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