Cabinets of Personal Data

A specific kind of curiosity is a current obsession: the maniacal interest in the personal lives of others, which goes along with the necessity of making public our own. We like to see and to show our business. It hasn’t always been like this; for centuries humans used to satisfy their innate curiosity by exploring mysterious and unknown aspects of the external world

[Research Essay, Parson New School for Design, NYC, summer 2014]

During the 17th-century wealthy people loved to collect and arrange in special repositories called “Cabinets of Curiosities” bizarre objects coming either from the physical world, such as rare and strange plants, animals’ bones, shells from exotic beaches, or items that carried miraculous and mystical meanings, like anthropomorphic skulls and religious relics. These Cabinets were also labeled as “wonder rooms” and many contemporary museums originated from them.

Domenico Remps, A Cabinet of Curiosity, 1690s

Domenico Remps, A Cabinet of Curiosity, 1690s

What we are witnessing today is the proliferation of a completely different kind of Cabinet: artists, geeks, but also regular people, who are collecting and making public, respectively in art galleries, on dedicated websites and on social media, an enormous amount of personal data and details of their lives. Even if most of the public sphere seems to be perfectly fine with this attitude, the tendency of revealing our private lives is under many aspects controversial and the attitude toward it ambiguous. A significant connection could also be found between the use of digital media and the widely spread compulsion to make our lives public.

Contemporary artists and designers approach the topic from contrasting points of view and with different aims. Some of them openly condemn the practice of making publicly available our personal information, some others deliberately use private data as art sources. For every 1000 social media users that voluntarily enjoy sharing pictures of the food they eat, the pet they cuddle, the children they are raising and the geolocation of places where they are for vacation, there are few spoilsports who prefer to raise some inconvenient questions: Where this attitude is going to lead us? Is it “right”? It is the case of a group of thirteen artists from different countries who decided to dedicate some of their artworks to the debate around the either voluntary or non-voluntary contemporary dissipation of privacy. Their collections became part of a traveling exhibition called “The New Normal” that includes videotapes, computer installations and paper works. As Michael Connor, the curator of the official catalogue, well pointed out: “We live in a time of confession, both voluntary and forced”.

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Sophie Calle’s artwork on ATM pictures

One of the contributor of the project, Sophie Calle, obtained permission to collect images from banks and ATM security-cameras’ archives. She created an assemblage of very particular portraits where each subject shows tired and stressed facial expressions, the kind of smirks one makes just he or she is sure to be completely alone. Sophie’s collection aims to point out how much intrusive some private companies could be: thanks to the recording technologies, these businesses possess images of some very private and personal moments of people’s lives, instants that should belong just to their natural owners: individuals. Then there is Mohamed Camara, an African photographer who spent years taking pictures in private rooms of his relatives and friends’ houses. One of his collections, for example, is all about what people hide under their beds. In this case, the artist uses private information in a totally different way, he believes that images of private objects could be significant artworks worth to be shown to an international audience. Personal lives are here voluntarily made public and there are neither worries nor signs of controversy in this action. Pure curiosity and a taste of “voyeurism” are the protagonists of Camara’s work. On the contrary, a very controversial work is the one of Hasan Elahi. After 11th-2001 he became the subject of an intensive FBI investigation on terrorism. During frequent and rough interrogations the authorities kept asking him about his movements around US and the worlds. Eventually Hasan decided to keep records of every details of his everyday life and journeys and he built a sort of “continuous alibi” made of hundreds of pictures of places, food, people etc. Obviously, what the artist wants to express is a critic of American officials’ obsession for his private life. Toward his collections, he seems to cry: “Look what you force me to do in order to deserve my freedom”.

The idea that personal information could be successfully used to create an artwork diffused well beyond “The New Normal” exhibition. Also the Greek artist Della Rounick realized some artworks related to the issue in a collection called, not very surprisingly, “Personal Data”. Arranged in glass pyramids, these contemporary Cabinets of Curiosities include items associated with her personal life, such as “cancelled checks, bank statements, papers, letters, achievements, passports, credit cards, degrees […] passports, credit cards, bars with wedding and engagement rings and horizontal bars made out of paper money […]”. A different collection, “Personal photos”, is about photographs or relevant moments of the artist’s career. Della printed these images on canvas and painted them with bright colors. Like Camara, also the Greek artist doesn’t aim to critique in any way the use of personal information but she voluntary enjoys showing off many particulars of her intimate life. Worldwide contemporary painters, collectors, photographers and visual artists behave differently when it comes to create artworks related to private informations and privacy concerns. Generally speaking, artists seem to consider the act of showing personal information acceptable and interesting from an artistic point of view just when a specific condition is respected: the sharing has to come after a conscious and free agreement from the person who owns the information.

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Della’s pyramid of personal documents

In the digital world users don’t pay too much attention of what they share on social media and other web platforms, the idea of privacy is even less taken into consideration than it is in the real or in the art world. There is a tendency among web designers, developers and geeks to intentionally avoid the preservation of private information and enthusiastically share it with the public. They are called “trackers”, because, of course, in order to describe and visualize in a graph how many cappuccinos you drink per day, you first have to take picky notes on your daily routine. A real “tracker” celebrity is Nicholas Felton, who publishes every other year a visual and digital report of his everyday actions, the “Feltron Annual Report”.

Felton and his annul report about himself

Felton and his annul report about himself

“I’m always looking for sources of data or information that I can investigate, interrogate, visualize and try to find the stories that are lurking in them”, Felton told Gestalten TV. Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian philosopher of science, provocatively wonders in his latest book: “What a blessing it must be to know that in 2007 he received thirteen postcards, lost six games of pool and read 4.736 book pages”. On the contrary, Nick Bilton, a journalist of the New York Times, seems to disagree with Morozov’s statement. In an article titled “An Annual Report on One Man’s Life”, Bilton points out that even if the report was initially meant just to satisfy Felton’s curiosity, it turned out to be somehow useful because it also gave him the opportunity to discover limits and negative sides of his routine. Felton realized, for example, that frequent travelling has a bad impact on the environment and that he doesn’t really dedicate enough time to read as he would like. Not by chance, Felton also worked on the creation of Facebook’s timeline, which is ultimately a digital archive of our personal experiences. Obsessed with self-monitoring is also Joe Betts-LaCroix, who scrupulously monitored and graphically represented the variation of his, his wife and two kids weight for three years. Among trackers, the first prize for the most bizarre one goes to the computer scientist Larry Smarr who doesn’t just track each details of his daily routine, but he also collects and examines his own poop. He keeps the poop samples in tiny boxes placed in his kitchen refrigerator. What emerges from this scenario is that there could be a connection between the increasing general impulse to disseminate personal data and the recent implementation of digital technology in the society.

Neither the idea of collecting feces nor the obsession of self-quantifying can be viewed merely as products of the digital age. In fact, many artists and scientists from 18th and 19th centuries shared Smarr’s unusual mania, Horace Fletcher and Pietro Manzoni among others. Regarding trackers, Morozov reports that also Benjamin Franklin tracked his daily actions in a journal, in order to accomplish “moral perfection”. Yet a peculiar characteristic of the contemporary society is the tendency of sharing such information with the general public, which means, in most cases, with strangers.

Giant selfie installation, California State University Long Beach

Giant selfie installation, California State University Long Beach

Both Gary Wolf, the co-founder of the movement Quantify Self, and Clay Shirky, a New York based American writer and expert of Internet technology, believe that the new media and related applications, such as social media, mobile phones, laptops etc., simply satisfied what was already an innate need of humans. In this regard, Shirky argues that youth share their lives on social media not because they don’t possess a sense of privacy or for whichever other reason, but because, thanks to smartphones, they have the tools and the opportunity to do it. Shirky’s observation leads us back to the old chicken and egg problem regarding technology and culture: “technical forces determine social and cultural changes”, or the other way around? The unsolved and well-known dilemma has obsessed entire generations of philosophers, artists and scientists for centuries.

What if new technologies are both the cause and the effect of the urge of showing off our “cabinets of personal data” and browse those of others? Take the use of smartphones on the subway. As tools, smartphones catalyze both the mental and the physical presence of the person who is using them toward themselves. In order to text a friend or read an email, we have to use both our hands, bow our heads and shoulders down toward the screen and focus our eyes on what we are doing. At the same time our ears are busy with online streaming music. We became estranged from any sort of external input. Even though users become at certain point used to live in technological bubbles, a very human urge is still there: the need to interact with others and feel close to them. At this point, users, perfectly settled down in their bubbles, start to share their personal information and dig in others’ data through the same devices that confined them, with the only purpose of retrieving a lost real human connection.

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