Finding Inspiration for Art in the Betrayal of Privacy

I left the Glass Room invigorated by the ways artists are exploring the dark side of our digital footprint. Artists’ obsessions with technology are not new, but in the late aughts, the work tended to focus on the possibility of the medium, treating technology like a new tool rather than a sociopolitical framework. Browser hacks scrambled web pages, turning them into distorted images, and Facebook-oriented projects treated the platform’s design as Dadaist.


Photo illustration by Adam Ferriss. Source photograph by View Pictures/UIG, via Getty Images.

“It was that early millennial era, when the 20-somethings were defining their generation by its use of technology and social media without raising questions about privacy, data or corporate power,” says Joanne McNeil, an artist and a writer who often tackles topics relating to the intersection of art and technology. Her theory is that because many artists — all of us, really — were so captivated by the initial promise of the internet, they were blinded to its potential problems. “I think because it was so much a networking tool — they were friending curators, other artists — Facebook seemed necessary, rather than an institution to distract or antagonize.”

In the earlier part of this decade, I myself fell prey to a similar infatuation. Technology impressed me so much that I didn’t consider its implications. I remember once driving in 2007 out to Pacifica State Beach in California and spotting a billboard that advertised a free business directory from Google. Later that day, during a slow spell at the restaurant where I waitressed, I tried it. You dialed GOOG-411, and an automated service located the number you needed — a hotel, a home, a nail salon — and dialed it for you. It’s hard to explain how impressive this was back then. Before smartphones and unlimited data plans became ubiquitous, GOOG-411 was an ingenious life saver, especially because it was free (its alternative, dialing 411, sometimes cost $2 or more per request). Google engineers were also using the service to help build a library of human sounds, in order to refine the company’s speech-recognition system. Helping to build a robot seemed unbelievably cool at the time. But that was nearly 10 years ago, before I knew about all the ways in which seemingly innocuous data collection can turn insidious, how programs not so different from that directory have given rise to predictive policing, algorithmic biases and unthinkable privacy breaches.

Each day, it seems, we now learn about some new way our supposedly locked-down information is being leaked — as happened recently at Yahoo, which lost control of millions of passwords. Terms of agreement are updated with disturbing details in the fine print. The maker of the note-taking application Evernote, for example, recently sent out a notice to its millions of users that its engineers would be looking at their data to improve its services. Although there was a way to opt out, the company warned that doing so could compromise future services. The outcry against the change forced the company to reconsider.

Artists now seem to be tangling with and reflecting these dark undertones in their work. Roddy Schrock, the director of Eyebeam, a space for new media, recently noted in an interview with an art blog how artists have changed their approach. “Eyebeam was born at a time, in the late ’90s, when thinking around technology was naïve and utopian,” he said. “I think much current thought around technology is still naïve, but no one even pretends that the outcomes will be utopic now.”

That lack of pretending is now readily apparent. Friends of mine who attended Art Basel in Miami posted photographs of works like the “Social Security Cameras” by Fidia Falaschetti, a series of security cameras whose outer casings had been replaced with the candy-colored logos of companies like Twitter, Google, Snapchat and Instagram. The cameras were a chilling reflection of our documentation-obsessed times, how our need for validation usurps our desire for privacy and the protection of personal information. Also at Basel was the work of a Shanghai artist who uses the handle Aaajiao, who installed a machine that printed out lists of websites blocked by China’s firewall, reflecting the limits of the online experience in the country.

And the New Jersey-based artist Sondra Perry recently had an incredible show in the Kitchen, a Chelsea performance space, called “Resident Evil” that mixed video-game perspectives with bodycam and news footage that pushed visitors to think about how black bodies survive despite the threats posed by surveillance. Perry told an interviewer that she was invested in understanding how the power structures that govern the internet — which has essentially become a group of corporations — was shaping our sense of self and autonomy. “When we think that we are trying to express ourselves, and we’re being individuals,” she said, “we’re being individuals within a frame that is primarily to collect our data and sell us stuff.”

Artists have long urged cultural introspection by creating work that forces awareness of our current political and economic landscape. A clip of Nina Simone speaking about art’s power as activism has been floating around the web more vigorously than usual in the last few months. In it, Simone has an air of urgency. “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times,” she says. She continues: “We will shape and mold this country, or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore.” Art has the ability to be a mirror, reflecting back to us the world as it is, even if we’re not ready to see it. Artists like Perry, Falaschetti and Onuoha are trying to awaken us from our complacency, pushing us to look beyond the blinding dazzle of our devices.

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