities. They were taken with a telephoto lens into apartments in a glass building in New York City. The subjects were literally living in a glass house.

Svenson won the initial case because, in New York City, at least, no law prohibits looking into apartment windows. An ArtNews column asks, “But what is the difference between looking at people or places and producing a photograph that is distributed and displayed in the public arena? And does any of this matter today, when Facebook, selfies and NSA data-gathering have expanded access to personal information to the point where many believe we are witnessing the death of privacy?”

Of course, many predicted the death of privacy in the 1890s when the camera became much more portable and user-friendly. It even prompted the first privacy treatise, Warren and Brandeis’ The Right to Privacy.

Unlike Svenson’s peek into private spaces, there has been a long history of artists and photojournalists publishing photos of anonymous individuals in public spaces. Andy Warhol famously created a series of graphic images gleaned from suicides, automobile accidents and other tragedies in his “Death and Disaster” series. Likewise, “The Falling Man” has been a controversial image, an unidentifiable man falling to his death from one of the burning World Trade Center towers during 9/11. What if, during these times—even 2001—there were facial tagging features and other social media check-ins? The anonymity of these public images may have drastically diminished. Would Warhol have been able to exhibit his series, or Richard Drew publish his photo? Perhaps not.

Plus, now we’re dealing with a world where the online and offline spheres are rapidly blurring. As the Internet of Things continues weaving itself into the mainstream (and the very fabric of our clothing!), these previously separated worlds will breakdown.

The work of Paolo Cirio has explored this blurring. In his 2012 project called Street Ghosts, Cirio chose pictures of individuals randomly taken by Google’s Street View project. He then printed them onto posters and placed them in the areas in which the original shot was taken. “According to Cirio,” ArtNews explains, “he did this to bridge the gap in people’s thinking about the difference between online and offline reality.” Cirio received a mixed bag of reaction, of course.

“We worry about being naked on the street, but we don’t worry about being naked on the Internet,” he said, pointing out that people are likely more guarded about their privacy while in public, but seem to have no issue sharing personal details to the public online.

The confidence boost is analogous to the one felt by anonymous commenters, who suddenly become tough guys when hidden behind a keyboard. Who feel comfortable sharing and posting images of celebrities (and other women for whom public humiliation through naked images is a possibility) because of the very fact of their own anonymity.

Sometimes, it takes an artist to bring the hypocritical absurdity of a situation to light. Like other art before it, this leading edge of expression exploring surveillance, privacy and anonymity will challenge and make us face the realities we are creating in the 21st century—at least as long as these exhibits are permitted for public consumption.

Photo credit: davepattern via photopin cc


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