JANUARY 6, 2017
IN MID-NOVEMBER, Snapchat began opening pop-up stores in Manhattan offering a new product called Spectacles: a set of sunglasses with two small cameras affixed to the lenses, with which one is encouraged to film an experience and upload the video to social media. Its logo is a wet, dilated eye. I doubt its creators are familiar with the work of Guy Debord. Whether or not Spectacles will radically alter cinema or photography in any meaningful way, the conceit reveals an increasing demand for methods to document, surveil, and share life lived in real time through social media. We can no longer mediate our experiences through phones; the camera must become an extension of our bodies. The product begins to feel like a “dystopic” art project. “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality,” wrote Susan Sontag in On Photography. “One can’t possess reality, one can possess images — one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.” Social media, along with features like iPhone’s Live Photo update, seem to be an attempt to indeed possess the present, to obliterate at least one dimension of daily privacy, and to transform the intimate spectacles of everyday into social media currency. And so I was thinking about Spectacles during the latest exhibit of the International Center for Photography (ICP), called Public, Private, Secret, and about the questions that both product and exhibit pose. Namely, what is private anymore? Whose definition of privacy are we using? How does one determine when one’s privacy has been infringed upon? And is privacy what we want?
The artists in Public, Private, Secret do not attempt to patrol the line between private and public in a digital world — they propose that the line no longer exists. Amid rapid digitalization, it has evaporated. Rather, much of the photography displayed examines the way secrecy — and its cousin, intimacy — is surrendered, frisked by the camera, and deposited into the shallow bin of publicity. Works that range in date from 1864 to 2016, and in media from video to stereograph, implicate us in the performance of looking and occasionally enter spaces of moral ambiguity.
But first, the entrance to the building. It’s easy to miss on the Bowery’s sidewalk outside the center, but that may be deliberate. A white Helvetica-type decal reads: “By entering this area, you consent to being photographed, filmed and/or otherwise recorded, and surrender the right to the use of such material throughout the universe in perpetuity.” Besides arousing within viewers a kind of playful paranoia, the disclaimer also negotiates a contract wherein the terms of visibility are set. In a sly curatorial move, one’s privacy must be relinquished to intrude on the privacy of others. Before we are cast as voyeurs, we are first subjects of voyeurism and surveillance. Inside, this is made even clearer through the use of mirrored facets mantled along the gallery walls. And so we become exhibited in the gallery too, forced to reckon with how we take up space in the room and in the world.
Underscoring this sense of reckoning is a 1946 photograph by Life photographer Yale Joel of a woman, nostrils flared, inspecting her eye in a one-way mirror. Though gimmicky, there is something unnervingly vulnerable and predatory in the photograph, whose grotesquerie derives not from the queasy lighting and unflattering angle at which it was taken, but from the fact that the unsuspecting woman thought she was alone with the man idling behind her.
In Testament (2014), Natalie Bookchin appropriates YouTube videos of people venting about being fired. Because Bookchin positioned the videos side by side, edited so that the men and women finish each other’s sentences, a common narrative of unemployment coheres. The fusion of public and private, along with desperate pleas to be heard, comes to resemble a collective prayer. Perhaps when recording accounts of being laid off, each person is expected to be viewed as an individual. But within this context, the individual moments are assimilated into a general story arc, as if to reinforce the notion that one person’s video statement is another person’s video collage.
Photography itself must be redefined in the digital age. Among the many big ideas at the show’s fulcrum is an assertion that the curating of images has become its own art form. “Just as a street photographer might go to the street to document people as they present themselves in public, I go to the internet,” Bookchin told curator Charlotte Cotton in an online interview for the ICP’s website. In the street photography of cyberspace, surveillance functions as it does on the street: a power used to protect, coerce, and shame citizens into submission. Use of the internet as an artistic playground — where consent, anonymity, and freedom of expression are forever imperiled — is not uncommon here.
Secrets are too often mistaken for revelations; works that stray from this concept prove memorable. “Small truths, but mostly lies — projections.” This is how American artist Shelly Silver describes her photographs in a text delivered through Katrín Sigurdardóttir’s Nordic-accented voiceover, in What I’m Looking For (2004), a 15-minute masterpiece that chronicles a clandestine project in which the artist asked strangers to meet with her so that she could photograph them in public. While technically a video, the piece consists solely of static images, often edited to follow each other in rapid succession so that a memory-like film stutters forth. Silver refuses to chaperone our feelings about her exploits, even as a potential subject starts sending her his own licentious photos. She meets with a variety of people, mostly lonely, but often reminds us: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” It is unclear whether or not she finds her labors of intimacy rewarding. Epiphany is batted away, but the brittle empowerments experienced by her subjects — who are photographed near Starbucks, on bridges, and in one case unclothed in the middle of traffic in winter — are snapped into tight focus. Silver remembers one subject declaring that cowards are behind the camera, while the brave are on the other side.
Secrets can sicken; secrets can silence; secrets can also liberate. Yuri Pattison’s 1014 (2015), one of the few unpeopled works exhibited, provides a virtual tour of the hotel where Edward Snowden stayed upon leaving the United States in 2013. The camera prowls past a swivel chair and a bed (made) toward a window overlooking the muted vegetation of Hong Kong, as well as the monolithic office buildings that punctuate the skyline. The artist is, of course, late to the scene; the NSA’s secrets spilled into endless headlines. Steeped in silence, the footage pulls us into an aura of forensic awe and political aphasia. The work shows how the power of secrecy — Snowden’s revelations, in this case — and the secrecy of power — that of the US government — both prove to be somewhat powerless (though in different ways) in this instance — and this relationship is what we are ultimately given a tour of.
Unfolding crime scenes or their aftermath occupy a decent portion of the exhibit. In her series Dirty Windows (1993–’94), Merry Alpern used a telephoto lens to document cocaine use, blow jobs, and copulation in a Wall Street sex club. Illicit trysts are tenderly framed by a begrimed bathroom window and do not cater toward prurient interests so much as emphasize the transactional nature of such intimate acts. Although the faces of the prostitutes are mainly blocked by the window, the granularity and removed quietude of the compositions give an impression of anonymous portraits, perhaps. Yet one can’t help but feel like a voyeur. Why must these sexual crimes and subjugations of real people be frozen forever in film? This is not an indictment of Alpern — the moral ambiguity of Dirty Windows may be its greatest attribute. And despite the major differences involved, who could have predicted the subtle political undertones this artistic espionage assumed after Bill Clinton’s own sexual spectacle two years later, glimpsed through the dirty panes of national media coverage? Eternal loneliness and constant surveillance — the twin anxieties of our postindustrial society — prove compatible, possibly irresolvable, fears.
Other images in the main room include small 20th-century mug shots of Mexican criminals dating from the 1950s to the 1970s, found by Stefan Ruiz in Mexico City and presented in a monotonous rhythm along a wall, their crimes either handwritten below their faces in Spanish or left blank. Whether the unnamed (or even the named) are killers, thieves, pedophiles, or innocent remains unknown. Nearby hang Larry Clark’s famous Tulsa photographs (1963–’71) of heroin addicts, which emanate sickening regret and a troubling glee.
Such images of crime (a word inadequate to describe the photographs’ contents) raise questions about our fascination with criminal acts and about which actions are too sensitive to be photographed or filmed — or even curated and ushered into the fickle frame of “Art.” As the exhibit examines privacy and publicity, it offers exploitations of publicly accessible webcams of strangers, masterworks of paparazzi photography, and choreographed sexual episodes of willing participants. But more urgent problems of privacy inarguably lie in footage captured by police body cameras, as well as by victims of the law itself, in the way such tragic moments in all their horror are inflicted and then disseminated, provoking outrage. The exhibit approaches the limits of art, but cannot be expected to cross it.
The police are featured in one work, though cast as unseen antiheroes. Law enforcers participate in Jill Magid’s 18-minute video, Trust (2004), in which the artist, eyes shut and dressed in a red trench coat, is escorted through the city center of Liverpool via an earpiece through which police give directions using their own surveillance footage. Magid slowly makes her way down the street, occasionally brushing past other pedestrians. Though it is daytime, there is something distantly somnambulant about the work, which poses vital questions about authority and who is in control — of both the sometimes unwillingly collaborative labor of art making and the heavily policed everyday reality of existence. Just as we must trust that Magid is closing her eyes (the footage is sometimes too grainy to tell), we must have faith too in the systems of power to steer her safely through the thoroughfare. For obvious reasons, the metaphor feels inadequate: zero major calamities occur.
It seems to me that newer artistic inquiries into the topic of privacy rarely offer new insights into the nature of looking or being looked at. In Barbara DeGenevieve’s The Panhandler Project (2004–’06), the artist paid vagrants to participate in a nude photo shoot. Two meals, new clothing, a ride to any location, and an overnight stay in a hotel room constitute the bribe that yielded the respectfully framed image from this series on display here, Gordon #4, which shows a black man reclining on a striped comforter, his hand propping up his head. Works like these disappoint not because they disturb, but because they are simply unimaginative, telling us what we already know about photographers’ ability to regulate situations and visual representations. Complicated feelings arise when one considers that many museumgoers are confronted by the dark side of surveillance only from within the bubble of art institutions, where there are no real consequences for looking.
Many seem to have taken umbrage at ICP’s scrambled curation, its avalanche of images and screens — the Guardian claimed its objective was to “junk art history” in order to “reproduce the Web.” Sure, there is no successful organizing principle to the exhibit, but doesn’t this slick garbology of images mirror the postmodern environment we live in? That is the easy excuse. Artists, as well as nonartists, have consistently worked to abolish the walls erected between life and art, and it can feel like their wish is being granted. Ours is an era that labels any unusual spectacle as “performance art”; and anything can claim to be. I am reminded of Laura Poitras’s Astro Noise — the Whitney exhibit earlier this year, which concluded with an installation titled Bed Down Location. This work included a surveillance monitor that mapped in infrared the visitors of the exhibit itself in real time, as well as their electronic devices. Ever since 1987’s Surveillance exhibit at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) — where Julia Scher’s Personal Reception Area (P.R.A.) detonated alarms and lights when visitors tripped motion sensors attached to it — this lift of the curtain begins to feel like a stunt. Rather than inspiring reflection or outrage, this borderline-fun exercise of surveillance numbingly reiterates how omnipresent domestic recon is.
The secrecy implied by the ICP exhibit’s title is made less explicit. Photographers’ fascination with privacy is mostly rooted in a desire to obtrude upon it or even weaponize it (the word aperture, which derives from the Latin word for “to open,” reminds me of an embrasure through which arrows are fired). One’s image is not exactly a secret, after all, and yet so many of the photos here concern themselves with the privacy of faces and bodies. Sometimes an artist is able to comment on privacy not through incursion (by divulging or opening) but by closing or keeping something shut. This is less easy for photographers, whose tendency, as Sontag put it, is to shock, disclose, reconnoiter, and covet.
Conceptual art is better primed to follow this edict. I think often of a project not included in the ICP exhibit — multimedia artist Stephen Kaltenbach’s tantalizing series of time capsules, first made in New York during the late 1960s. In various sized cylinders made with different metals, the artist inscribed instructions such as “Open After Jan. 1, 2000 AD” or “Open After Jan. 1, 2100 AD.” The ineffable meaning of these large metal pills lies in their meaninglessness. “They could possibly contain things and possibly they do not contain things,” Kaltenbach said in an interview with Artforum in 1970. “I don’t say anything about their content or that there’s any content at all, because I found out the concealment of information is as primary a function of the capsule as its preservation.” The work, aesthetically ordinary, beautifully conducts or silences a maddening crescendo of anticipation. All capsules remain unopened, even after the second millennium; Oberlin College has not yet followed the directions of the capsule in its collection. Perhaps the project reached its apotheosis with a capsule, undated, formed from rusted steel, its command inscribed in large red font: “NEVER.”
“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself,” Orwell once wrote (as if this were possible). The aphorism crumbles as it verges on abstract righteousness. Walking through the gallery, I thought of Elena Ferrante, of Russian interference in our election, of the voluntary doxxing of ourselves. It is uncertain whether any secrets — or whose — were being told, revealed, or withheld. Maybe all of these secrets are not unkept: it’s just that now, we all are their keepers.
Top Image: John Houck, [Portrait Landscape] (Video Still), 2015. © John Houck, Courtesy of the Artist
Featured Image: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, [The Revolutionary], from [Spirit is a Bone], 2013. Courtesy of the Artists. © Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin