Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Ten Years After ‘People Staring at Computers’

Kyle McDonald:

In 2011 I published a series of photos taken with the laptops in two New York City Apple Stores, as part of my ongoing exploration of surveillance, face analysis, and computer-mediated interaction. In response, Apple contacted the Secret Service and they raided my apartment. After censoring the work online, Apple did not pursue a civil case against me. And after a few months long investigation by the Secret Service, Assistant United States Attorney Judith Philips declined to prosecute me.

Ten years later, this work is still an important reference point for my art practice. I continue to work with faces and to reflect on privacy and surveillance in a new era dominated by machine learning.

McDonald’s work has long been a reference point for my own practices related to surveillance and privacy. I still find this piece fascinating, even if it is admittedly creepy:

I’m not sure I would make this piece today, anyway. I’m increasingly critical of artwork that attempts to engage with the theme of surveillance by replicating systems of surveillance. How fruitful can a conversation be about consent and privacy, when an artist does not seek their subject’s consent?

It feels like the era of a shock-and-awe approach in laying bare the privacy abuses of our time has run its course. That era seemed to be driven by a misplaced interrogation of power: even though the general public participates in widespread privacy abuses, we did not create them and do not maintain them. A more effective exploration of widespread surveillance has to acknowledge this power difference to be both ethical and effective.