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.
Pauline Vermare: Your Dirty Windows series (1995) is currently on view at the ICP Museum. Would you tell us more about the story behind the photographs?
Merry Alpern: The project began one night, in 1993, when a friend led me to a back room in his loft in New York City’s Wall Street district. From his window, one flight down, maybe fifteen feet away, I saw a bathroom window and felt the vibrations of a pulsing bass track. Suddenly, a body in a sparkling harness appeared, then disappeared. It turned out that a private lap-dance club had newly opened and been secreted away in the building.
I was transfixed and spent the next six months sitting in the dark, dressed in black, camera on tripod, watching the goings-on of perfect strangers.
Pauline Vermare: Your stunning piece Portrait Landscape (2015) is currently on view at the International Center for Photography (ICP). Would you describe it to us, and tell us more about its title?
John Houck: I wrote software that uses computer vision to find faces in Michelangelo Antonioni's movie “Blow-Up” (1966). The software often misrecognizes faces and finds them in a field of grass or in the folds of someone’s clothes, for example. The film is cut down to about ten minutes and only features scenes with the misrecognized faces.
The culture of online photographic showing/sharing answers the socioeconomic imperatives of neoliberalism in at least two ways. For sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, networked capitalism is a response to the “artistic critique” leveled against mid-twentieth-century Fordism. This demanded greater autonomy, authentic experience, freedom from the monotony of mass-produced consumer culture and the drudgery of nine-to-five working. Capitalism responded by “liberating” the workforce; fragmenting cultural and commodity production to meet the minutiae of personal preference; creating a flexi-time world where success is gauged not through movement up definable hierarchies but by a capacity to move between projects and across global networks. So this is what it feels like to be free?
Charlotte Cotton: It’s a real pleasure to have a few minutes with you before you head to New York for the first of the workshops that you have organized in response to Public, Private, Secret. You’ve curated the program in your role as Associate Curator at Machine Project in Los Angeles, and I'd like to start by asking you about Machine Project and your work there.
Lucas Wrench: Machine Project is a non-profit arts space in Echo Park, and we focus mainly on performances, workshops, lectures, and also curate projects with the public, in the public sphere. Above all, the program is about letting artists experiment with the public in ways that are generous and engaging. I work as the Associate Curator and the Operations Manager at our 1200 N. Alvarado Street storefront gallery. I work primarily on the weekly events program, and help out with the larger off-site projects that Machine Project undertakes.
CC: And how did you approach the invitation to curate events at the ICP Museum for Public, Private, Secret?
Charlotte Cotton: I wanted to start with asking you to recap how you got involved with the ICP Museum project and your brief to design the graphic identity of both the space and the opening exhibition, Public, Private, Secret.
Geoff Han: I was introduced to the project through Common Room, who were selected to be the spatial designers of the ICP Museum’s front space and the first exhibition. I’ve collaborated with Common Room for eight years now. Our collaboration started off with making publications together and grew to include a larger scope of work, including visual identity, website, and exhibition-design work. Common Room asked me to submit together with them for the ICP Museum.
CC: I obviously remember your first proposal document and how strong it was in terms not only of showing your and Common Room’s demonstrated capacities but also in your understanding of ICP’s project. I think that one of the defining features of this kind of complex design project is to stay focused on the core concept developed in its first stages. Can you remember the core brief for the ICP Museum?
Charlotte Cotton: I can see, in a way, that Mossless operates as a discursive publication, and it shares similar strategies to the way ICP works in terms of bringing together things that were never intended to be together...it’s an inherently radical act to do that.
Romke Hoogwaerts: Yes! And you know, from a publisher’s standpoint, it’s almost bad business to keep changing the kind of genre that you’re working with [laughs]...but I feel like that’s where the most fun is had, and I’m interested in photography in general, so instead of sticking to one concept or one style, I want to try to hatch everything together and see where there’s convergence. I think that’s where we sometimes find some of the most interesting ideas.
Paula Kupfer: Do you see many connections between traditional photography and your video work?
Natalie Bookchin: I think my video work makes lots of sense in a photo show. I come out of photography, although I haven’t worked in photography very much or even for many, many years.
I took a few photography classes as an undergraduate and continued as a graduate student at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. For my entire twenty-five-year teaching career, until I moved to Rutgers two years ago, I have been situated within photography departments. Although I don’t make photographs anymore, the photographic is an essential element in my work, as I work with lens-based recordings of actuality that I find on social-media sites. I search in the video documents for poses, stances, and gestures.
Audio recordings are equally important—I listen, as much as I look, for tone, language, and word selections. I collect documents in which people perform for the camera, in both rehearsed and seemingly spontaneous ways. I look to these documents for what they might reveal something about who we, as a culture, think we are, how present ourselves outwards to the world as we perform in front of real and imagined viewers.
Charlotte Cotton: I do want to start by saying how profoundly grateful I am that you came on board with this project. As you know, you are my person of choice when I have a project where design is at its conceptual core.
David Reinfurt: Thank you also, for such a perfect invitation for me. I took the invitation at face value—to design a clock for the front space. I think when we first started to talk through the ideas, it was a much more straightforward design job, in a way: how you could take the pieces and ideas that already existed and turn them into a clock. And then, as we went deeper into the ideas, the design became more fundamental to the concept and meaning of the clock.
Charlotte Cotton: Mark, it’s a great pleasure to be sitting here with you at the end of quite a substantial collaborative journey, as we head towards the opening of Public, Private, Secret, which includes your brilliantly curated real-time media streams. I remember thinking, when I first met you last year, that I had a lot to learn from you! Collaboration, for me, is very much about creating something that neither participant would realize independently of each other. And I do think that this is what has happened here. Of course, your relationship with technology is both profound and long. Tell me what parts of your history have come into play in this project.
Mark Ghuneim: Well, firstly, I have to say that it’s amazing how personal it becomes to work on an exhibition that unpacks this issue of privacy. It is a complex issue that is being tackled in Public, Private, Secret and it becomes really personal really quickly. The point of reference from my own history that has made me uniquely suited to the challenge is that I like information as it happens. I think my video jockeying days in nightclubs before the Internet are manifest. At that point, it was this great visual menagerie of sound and visuals and you could see how images could affect a room of people—real-time images could turn a situation into anything from a riot to a party.
Charlotte Cotton: One of the interesting things about curating Public, Private, Secret—and something that I did not anticipate—is just how personal a journey it has been through the issues that the exhibition raises. So I wanted to ask you both about what part of your histories have been brought to bear on curating this exhibition and what you have learned from the experience of making Public, Private, Secret.
Pauline Vermare: The biggest revelation that I will take from the experience of cocurating this exhibition is how the historical photographs from ICP’s collections are brought into the present day. They read in a completely new way in Public, Private, Secret. This exhibition is, for me, about learning how to read a photograph again. It’s all about the context and the correspondences that we establish between historical and contemporary photography. There are many layers to the exhibition and I think what people will remember is photography and image making all working together to create meaning.