Yesterday Helanya and I attended an art exhibition during Utrecht’s classical music festival (when in Rome…). The exhibition was on the topic of privacy, and several young artists exhibited their projects. There’s this Danish guy who travels to distant countries so he can be photographed by obscure security cameras. (He always wears the same clothes.) And this Dutch guy who exhibits pictures of beautiful desert hills, and then explains that these are the backgrounds of the beheading videos released in August 2014. And this Swiss guy who takes pictures of the hyper-secure bunkers that store plant, animal and human data. And this British guy who creates CCTV images of the 100 most powerful Londoners. Here’s his explanation:
A few months after the 2011 riots in London, the police handed out leaflets showing grainy, security camera images of youngsters who had supposedly taken part in the violence. But is a photo without context, analysis or interpretation of the facts sufficient to prove someone’s guilt, just because they have been caught on CCTV? By mimicking CCTV images of the 100 most powerful Londoners (according to British magazine Square Mile), I turn the cameras back on their controllers. I do not set out to assign blame but rather to draw attention to the ease with which the youngsters were pilloried while these influential individuals have remained comfortably anonymous. Just as it is impossible to be sure that the youngsters portrayed by the police are criminals, we cannot conclude that the people shown here had any involvement in the global financial crisis. My point is: in an age of visual control, the way in which images are produced and used can impact our assumptions about the truth.
I thought it was fantastic.
But my favourite was a small project by Milan Rijnders*, a Dutch art student. Earlier this year, Milan stopped a tourist in Amsterdam and asked to take his photo. He agreed and gave Milan his email address to send him a copy of the photo. Milan then decided to find out as much as he could about this man, but limiting himself to only using Facebook. The result is extraordinary: in a collage shown in the gallery (see photo), Milan has outlined the life of Canadian Mikael Labrecque, the man he photographed in Amsterdam. He has pictures of him travelling abroad, of his girlfriend, of their families and extended families, even pictures of them and their families’ cats and dogs. All from an email address.
Where are the boundaries between public and private? How much of our lives do we want to be known, recorded, downloadable? I work a lot with historical information of (mostly dead) people. I always wish for more data, but perhaps there’s a limit to what we need to preserve. In the era of Big Data, future historians’ challenge will not be too little information but too much.
When Milan told Mikael of his project, he wasn’t upset. In fact, he seems to have been indifferent. As Milan notes, his reaction is perhaps illustrative of a whole generation of Facebook users who seem barely aware of the public access of the material they post. The secret lives of others are, for good or bad, more visible than we might think.
PS: Two years ago, Milan also made this short film about a Dutch rugby player. See if you can spot the Stormers jersey.