If the NSA had an art exhibit it might look like one of these …
A hushed lover’s spat in a corner of the New York Public Library hawked to the ends of the earth via a live Twitter feed.
Your personal Facebook profile or Craigslist “Missed Connections” message used in an art installation at Parsons New School for Design in New York in 2013 – without your knowledge or consent.
Or TWIT spotting (texting while in traffic) – Bay Area artist Brian Singer’s public shaming campaign using photos of texting drivers caught in the act, which he imposes on billboards and sends online.
All of these ‘exhibits’ are part of current or past art projects exploring surveillance technology, social media or related issues, which seem to be growing almost as fast as the NSA mission statement and enemies list.
Motives vary for the mildly dirty work. Some are serious social commentaries, raising awareness of the danger, ubiquity and consequences of 24/7 surveillance. There’s also the shock factor. It was a breeze to find and publicize an insane fear of clowns/neckties/dentists/bridges or whatever. Think of the possibilities.
Other artists just want to have a little (slightly paranoid) fun and generally tick people off –because they can. Many fine and flowery words came with Parson School of Design’s 2013 series of exhibits, “The Public Private,” by artists Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovsome.
Using automated programs, they “scraped” information from more than 1,000,000 Facebook profiles and had big plans for us. Cirio and Ludovicoa posted profiles and photos of (presumably single) clients into a dating site they created called “Lovely Faces.” Not only are the artists “making a sophisticated critical action” against a giant corporation, but they are also formulating a “simple hack that everybody can potentially use,” they claim. So Parts II, III or more may be hovering in the wings.
At times their work seemed just an elaborate prank, through the magic of “self-learning neural network” algorithms and data mining. Apparently the Lords of Facebook thought so and mercifully put it quickly to death. A cease-and-desist letter stopped the massive project’s website after only five days operation.
Uber-inflamatory “Conversnitch” is a surveillance art project getting great gobs of media attention after patrons of cafes and libraries recently found they are being secretly recorded and published online. Artists Brian House and Kyle McDonald thought it would be helpful to make “people think more about privacy issues” by invading their privacy in hitherto unknown and uncharted means.
Innocent looking plastic containers stashed with audio equipment – (watch out for non-working “lamps”) threw light on private lives across Manhattan recently. As far as we know the gig is still on, although it apparently took seven months before they were discovered. Don’t they change light bulbs at libraries anymore?
Simple technology is shared by the artists as well as directions on sending information to Amazon's Mechanical Turk (a crowd sourcing platform). But here it gets nasty – Turk users are able to post conversations to a dedicated Twitter feed for the project. Thankfully most full names and other identifying conversation seems to be redacted, but will audio or video be next year's project? Hhmmm …
A few current recent excerpts from their Twitter feed: "I won't lie [?] babies are not cute, this one pretty much looks like a baby monkey with all of that hair."
"Did you know a nurse named Jody? [xx] and Jody have a baby together. Isn't that a trip? He also got fired from his job."
Conversnitch's website describes the small device as automatically tweeting "overheard conversations and sending them online" from physical and private to virtual and public spaces. The revelation is too new for much response yet other than shock. But I'd expect a hue and cry from weary New Yorkers who now must add voyeuristic flower pots and street lamps as objects capable of hostile observation.
McDonald trespassed on this territory before by covertly installing software on new computers at a New York Apple Store in 2011. The program sent him photos of people staring at computer screens and also brought the Secret Service pounding at his door. He escaped prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but it looks as if McDonald bores easily and now has the entire world buzzing about the caper in New York.
There are so many new social media platforms and evolving gadgetry that it's a paradise for technically inclined artists – and troublemakers. News of the Conversnitch lamp was considered clever enough for London's Daily Mail to feature in their "Science & Tech" section rather than the Arts.
Not all these interventions have been particularly appreciated or bring great popularity to their creators, but they can be amusing ... as long as you're not caught in their trap.
Brian Singer of "TWIT spotting" fame has been accused of vigilantism and invasion of privacy, but most public reaction was positive for his Maoist-styled, anti-texting campaign. He doesn't particularly care if participation is voluntary or if he instigates a forced reaction to these publicly mediated efforts.
"I would say this is a socially-minded art project," Singer explained to The Creators Project.
2013 was a truly bad year for New Yorkers hoping for a little privacy. Famed photographer Arne Svenson took secret, telephoto snaps of his neighbors' domestic activities inside their apartments last year without their permission and exhibited them at local galleries.
Svenson offered no lofty social concerns in excuse of his un-neighborly behavior.
"There is no question of privacy," his statement read concerning the subjects. "They are performing behind a transparent scrim on a stage of their own creation with the curtain raised high."
Perhaps the weather was just too much for Svenson, but he does have a bit of an attitude.
Illustrator and journalist Hendrik Willem Van Loon noted long ago that the arts are a "better barometer of what is happening in our world than the stock market or debates in Congress," and that's still true. Yet the NSA and DHS are giving artists a tough time keeping up with the truly inconceivable and fantastic on the surveillance-war fronts.
Edward Snowden's leaks reveal that U.K. spy agency Government Communications Headquaters (GCHQ) monitors all Wikileaks visitors. Codenamed ANTICRISIS GIRL, their program stores IP addresses and other information, which is shared with the U.S. and other nations (and can be used to identify individuals.) This wouldn't be nearly so alarming if we trusted current U.S. and U.K. administrations are gathering evidence against terrorists rather than the rest of us.
Art surveillance projects could be seen as guardrails to our real and plummeting privacy, although they may smell a bit patronizing and be hard to take seriously. In the long run, finding your vicious remarks on a bride's dress in a public forum may be better than the furtive mining of speech for political ends – that you may never suspect.
Sources: Firstlook.org / Los Angeles Times / Wired.com 2012 / The Public Private / bigstory.ap.org / New York Post / New York Times / Twitter / Vice.com.