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Private 2 Public
Artists on the Shifting Boundaries of Privacy and Public Space
by Angus Leech
I believe in solitude broken like bread by poetry
-- Anne Hébert, Poetry Broken Solitude
For those who believe in solitude, imagine this scenario: a closely-packed commuter train, and an incoming text message on a cellular phone. Reading the words, you find yourself prompted into a seeming random action by an unknown sender. "Say `Rumpelstiltskin' three times LOUD -- then spin on your heel," orders your suddenly impious mobile. You know it's at least three minutes until the next station stop. There are people all around within earshot. What to do? You want so badly to escape routine, be spontaneous, stay true to the rules of the game. But this time will the public embarrassment be worth your desire to surrender a little.
This type of scenario played itself out many times, in many variations, for subscribers to Surrender Control, an interactive performance project instigated by UK artist Tim Etchells in co-operation with Matt Locke of UK-based The Media Centre. This was part of a larger program of Media Centre experiments coordinated by Locke that were aimed at researching the cultural potential of mobile technologies. In SURRENDER CONTROL, subscribers signed up by sending an SMS phone text message to an anonymous telephone number advertised in magazines and flyers next to the teaser, "Do you want to Surrender Control?" Answering "yes" prompted a series of forty completely anonymous text messages, beginning with gentle suggestions like "Think about travel," but progressing toward riskier, even playfully unacceptable directives, such as "Make eye contact with a stranger" or "Say something unexpected." After ten days of this odd and intimate dialogue, the stream of dares simply ceased with no explanation.
Surrender Control was a research mission into the behavioural impacts of mobile technologies. It shed light on how mobile phones can breach our solitude (damn, I have to take this call), derail our thinking, exert suggestive power, spin our actions, and challenge us to set new boundaries for ourselves. Cell phones link us to many communities at once, and can create dependencies -- often a degree of private agency, (even responsibility) is surrendered to those on the other end of the line. Yet the same device can just as easily be used aggressively as a prop -- for example, to shield the user from unwanted face-to-face attention (Not now, I'm on the phone), or even to grandstand (look at me!). The potential social reverberations are many and varied [and discussed throughout Issue 4]. What is most important is that, because the agent on the other end of the phone was anonymous, Surrender Control turned questions about the mobile's mediating influence back upon the user. Bereft of a real remote personality to interact with, the subscriber was left alone to reflect about how all these mysterious, even schizophrenic whispers were pushing their personal buttons, and perhaps reconfiguring their sense of the comfortably public and private.
Private Reveries / Public Spaces
The interventions of Matt Locke and The Media Centre are part of a much larger wave of contemporary artists who are becoming concerned about the effects of wireless and other very intimate new forms of technology (such as, for example, surveillance technologies and biometrics) upon our ideas, and experiences, of privacy and public space. How are these devices affecting, or infecting, cultural change? What's happening to our concepts of community and intimacy? How are new technologies changing the ways in which we interrelate in public spaces -- or with public spaces? How are the boundaries between public and private shifting?
Private Reveries / Public Spaces (PR/PS) is an ongoing research project funded in large part by Montreal's Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, and managed by SoMa (Social Matrices), an independent programme run by the UK-based non-profit Proboscis. Upon its inception, PR/PS invited leading artists and designers from Europe and North America to address the theme of "converging media technologies (Internet, radio, interactive television, wireless and mobile communications, etc.) and their social and cultural impact on the shifting relationship between private and public spaces." In July, 2001, the organizers challenged fourteen artists -- among them the Canadian David Rokeby -- to propose new works informed by the sorts of questions mentioned above.
The three proposals chosen for full-blown prototyping included UK artist Rachel Baker's Platform, another wireless communication project, this time intended to bring together two privatised and proprietary networks: the London to Glasgow passenger railway system and the mobile phone network. Train riders with wireless devices were sent text messages and photos narrating a story told from various perspectives: the train driver, other passengers, and non-riding watchers monitoring the journey. At home on the Web, other subscribers could actually watch the train's progress online, partake of the stories, and send messages to individual riders. Riders could also message each other. The idea was to create new opportunities for group interaction, and to turn the privatised train car into a more openly public space.
Bomb The Cyberburbs
Turning private, proprietary networks into new opportunities for public dialogue seems to have become a major theme in current wireless artwork. Consider, as another example, Montreal's Marc Tuters and the Geograffiti project. Imagine a world in which anyone with a wireless handheld or portable phone equipped with a GPS (Global Positioning System -- a tool built and controlled by the US military) could independently post and read private messages and multimedia files tagged to points in geographic space. For example, one could post a grocery list or video poem on a street corner, a digitized poster advertising a band's gig (with soundtrack!) in a pub, or a memorial epitaph on a mountaintop. Such data could later be accessed by people on their handheld devices while standing in that physical space, adding a whole new symbolic layer to any location within the GPS signal's reach.
In September of 2002, Tuters and the Geograffiti team completed a working prototype of just such a wireless, GPS-based system for annotating physical space. Guided by a combination of high-octane spatial theory and urban graffiti-artist's aesthetic, the project agenda is essentially to "bomb" the cyberburbs -- to find ways to use GPS-enabled palm pilots to "tag the earth with spatial graffiti". Tuters suggests that by becoming "architects of their own space"1-- by mapping their own art, stories, and other symbolic representations invisibly into physical space using a GPS database -- people (at least those able to afford handheld devices) might gain more say over how their public spaces are defined, managed, and shared. They might also find new ways to communicate.
Power to the People
Elsewhere in Canada, other digital artists are similarly reclaiming public space as a place for dialogue. In Kitchener, Ontario, a creative team of three -- Toronto-based designers Matt and Susan Gorbet, and University of Waterloo engineering professor Rob Gorbet -- developed a sort of "whispering wall" in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of public hydroelectric power in that city (September, 2002). The exhibit, titled P2P: Power to the People, consisted of a giant array of lightbulbs affixed to Kitchener's City Hall. Visitors could post words and pictures on the screen by flipping a corresponding panel of light switches in the square below. As the artists explain on P2P's Web site:
Significantly situated at the entrance to City Hall, P2P puts the marquee, a now ubiquitous and iconic tool of corporate communication, into the hands of the general
public. By engaging in the everyday unconscious activity of flipping a light switch, citizens are able to communicate directly, without the oversight of a centralized authority, within a government-owned public space. Literally and figuratively, P2P brings Power to the People.
A Liar's Blush
Finally, how much more private and intimate (and for that matter, proprietary) can we get than our own bodies? And how is our existence bound to change once this space -- perhaps the last bastion of secrets (indeed, the last solitude) -- has been breached by new forms of surveillance enabled by body-measuring, or "biometric", technologies? How will we adjust to the probings of high-definition thermal imaging (which can tell a nervous liar from her blush), automatic face and voice recognition systems, fingerprint and iris scanning, and the implantation of wirelessly networked microchips into human beings?
These are questions being asked at length by Nina Czegledy, a Hungarian-born artist, curator, writer and former medical researcher who divides her time between Canada and Europe. Through her research and curatorial work (see Digitized Bodies -- Virtual Spectacles, an exhibit held in Toronto and Budapest; November, 2000), Czegledy has investigated the ways in which the once private space of the body is being probed more and more often as a source of data to be used publicly. The primary objectives of this data-gathering are twofold: medical applications (as with biochips that monitor blood-sugar levels in diabetics) and criminal surveillance (as with cameras designed to identify terrorists from their blushes). Czegledy comments:
In the process of establishing giant information databases, the private, corporeal body
has become a key source and site for collecting and distributing information. At the
same time, its various readings have become an issue of publicly-traded commercial
Czegledy is especially interested in artists like the Brazilian Eduardo Kac, and scientists like the UK's Kevin Warwick, both of whom have recently experimented with the implantation of microchips in their own bodies.
In his 1997 performance Time Capsule, Kac implanted an identification biochip made for a dog and registered himself with a database for lost pets. And in 2002, Warwick began an experiment with microchips intended to record human physical sensations like pain or movement and store them in a computer's database, even play them back. Eventually, the scientist hopes to be able to link two humans (for example, two sexual partners) via such implants wirelessly, so that they can share physical sensations. Warwick sees this as another step toward a constantly connected cyber-community. Effectively, such technologies stand to puncture the private sphere of bodily sensation until it bleeds into the domain of shared intimacy, and ultimately leaks far beyond, into the body of widespread public awareness. (At least that is the fantasy.) Biochips may have the potential to move mobile communications to a truly cellular level.
The inquiries of Czegledy, Tuters, Locke, P2P, Private Reveries / Public Spaces, and a host of other artists working with issues of privacy and public space, are clearly multistrategic. Some of these artists are spotlighting the way that mobile devices are redialing our private/public social behaviour. Others are cleverly co-opting privatized communication networks, and/or creating new opportunities for dialogue and interaction in public and semi-public arenas. Yet others are raising questions about what will happen once wireless and surveillance technologies enter the body and turn it inside out. Lumped together, they represent a broad attempt to understand how new digital technologies are redrawing the already blurred boundaries between private and public data, knowledge, and space. Though they tend not to offer direct opinions, most also toy in some subtle way with the matter of how we ought to respond. The implicit question is: "Should we be trying to fortify certain walls between public and private? Or is it time to overhaul our prevailing notions of privacy itself?" Maybe we should we be doing a bit of both. Whatever the case, these projects pose another important question: "Are you paying enough attention?"
Angus Leech is English Editor of HorizonZero.
1. Marc Tuters, World-as-Interface: The Future(s) for Location-Aware Wireless, unpublished paper, 2001.
2. Nina Czegledy is quoted here from The Body as Password, a lecture presented at the Banff New Media Institute (BNMI) on April 27, 2002, as part of Intimate Technologies / Dangerous Zones, a conference sponsored by the BNMI's Human Centred Interface Project.