People doing things

Here is an image taken without the subjects explicit permission in public:

Here is another:

Here is a third:

What is the difference between these images? Here’s one: the first and second were taken with something that is instantly recognizable as a camera: a 4×5 inch camera. The third was taken by a computer, which most people realize can contain cameras, but are not generally classified as cameras in a taxonomy of things. A camera, when not attached to the hands of a photographer, has no agency, and therefore is seen as only being an extension of the photographers agency, that is to say: the camera won’t do anything on its own. A computer, similarly has no agency, but it can have the appearance of agency and this is where the trouble for the third image lies. The third image was taken by a program which looks for a face and if one is found uploads those pictures to a site. Strangely, the first and second images were taken by a much simpler program that was activated in part by a tripwire. Both relied on deception of a sort: the first two, the assumption that building scaffolding on a storefront and a man dressed in work-mens overalls were not in fact all in place to take their pictures; the third, that the computer would not take your photograph while you looked at it. No permission was asked at all for the first and second, permission was asked for the third, albeit with a slight linguistic trick involved. The first and second are quite universally recognized as artworks while the third is the object of some rather contentious discussion about whether it is or is not art.

Here is another key difference: the first and second were taken on New York City street, the third inside an Apple store, an ostensibly private space which is completely branded, that is, which is a representation of a company and a showcase for their products. Why this is such a difference in actual, ontological terms is beyond me, but in legal terms it allows the company to claim that by having pictures taken inside their store by one of their own machines demonstrating agency which they have not vetted and crafted they are somehow causing damage to the brand and reputation. In the United States, people assume that private spaces are private, that is, that anything which occurs in the private space is sanctioned by the entity which owns that space. This is the social contract that allows us to accept the notion of suing for slipping and falling in a private space but not a public one. This is also the social contract that sees us seemingly prefer privately managed and branded spaces to public ones.

Here is another key difference: the first and second were sold for substantial amounts of money, the third was not and there are no plans to do so.

Here is another key difference: the first and second images do not attempt to acknowledge how they were made, while the third fundamentally and explicitly deals with its circumstances of making.

I put the term “the appearance of agency” in quotes because, although cameras can do remarkably complex computational operations, they are not seen as computers and are not seen as possessing agency. A computer, because it possesses the capacity to do remarkably complex operations, can have any operation extrapolated to the extreme, even when all it’s doing is taking your picture. The Apple store, where the third picture is taken, is covered in cameras: security, computer, camera-phone. All are taking pictures that are slightly different than the ones taken by the computer in front of which the man in the third photo is standing, but none of which provoke the same sort of outrage. Why is this? Do we secretly fear our computers? Do we secretly fear anyone who is not an agent of a corporation? The assumption is: this computer is completely under my control right now, even while I do not own it and am using it in public space owned by another entity. This is patently not true but to reveal that it is not true is deeply disconcerting to many.

Another interesting thought from the reaction to the third image: Apple scanning all your information as you enter it is acceptable because they’re simply looking for patterns. We know they do this, because that’s how they found the photo-taking program and I’ve seen two lines of thinking on this. First, it’s ok because we are in an Apple store and by being in an Apple store we’re consenting to give Apple what they want to know about us. Second, it’s ok because we’re only having our information subjecting to a statistical analysis, a “looking for patterns”. They’re not looking for “us”, they’re looking for something recognizably non-typical. In the images though, we’re looking for patterns as well. We’re looking for something recognizably typical. We’re looking to see what people look like when they do something, to examine them and see how they look, what their faces tell us about their inner life. People happily enter their data onto the Apple computer owned by Apple in the Apple store because Apple is responsible for them. Judging from the reaction, fascinatingly, your passwords, user-names, browsing habits, and so on, are seemingly less private that your face when you are looking at a computer screen. By placing one small layer of un-branded functionality into the Apple experience, the third breaks the contract that people have with the private entity with which they haven chosen to engage. From reading complaints and criticisms on blogs it seems that peoples largest objection is a sort of outrage of false-advertising: someone who is not Apple is on my Apple computer. Which is far worse than Apple monitoring everything you do on their computers.

The first two images were taken by the photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia. He rigged scaffolding on a New York City street that looked like any other scaffolding and took peoples pictures with a trigger and trip-wire as they walked through the scaffolding. The actual shutter was tripped by his hand, as he maintains to maintain the “hand made” patina of the work, while the flash was tripped with a trigger. Perhaps it was also to quiet his conscience or simply because he fears automation. He then printed the pictures and sold them for around 30.000$US each. The third image was taken by an Apple computer in the Apple store running a program written by the computational artist Kyle McDonald. He installed a piece of software on the Apple computer that took pictures and uploaded them to the internet. I haven’t read anywhere that Mr. Dicorcia should go to jail or that he violated anyones ethics and should be sued. I have read both of Kyle McDonald.

Here is a sample reaction to Mr. diCorcias photographs:

“Unaware of the camera, they are absorbed in thought or gaze absently; they are how we act most of the time, walking down the street, in a crowd, focused on something or nothing. But enlarged and isolated, their expressions become riddles, intensely melodramatic and strangely touching.”

I find the reaction to Kyle McDonald “People Staring at Computers” both fascinating and saddening. None of the complaints seem to make very much sense to me, yet hearing them raised is, I think, an enlightening view onto the meaning of this artwork (or art action). Raising the issue of privacy as so many commenters have, is quite bizarre, the issue of “brand-damage” is the sort of sad corporate-think that I suppose I should get used to in the 21st century US, the anger at “the hacking” betrays a complete misunderstanding of both hacking and what’s actually being done with this small program. The reactions and thinking around these two instances are very telling. Mr Dicorcia’s work is unequivocally recognized as art while Mr. McDonalds usually has the “art” in small quotes, to delegitimize it. Why is this? If one mode of artistic expression is to ask us to look at one another and by extension ourselves, how are these projects different? What is the expectation of privacy that we have of the space between our computer and our face? Would we be able to ask this as succinctly and directly without this piece?

Kyle McDonalds project lives (for the time being) here

As a final note, Mr. Dicorcia was sued by the gentleman in the first picture for unlawfully using his image. The case was dismissed.

14 thoughts on “People doing things

  1. I was appalled by the BBC article about this, the writer seemed to make a concerted effort to include information that made kyle’s work seem less artistic and credible. I think its plain to see where that writers loyalties are, putting the word art in quotations to somehow suggest that this work is somehow less like art than other (less computational) works.
    I think this is a demonstration of the extreme narrow mindedness and compartmentalisation of a lot of people out there; computers can’t be used to make art? no those two things shouldn’t be mixed together. Absolutely baffling!

  2. Interesting insights here! If it’s true that we “secretly fear anyone who is not an agent of a corporation”, then we are really doomed. I am puzzled it is not the opposite! Do we really fear our creative, playful neighbor so much? Indeed, people do not react (anymore?) to Apple (or any other brand) taking pictures through “security, computer, camera-phone”… That’s probably because we all got used to this form of intro-mission – we think perhaps this is the price to pay to maintain all these convenient corporations alive and well in the digital age, but this is forgetting about all the good independent people can do to our mind and lives. In any case, one of the interesting aspects of McDonalds work (and by the way of most socially engaged “art actions” – I am using quotes because you did ;) is that they make us re-consider any bargaining position we have accepted by pure commodity – certainly not a conscious choice. Why should I let a brand take pictures of me for detecting “patterns” useful for marketing purposes, and not by individuals clearly having no *profit* in mind? Perhaps Apple should be proud of creative people using their computers even *before* they buy them, since they brand them as the artist choice. La balle est dans leur champ… My last thought: it IS certainly art, because it makes people think without lengthy discourses…

  3. Why should I let a brand take pictures of me for detecting “patterns” useful for marketing purposes

    Very well said.

    My quotes were only because I think the term art action is new enough to merit them, not because I don’t think that’s what it is.

  4. Because the photos taken by all of the other cameras were not uploaded to a publicly accessible webserver for everyone to see. The visitors photographed in the Apple store are now all participants in this project whether they like it or not – and that is what people find inappropriate and offensive. It’s a cheap copout for McDonald to say “I’ll take them down if you want”. Had he wanted to do this in an appropriate way, he would have installed it on ONE computer, and told users that it would take their picture randomly and send it to a server.

    Why couldn’t McDonald have just sent out a link to his program on Facebook or Twitter, and asked his friends to use it? Certainly the results would be the same, no? What’s the point of taking this to a public place? To intentionally make people angry?

    Yes. Information we gave it. Information we willfully entered ourselves. If you’re looking for a comparison here, something more appropriate would be if Apple had a credit card reader installed in each Mac, and as the user was browsing Facebook, the credit card scanner was reading the numbers off of your cards in your pocket, in secret. Would something like that anger you? I bet it would.

  5. I’m genuinely intrigued that you assert that my face, which by law can be used in any image by anyone for any purpose except mass-marketed commercial gain (i.e. you can’t print it on a t-shirt and mass market it without my approval), is somehow the same violation as taking my credit card number. By that rationale, anyone who has ever taken a picture that has you in the background and uploaded it to their facebook account has committed grand larceny. Which is an interesting thought, no? By the same extension, anyone who streams a webcam with your image on it without your permission also is committing the same offense, yet search for “live web feed” and you’ll find several thousand people who are similarly violating privacy and the sanctity of the image.

    I honestly don’t know what Mr. Mcdonald feels the point of his piece is. I only wanted to express that people have done very similar things in the past and been lauded for it and I think that’s worth thinking about.

  6. The key thing that’s being missed here is that the Secret Service doesn’t investigate questionable art, they investigate “fraudulent activity in connection with computers”. The problem has nothing to do with the art and everything to do with misusing computers or someone’s network without their permission.

  7. Kudos to joshuanobles. And let me add 2 simple words: flikr and facebook.

  8. It’s interesting that for you the Secret Service defines what is and isn’t art. That’s not meant to be critical, I’m just curious about it.

  9. This action would certainly be considered unethical by any university’s human research ethics committee. It does remind us of the potentially abusable power of technology owned by millions these days. I know I felt slightly strange about the first computer I had with a camera (with no physical shutter) but who doesn’t like the ability to do voice chat. I also don’t feel like my use of an apple store computer is automatic permission to have my key-presses recorded and analyzed—statistically or not. That is not my expectation of the contract, however these days of course you are too naive if you type personal information into any computer out of your control. So perhaps apple has completed this artwork by discovering it, and maybe any ensuing legal action could be seen that way too.

  10. [correcting typos]

    All kinds of things that are not generally considered unethical wouldn’t get past a university ethics committee. Interviewing my kids about their favourite breakfast cereal wouldn’t get past my ethics committee, because they’re my kids so they would feel compelled to answer my questions whether or not they truly wanted to or understood the consequences. This is one of the reasons it’s lucky that not all of our actions have to meet the requirements of university ethics.

    Apple stores encourage their visitors to take photographs. In fact the artist explicitly asked store security “may I take photographs of the customers” and was told that he could.

    Apple did not give him permission to install his software on their computers. And he could have done something nefarious, so of course they are suspicious. But according to all available evidence he *didn’t* do anything nefarious – he just took photos, which is something he did have permission to do, and which is something that we can’t reasonably object to in itself.

  11. I think Kyle’s site is art and it was an interesting thing to try to pull off. The guy is super talented but the issue isn’t what is or isn’t art, it’s a question of public vs. private. Taking photographs on a street with your own camera is one thing. Taking photographs in a private commercial space using other people’s equipment is another.

    The Apple store is not public. You’re out in public but you’re in a private space. It’s a business. The Apple Store® is not a public park or street.

    In our capitalist culture we’re not really supposed to worry too much about this distinction. Not to overanalyze, but there’s a degree to which The Apple Store® is a retail environment acting as or taking the place of a public gathering point. The Apple Store® is designed to like a hang out.. they could add public park amenities. $2 waters, why not? Oh yeah, people spilling on the computers n stuff.

  12. I agree that I find many of the news articles reaction to his piece, by putting the word art in quotation marks, to be rather condescending.

    However, I really don’t think privacy is the main issue here. Sure, that seems to be a lot of what the reaction online is about, but the real legal issue here is that he installed software on Apple’s computers in their stores without the companies consent.

    If Apple lets this go unpunished, this sets a very dangerous precedent. They’ll be saying that it’s ok for anyone to install custom-software on their store’s computers, as long as it’s in the name of art.

    Additionally, let’s face it, the way McDonald went about asking for ‘permission’ is rather dishonest. He claims he asked the Apple store guard if he could take pictures in the store, and the guard said it was ok. Did he say “Hi, can I install some custom software on 100 of these computers and have them take photos and send them to my server?”

  13. I agree but I don’t think they’re setting a dangerous precedent; 30 seconds of a even remotely competent Unix users time would render the tactic moot. User permissions have been one of the bedrock assets of Unix since it was invented in 1969/73 (pick your “actual” date of birth). If anything, I find it amusing that Apple take the basic security precautions that they themselves recommend and I find it very hard to imagine this is the first time someone has done something like this, although they probably just stole valuable information (instead of pictures) and didn’t publicize it.

  14. Yes, it’s an exaggeration to say it’s a dangerous precedent. At most it’s exploring with (not that excessive!) boldness the boundaries of what can and cannot be done in our policed society (which may be well the role of people who we tend to call artists). Which brings me to a citation I read by chance yesterday: ‘A work of art is a declaration of freedom. There has never been anything so difficult for mankind to bear as freedom.’ (Oskar Schlemmer, Diary, 1913). And while I agree that “freedom” does not entitle abusing the trust of others (a point that can certainly be discussed in the case of Kyle’s intervention), I believe that he knew what he was doing, and that one way or another he was aware that there was perhaps a price to pay in the end (legal or whatever). My point is that also in the end, WE are ALL judges of these actions and their moral/ethical value, not just university ethical committees – and certainly not journalists or lawyers. In the light of the clear innocent purpose, we should condemn exaggerated reactions, and reserve them for more serious matters (which is precisely one of the advantages of this kind of actions: they don’t do any bad, but make us AWARE of potential abuses).
    (And then there is the other side of it, I mean the result of the experiment which I would like to see of course)

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