Public, Private, Secret explores the roles that photography and video play in the crafting of identity, and the reconfiguration of social conventions that define our public and private selves. This collection of essays, interviews, and reflections assesses how our image-making and consumption patterns are embedded and implicated in a wider matrix of online behavior and social codes, which in turn give images a life of their own.
We like to think of surveillance as an invention of the twenty-first century, a means of distinguishing our cultural idea of a pre-9/11, analog world from the techno-dystopic vision we apply to the present. Our mass media tends to address the idea of surveillance through hypotheticals and vague warnings, the all-seeing eye—the XKeyscore algorithm of algorithms—concealed as some god-like entity. It could be watching: you are vulnerable, protect the data! The insistence on this sci-fi framework, however, obscures us from some harsh realities.
On August 16, 1858, the first message sent via the transatlantic cable read: “Europe and America are united by telegraphy. Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace, and good will toward men.” From his residence in Pennsylvania, President James Buchanan responded to Queen Victoria’s telegraphed excitement by lauding the transatlantic cable as “an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.” As nineteenth-century European and U.S. technological advancements precipitated global communications, they also brought about an imperial geopolitical remapping that collapsed territorial and tele-technological expansions. The following overview proposes that the social, political, and economic conditions for the development of submarine telegraphic networks primed current information channels to become technologies for control and management.
Marina Chao: What I'm Looking For is currently on view at the ICP Museum. Can you describe the circumstances surrounding the genesis of this work? What made you want to reach out to strangers on an online-dating site with the request, “I’m looking for people who would like to be photographed in public revealing something of themselves […],” and document your interactions?
Shelly Silver: I had just finished Suicide (2003), a feature film in the form of a personal travel diary–cum–road movie, about a suicidal filmmaker who travels the globe in an effort to find a reason to go on living. The film weaves together dark, funny narration and eye-popping handheld images; its heroine implicates the viewer into witnessing her inappropriate and somewhat crazed projection onto whomever or whatever she finds in front of her. Filmed run-and-gun style in public spaces spanning fourteen countries over four peripatetic years, I was exhausted with inhabiting this woman’s zeitgeist. I wanted to continue this exploration that one could call “woman with a camera in public space,” but to flip the direction of the impulse. I wanted to capture images based on the desires of those in front of the camera. And so I started an experiment.
Pauline Vermare: Your iconic piece Big Brother (1983) is currently on view at ICP as part of Public, Private, Secret. Would you tell us about it and how it came to be?
Nancy Burson: Big Brother was a commission for a CBS Walter Cronkite special that drew some interesting parallels about where we were collectively as a society, compared to Orwell’s fictional vision in 1984. They made a poster out of the composite image of Hitler, Stalin, Khomeini, Mao, and Mussolini and used it as a backdrop for Cronkite, who was standing in front of it on a London street corner. I especially like the end, where Walter rips up the poster and throws it in the gutter.
Pauline Vermare: Your fascinating collection of Mexican mug shots, published last year by GOST Books, is exhibited for the first time at the International Center for Photography. Together, these beautiful photographs present us with a unique, thrilling, and moving social history of mid-twentieth-century Mexico. Can you tell us how you came across these prints, and how you ended up with such a unique collection?
Stefan Ruiz: I found the first few of these photographs at a stall in one of Mexico City’s flea markets in the summer of 2010. The vendors were selling the photos for a friend to whom I was introduced later that day. It turned out he had a lot more photos. We agreed to meet in one of the city’s parks. He brought two plastic bags of photos. I looked through them, negotiated, and bought the lot. We met up two more times over the next year and each time he had more photos that I ended up buying.
Charlotte Cotton: Johanna, it is a real pleasure to have collaborated with you on a series of events with the Processing Foundation Fellows. I’d like to start by asking you to describe the recently formed Processing Foundation, where you are Director of Initiatives, and its formation and aims.
Johanna Hedva: Thank you, Charlotte! The Processing Foundation was founded in 2012, more than ten years after the original Processing software was invented. The Foundation is the nonprofit organization that manages the development of Processing, and now p5.js and Processing.py. These three software projects are open source (free, non-proprietary, and community-made) and created by artists, for artists. The Foundation’s aim is to nurture the communities that make and use them.
At a crowded rope line, a candidate leans in, inserting arms into the crowd like a child picking berries from a bush. Handshakes follow thank-yous and then a smartphone appears. The candidate grabs the phone—a deeply intimate act given all the secrets and germs we collect on our devices—and takes a selfie with a supporter. In that moment there’s a connection that transcends bumper stickers or even a knock at the door. Now there is a one-of-a-kind but infinitely reproducible image of a candidate and a supporter, begging to be shared. Selfies with presidential candidates are American electoral politics in a microcosm: at once intensely personal and inconceivably vast, a personalized memento manufactured at the speed of a news cycle.