For every picture of a sunset posted online, danger lurks. Or so I learned a few years ago when my niece posted this dazzling skyline on social media. No sooner had I suggested tagging the location than a shadow of disapproval flickered across her face as she informed me, “our teacher told us never to tag anything online” for safety reasons. Of course. I still can’t believe I was so clueless. Thankfully many kids are getting smart advice from their schools about how to keep personal safety and privacy in mind when using social media.
But, for all of our opting in, opting out, and safeguarding our privacy on and offline, how effective are these measures really? It seems as though every new service or product comes with complex legal policies for use and even, in some cases, actual legislation. Who exactly is being protected and from what? Correspondingly, what is being sacrificed in the name of compliance? Well. Who better than artists to reveal these ambiguities?
In 2004 Jill Magid, a New York-based artist, traveled to Birmingham, England for a stay of 31 days to complete her performance art project, Evidence Locker. The length of her stay was based on the number of days that the police department of Birmingham would retain CCTV footage of pedestrian and vehicular activity in the city center. At this time, city center was monitored by 200 video cameras, the largest urban installation of security cameras in England to date. If you passed through the city center for any reason, you were recorded. Therefore, if you chose to visit Birmingham city center, you tacitly agreed to be recorded.
Magid set off for Birmingham and alerted the CCTV operators that she would be present in the city center clad in a bright red coat to ensure her visibility in the daily footage. Each day she submitted a written request for access to the footage (which required the police department to preserve the footage past) with the goal of creating project videos at the end of the month. Magid’s requests took the form of newsy letters each day, as if she and the CCTV team were good friends instead of unequal partners in a power equation.
And, in fact, they did become close collaborators. Magid highlighted this change in circumstance in her video, “Trust.” This footage shows Magid walking blind through the city center, led only by the voices of the police CCTV controllers who were monitoring her progress. It’s a nice way to bring visibility to the bargain our society has struck between public safety and individual privacy, and the quiet erosion of an individual’s right and opportunity to grant consent.
Magid continues to work in this vein around the world. She explores, “the emotional, philosophical and legal tensions between the individual and ‘protective’ institutions, such as intelligence agencies or the police. To work alongside or within large organizations, Magid makes use of institutional quirks, systemic loopholes that allow her to make contact with people ‘on the inside’. Her work tends to be characterized by the dynamics of seduction, the resulting narratives often taking the form of a love story.”
Mishka Henner, Staphorst Ammunition Depot. Dutch Landscapes, 2011
Mishka Henner, a Manchester, England-based artist, also explores the power dynamics of data and consent. Henner, who I’ve written about here before, creates hyper-detailed images of physical sites by stitching together screenshots from Google Street View and Google Earth. The result is visually striking photography that allows us to see sites that are usually hidden from public view.
Mishka Henner, Unknown Site, Noordwijk aan Zee, Dutch Landscapes, 2011.
The Dutch government insisted that Google pixelate the location to protect national security.
Examples include military installations, oil wells, and industrial farming sites, the last of which is legally protected from public exposure in the United States under anti-whistleblower laws. Henner exploits the omission in this legal protection, the exemption of satellite imagery from Google Earth from “ag-gag” laws. His work encourages us to ask why these sites are generally kept from public view. Military installations and fuel supply locations might be protected for national security purposes, but industrial farming?
Mishka Henner, Tascosa Feedyard, Texas, 2013 (detail)
Henner developed the idea for these works from a 2010 project tracking prostitutes in Manchester, England, when he discovered that they appeared in Google Street View images. Here again we see tacit consent to be recorded assumed by the surveilling entity, in this case, Google Earth, the moment the prostitutes stepped out-of-doors. Henner’s work builds on this by raising the question of why government agencies and large corporate entities are afforded a greater right to privacy, especially in cases where public safety is not a consideration. What does this system of favor say about our values as a culture, and what does it say about those taking full advantage of these privileges?
Mishka Henner, Wasson Oil Field, Yoakum County, Texas, 2013
Magid and Henner remind us that, for all of our angst about setting privacy permissions on social media, the issue of evaporating personal protections is much bigger than any one app. We naturally gravitate towards the little pockets of control we are granted, app by app, when our focus should be on where and when we aren’t granted any options for control at all. My niece and her friends are being as smart as they know how to be about safety today, and really, we are all in the same boat. But I do hope schools expand their teaching to include awareness of just how often personal consent is a foregone conclusion, and a recognition that spaces of exception (where you and your data are not being captured) are worth not just protecting, but demanding.
Mishka Henner’s first solo U.S. show, “Semi-Automatic”, was recently at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York City, and his work will be included in the upcoming “Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015” show at MoMA. Read more about Henner here, and visit his website to see additional works.
Learn more about Jill Magid’s work on her website, and access the “Evidence Locker”, which includes all 31 letters she wrote requesting video footage, here.
- Photo credit: My niece. Location: top secret.