Art exhibition at The New School pushes boundaries of online privacy

A photo of words from text messages and emails sent by people who tried to connect through Craigslist’s Missed Connections.

NEW YORK: Image after image splashes on the wall of the art exhibition – a snapshot of young people laughing and drinking, a picture of an elephant, an exposed belly of a woman barely covering her breasts with one arm.

The photos were taken from their computers without their knowledge. Over in a corner, visitors can sort through Facebook profile photos from unwitting users through a website that organizes them by gender, country and adjectives such as “sly,” ‘‘smug” or “easy going.”

Think online dating site, for people who don’t know they are on it.

The works are part of “The Public Private,” an art exhibition that explores the gray areas of online privacy, surveillance and data collection in the age of Facebook and Google.

The pieces shift across the boundaries between public and private, all through the lens of technology. Lines are never clear, if there are any at all, and that can be unsettling.

The show’s curator, Christiane Paul, says she hopes visitors will walk away with questions. The exhibition’s goal, she says, isn’t to declare Facebook universally bad or social media evil, but to get people thinking.

Art exploring social networking as a subject is just emerging – Facebook and Twitter having been born nine and seven years ago, respectively.

“I don’t think good art provides easy answers,” says Paul, the adjunct curator at Whitney Museum of American Art and a media studies professor at The New School.

Bringing the concept of online privacy into the physical world can feel both uncomfortable and eye-opening.

Posting something on Facebook, for instance, can feel more private than shouting it on a busy street, even if – the opposite is true.

“We are living, really, in a situation where we don’t know what we want to have as public,” says Paolo Cirio, one of the featured artists. “We don’t know what is public and what is not. It’s a moment of confusion for a lot of people.”

Some of the works in the show exist in a legal and ethical gray area.

For “The Others,” artist Eva Mattes explains, she and collaborator Franco Mattes gained access to private computer files through “old software that lets you anonymously share files from your computer ... But people who are not familiar with it mistakenly share their whole computer without realizing it.”

Looking inside a stranger’s computer, she says, feels a bit like peeking into his or her house.

The artists didn’t feel conflicted grabbing photos from private computers.

“The first thing I noticed is how little difference there is with the ones you see online all the time,” Franco Mattes says. “These are supposedly private photos, but they’re no different than public photos. In a sense, I’m doing what all photographers do: I ‘take’ photos.”

There has been some blowback.

“The first time we showed the work, in Sheffield, U.K., a person claimed to be portrayed. To be honest it was hard to tell whether or not he really was the guy in the photos,” Eva Mattes says in an email interview. “Anyway, the next day he came back to see the exhibition with his whole family, to show them he was famous.”

Brooke Singer, a new media studies professor at New York’s Purchase College, says the imagery of “The Others” is in itself uninteresting. It looks exactly like photos people post online.

“So the point of the project,” she says, “is not the content per se but to have us consider the ethics and audacity of the act.”

The project, she adds, speaks more broadly about the digital age – the way limits to what can and cannot be replicated are constantly built up and torn down “by various interests. This also points toward our false sense of isolation as we are on our ‘personal’ computers always connected to the network.”

Many of the pieces poke at Google and Facebook, but camera surveillance is also a central theme. Wafaa Bilal’s “Ard” project takes a look at what he’s left behind – literally. The Iraqi artist had a camera surgically implanted into the back of his head.

It had to be removed because of infection risk and because his body rejected it. Now, he attaches it through less invasive means, using a wraparound headgear.

“During my journey from Iraq to Saudi Arabia, on to Kuwait and then the U.S., I left many people and places behind,” Bilal writes on his website describing the project.

“The images I have of this journey are inevitably ephemeral, held as they are in my own memory.”

The twist is that he doesn’t see the memory while it’s getting captured, leaving it behind.

Another gray-area piece, Cirio’s “Face-to-Facebook,” has been taken offline, after Facebook’s lawyers complained. Visitors can use a computer at the exhibition to look through the piece. Cease-and-desist letters from Facebook are posted on an adjacent wall.

Created in 2011, the project consists of data that hundreds of thousands of Facebook users shared on the site publicly – including their name, profile photo, the country they live in and groups they belonged to.

Cirio and co-creator Alessandro Ludovico put all the information in a database and used face-recognition software to put people in personality categories such as “funny,” ‘‘climber” and “smug.” Then, the artists set up a dating website using the photos and information. It was called Lovely Faces. It didn’t last long.

Facebook sent its first cease-and-desist letter in February 2011, complaining the artists used an automated program to “scrape” Facebook user data, in violation of the site’s policy.

“Although it was online only five days, a lot of people understood that what they publish on Facebook eventually could be used by someone else without their authorization,” Cirio says. “And they lose control of their data.”

“The Public Private” is up at The New School through April 17. For more information see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 11, 2013, on page 16.




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