Private Matters

curated by Ceren Erdem, Jaime Schwartz, and Lisa Hayes Williams

Pilvi Takala, Broad Sense, 2011
Even art has left the spaces of enclosure in order
to enter into the open circuits of the bank.
- Gilles Deleuze, "Postscript on the Societies of Control," 1992

In 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, opened the now-seminal exhibition Information, which posited that art could not function in isolation from rapidly expanding global networks. Curator Kynaston McShine wrote, "Art cannot afford to be provincial, or to exist within only its own history, or to continue to be, perhaps, only a commentary on art. An alternative had been to extend the idea of art, to renew the definition, and to think beyond the traditional categories."(1) Within this new environment, McShine suggested, the artist must act as interpreter not only for an elite, museum-going public, but for a wider audience trying to make sense of the implications of this daily sensorial onslaught: "The public is constantly bombarded with strong visual imagery, be it in the newspapers or periodicals, on television, or in the cinema. An artist certainly cannot compete with a man on the moon in the living room. This has therefore created an ambiguous and ironic position for the artist, a dilemma as to what he can do with contemporary media that reach many more people than the art gallery."(2)

Now, almost 45 years later, McShine's prescient remarks are tinged with an increased urgency. Thanks to rapid technological advances, art and media historian Jonathan Crary hypothesizes that we are now living in a ?24/7' environment, from which we can never truly be disconnected, and is the result of an ascendant "global infrastructure for continuous work and consumption."(3) In this hyper-networked, always ?on' system, it becomes impossible to disengage?we willingly or unwillingly take part in a voyeuristic cycle where we are always either watching or being watched. As Crary explains, the emergence of this system as status quo carries with it both positive and negative implications: "The paradoxes of the expanding, non-stop life-world of twenty-first-century capitalism?are inseparable from shifting configurations of sleep and waking, illumination and darkness, justice and terror, and from forms of exposure, unprotectedness, and vulnerability."(4) Along with these shifts, the very way in which we share information has become increasingly regulated, giving way to myriad political, social, and even legal consequences. The notion of privacy, as we traditionally know it, is becoming an increasingly archaic one.

In this context, we might ask, how should the role of the artist shift? Not only have the ways in which information is distributed, channels of communication are forged, and images are circulated become more diffuse and democratic, but, accordingly, there is a wider array of media available to artists than ever before. Private Matters brings together a group of artists who, through individual strategies of sharing various kinds of secure information with the audience, eliminates the boundaries between public and private. Secrets are revealed, security measures of institutions are tested, and myths?both personal and collective?are interrogated. These works share a reliance on technology, which has become an integral factor in the way that we interact with others now; through various media we share our statuses, moods, and follow each other in an endless voyeuristic cycle. Today, public access to what once was considered privileged information is a social reality, pointing to broader changes in the construction of our relationships and emphasizing the fact that?in our networked environment?virtually no information is private anymore.

In response, some artists adopt strategies of reversing entrenched notions of inside and outside, suggesting that power dynamics have no place in this new situation as traditional hierarchical relationships become more fluid and even-keeled. For example, in her Webcam Sex series, Nilbar Güre? (Austria/Turkey) depicts seemingly bizarre scenes on fabric of imaginary homes and the daily lives of the characters who engage in private sexual acts online via webcam. Digital cultures provide unlimited leeway for individuals to choose new identities, whether fictitious or not, and to change personal qualities and facts about their actual self, such as gender, age, physical appearance, or any personal preferences. Anonymity is the key feature of this setting. A virtual geography is constituted as the result of new experiences with a different kind of perception, one that is at a distance. In cases of seeking intimacy as well as exposure and liberty, the online world provides an oasis, allowing an individual to lead a parallel life. Güre' collages often explore female and queer identities and the ways in which domestic and public spaces are constructed in relation to these. Webcam Sex; Voyeur (2013) depicts the deconstructed apartment of an online sex worker. While the black backgrounds employed in this series conjure dark, claustrophobic rooms, the scattered household goods and the bright colors of the monitors in the collage point to the most important part of the scene?that we are voyeurs, both in this room and on the other side of the screen.

Trevor Paglen's (USA) photographs approach the inside/outside dialectic from an institutional standpoint. Through these works, Paglen explores the secret activities of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, referred to in defense jargon as "black worlds." While he is interested in the documentary function of the photographic medium, Paglen's images do not simply constitute reportage, but rather are more nuanced and require careful looking in order to determine the information encoded within. In one work, the viewer is confronted with a seemingly idyllic skyscape with striated bands of orange light of a beautiful sunset. However, the title of the work?Untitled (Predator Drone) (2012)?reveals that superficial appearances such as this romantic scene may be deceiving and that the photograph is of the moment when the artist catches sight of a predator drone in the sky. Here, this stealth, militaristic robot used by the government for the purposes of espionage and even combat is visible as only a tiny speck.

Meanwhile, another work by Paglen takes a different, more overt tact: Symbology, Volume IV (2013) is a set of patches designed by the Pentagon's Black Ops programs. Bearing symbols with obscure references to what those classified programs could be, such as a mushroom and the Latin words Semper en Obscurus (Always in the Dark), the existence of these cartoon-like patches contradicts the crucial classified status of the programs. In the ceremonious environment of the military and intelligence services, wearing certain badges assures one's position as the bearer of secrets. Paradoxically, garnering trust and access in the black worlds also comes at the cost of being exposed to constant surveillance and leading a restricted personal life. Whereas this confidentiality bears no problem for some, others, like WikiLeaks whistleblower Private Bradley Manning or former CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden, become uneasy in situations when their parent organization might engage in activities that border on illicit or immoral and feel compelled to challenge this status quo. Here, technology constitutes a double-edged sword as it conveniently allows widespread surveillance and data collection as well as ease of access and increased availability of once-private information. Even the government isn't impermeable in questions of secrecy and privacy.

In an attempt to expose the complex social structures that lie beneath our daily interactions, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at how our infrastructure?streets, parks, supermarkets, offices, public institutions?is organized and manipulated. Through her work, Pilvi Takala (Finland/Turkey) works to subvert these predetermined social settings. By observing people's reactions in specific cultural situations, Takala effectively exposes the level of control?and the resultant paranoia?that people have come to expect in society today. The artist intervenes in various situations herself, often covertly and even making use of spy cameras. Acting as interlocutor, she is able to provoke impromptu reactions from those around her by creating social tension. By exposing such structures, Takala reveals the unwritten codes of conduct that underride the public operations of these organizations. Her video, Broad Sense (2011), documents an incursion she made within the European Parliament (E.P.) in Brussels, in order to test the security measures, codes, and conducts in this governmental institution. After obtaining a badge to attend public hearings at the Parliament, Takala contacted the local E.P. office of each member state, asking the same question regarding the regulations for the dress code in the building. Upon receiving miscellaneous replies on the matter that made the answer more and more ambiguous, Takala entered the building wearing t-shirts she made bearing the text of each office's response to her email and attended some public hearings. Over the course of the day, her repeated exit and reentry of the building created disturbances, distending the set rules of access.

In a different mode, Maria Antelman's (Greece/USA) video work, Moonlight Serenade (2009), juxtaposes dreamy black-and-white images from the 1960s of the lunar surface with random shortwave radio transmissions thought to be the recordings of encrypted military espionage broadcast via a numbers station. These garbled frequencies, which were used to communicate covertly during the Cold War and are still employed even now by spies, allowed for the coded transmission of highly classified information over public airwaves. The coupling of these expressive registers?a sense of hopeful possibility commingled with single-minded paranoia?implicates both a specific moment in history as well as a more general idea about the insidious information that often lies just beneath the surface and, on the flip side, conspiracy theories hatched out of suspicion of achievement.

Just as widespread access to once-confidential information has become the norm, likewise the distinction between public and private has nearly dissipated. In the age of Twitter, when any conversation or encounter had in public space has the potential to be broadcast live to hundreds, thousands, or millions of followers, there are extra precautions we now must take in order to feel secure, both physically and psychologically. Reflecting upon widespread paranoia and the desire to safeguard oneself against emergency, threat, or danger, Becca Albee and Kathleen Hanna's (USA) installation, In Case Of - New York City (2009), investigates the physical implications of privacy and how it relates to our sense of security. By asking the question, "What do you carry that gives you a sense of security?" to random New York City women, Albee and Hanna collected an assortment of everyday objects, talismans, and protective items ranging from cosmetics, medications, and coffee, to box cutters, mace, and maps that were carried for measures of personal safety and reassurance. Placed within a vitrine, this collection of disparate and quotidian objects presents a psychic snapshot of a post-911 society, in which the private items one carries reveal broader cultural concerns, fears, and anxieties.

As vast and anonymous as the online world is, a dialogue has sprung up around the ideologies and productive uses of this enormous resource for sharing and rapidly disseminating information, creating new meaning for concepts of production and sharing, as well as notions of copyright and piracy. Stephanie Syjuco's (USA) sculptures and installations engage the circulation and distribution of typically protected information. Her 2011 work, FREE TEXTS, comprises a wall of pull-tab flyers, like those that one might see on a university campus, that advertise the URLs to various texts related to issues of digital copyright, open source culture, alternatives to capitalism, and the state of the intellectual commons today, many of which have been uploaded by anonymous file sharers around the world. Calling attention to issues of commodification and commercialization of ideas and information in the digital era, Syjuco's offer for a free library engages the public in a dialogue of ownership of information. Her overarching project of universal access relates to the advocacy campaign for greater file sharing by Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who in 2008 wrote the widely circulated Open Access Guerilla Manifesto, and whose tragic suicide in 2011 was linked to criminal charges brought against him for illegally downloading academic journals.

Gilles Deleuze famously noted in the 1990s that we had collectively transitioned to a society of control, one in which our lives are regulated by institutions and governmental agencies. Today, you might argue, we have moved past this increasingly anachronistic model into a different and unprecedented one?a surveillance society, where we are acutely aware that at any moment we might be observed by the government, by a stranger, or even by our family and friends. In a state where technology is advancing at a faster clip than ever before throughout the world and accessible to everyone's use, power and influence are no longer the province of only a few.

Ceren Erdem, Jaime Schwartz, and Lisa Hayes Williams © 2014

1 Kynaston McShine, Information. Exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1970), n.p.
2 Ibid.
3 Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2013), p.3.
4 Ibid., p.8.

This exhibition is supported in part by the Moon and Stars Project of The American Turkish Society and the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation.

  • artists:
    Becca Albee and Kathleen Hanna
    Maria Antelman
    Nilbar Güre?
    Trevor Paglen
    Stephanie Syjuco
    Pilvi Takala
Ceren Erdem is a curator and writer based in New York. She worked in the Istanbul Biennial and the British Council where she initiated international programs in Turkey and South East Europe. Erdem has curated online projects and onsite exhibitions in New York, Istanbul, and Seoul. She received an M.A. in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University in February 2012 and an MFA in Visual Arts and Visual Communication Design from Sabanci University, Istanbul in June 2004.
Jaime Schwartz is an art historian and curator based in New York. Her writing has appeared in DIS magazine, artcore journal, and, in 2012, she contributed an essay on the collaborative work of Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh to the artists' most recent exhibition catalogue, The Other I. Schwartz received an M.A. in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University in May 2012.
Lisa Hayes Williams is a New York based art historian and curator. Williams has served as Exhibition Manager for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space, as well as a Postgraduate Fellow for Forever & Today, Inc. More recently, she organized and edited the catalogue Fabrika in conjunction with an exhibition at Court Square. Williams received an M.A. in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University in May 2012.

apexart’s program supporters past and present include the National Endowment for the Arts, Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, the Kettering Family Foundation, the Buhl Foundation, The Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Spencer Brownstone, the Kenneth A. Cowin Foundation, Epstein Teicher Philanthropies, The Greenwich Collection Ltd., William Talbott Hillman Foundation/Affirmation Arts Fund, the Fifth Floor Foundation, the Consulate General of Israel in New York, The Puffin Foundation, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, public funds from Creative Engagement, supported by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Governor and administered by LMCC, funds from NYSCA Electronic Media/Film in Partnership with Wave Farm: Media Arts Assistance Fund, with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature, as well as the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature.