Late last year, a change in Instagram’s terms of service set off a torrent of criticism. Suddenly, users of the free photo-sharing application worried that Instagram’s administrators could sell their photos without consent or use them commercially in ways their creators might not approve of. And there didn’t seem to be anything—short of deleting one’s account—that anyone could do about it. Tens of thousands of people took to Twitter and Facebook, advising their friends to do just that. A Wired magazine article on how to take down an Instagram account got more than 40,000 Facebook likes and Twitter shares in just a few days.
The reaction was notable for more than its irony (Facebook is, after all, the owner of Instagram). The immediate and intense outcry shows just how fraught is the issue of data ownership. When people take photos and post them using a free service, who owns the photos? What can they do with it? Who pockets the revenue the photos generate? As our lives become increasingly entangled in online social networks, these questions become more pressing.
On February 6, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (SJDC) at Parsons The New School for Design will host an opening reception for The Public Private, the first New York exhibition of works to explore the issue of privacy in a world dominated by social media. Curated by Christiane Paul, an associate professor in the School of Media Studies at The New School and the adjunct curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the exhibition brings together artists who address data ownership and privacy from a range of perspectives—psychological, legal, and economic, among others. Employing tactics ranging from hacking to self-surveillance, these works invites us to reflect on the profound changes taking place in our understanding of identity, personal boundaries, and self-representation.
“Many of the pieces exist on the threshold of a funny, and a very, very creepy sphere,” says Paul. “For example, Luke Dubois’ Missed Connections helps individuals find one another on Craigslist, using an algorithm that scans and analyzes Missed Connections posts and then searches for matches. There’s something naively earnest about it. At the same time, it’s somewhat unsettling.”
Other works include Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico’s Face to Facebook, which is being shown for the first time in the United States. This multimedia installation is made up of one million Facebook profiles that were appropriated by the artists, filtered using facial-recognition software, and posted on a custom-made dating website that sorts by facial expression. Eva and Franco Mattes’ The Others is a video installation composed of 10,000 photos the Mattes have acquired through a software glitch that gives them access to personal computer files. The work’s core is the presentation of the images and the act of “stealing” and moving them from the private realm into the public realm.
Jill Magid’s Evidence Locker, Wafaa Bilal’s 3rdi, Carlo Zanni’s Self Portrait with Dog and Self Portrait with Friends, James Coupe’s Panoptic Panorama #2: Five People in a Room, Paolo Cirio’s Street Ghosts, and Ben Grosser’s Facebook Demetricator are also included in the show. The pieces are often wryly and darkly funny, bringing together incongruous elements. People’s personal photos suddenly appear on a dating website without their permission, a woman is haltingly led through a crowd by a police officer, and a man wears a camera embedded into the back of his head so he (and we) can see where he’s been.
“It seems to me that the notions of public and private are radically changing in a way that some of us hate, some of us like, and most of us are simply struggling with,” said Radhika Subramaniam, SJDC director and chief curator. “It’s interesting that the artists and Christiane have worked to pose questions in a way that actively sheds light on the many conflicting ideas of private and public, while simultaneously acknowledging the pleasures of this.”
In many ways, the exhibit is Paul’s brainchild. She has been debating the issue of privacy in the digital realm for the better part of a decade, and has watched with interest as social media has become an increasingly significant part of daily life. Paul hopes visitors will “walk away with questions about how they approach this boundary: What does privacy mean to me, what constitutes the public, and how do I negotiate this? The exhibition would be successful if people should also gain a deeper understanding of images and how they represent us.”
One last question for the curators: Are they on Facebook?
“I’m on nothing,” says Subramaniam. “I’m not on Facebook. I’m not on Twitter. I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t know how to replicate the distinctiveness and individuality of the many relationships in my life on Facebook. It has different rules. They’re not rules I understand.”
Paul, on the other hand, does have an account on the social network. “It was a professional necessity,” she explains. “I am only a professional on Facebook. You won’t find my date of birth or anything like that. What I find very interesting is the generational shift. My generation was afraid of being seen too much, and the current generation is very afraid of not being seen.”
The opening reception for The Public Private is Wednesday, February 6, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. in the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center. The exhibition is on view through April 17. For more information, visit the SJDC website.