A greater cynic than I might argue that Arne Svenson was working for the state when making photographs of his neighbors. One might suggest this not because there is any inherent value, lest any valuable information about the individuals within the snooping shots, but rather, because the brouhaha that erupted around the exhibition of Neighbors at the Julie Saul Gallery was a distorting and damaging version of the ongoing conversation about privacy in our society. If it had been designed as such, the rollout of Neighbors operated as a perfect decoy; a wonderful distraction from the more pressing discussions needed about persistent, widespread, and more invasive surveillance by the state.
Svenson might argue that his work turns people toward larger issues of privacy and relationships between the state and its citizens. For the purposes of this essay, I don’t wish to be so generous. Defiantly, I spin on my heel and away from the aesthetics of Svenson’s work and face headlong the endless civil liberties violations enacted by the US government (often aided by corporations) in the post-9/11 era.
We shouldn’t be concerned about citizens photographing other publicly visible citizens, we should be gravely concerned by government surveillance, data scraping, and extrajudicial communication-monitoring. Outrage developed around Svenson’s work because, by the very nature of his photographs, his “offense” was named, identified, and seen. For the longest time, it has been almost impossible to “see” state incursions into our private lives. Even in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent and the tools of the NSA’s surveillance, it is a struggle to picture that violation of privacy. (The Snowden leaks have been a series of stories largely illustrated by documents and by data visualizations. More recently, we’ve begun to see high-production portraiture of Snowden and the making of a hero.)
Svenson is pointing his camera outward into the world and through the windows into the worlds of others. By doing so, he expected a reaction from his neighbors. That reaction was protective, self-oriented, and self-interested. When Svenson’s neighbors filed a lawsuit they failed to predict that the judge’s ultimate only option was to rule in favor of Svenson, mainly because Svenson broke no laws.
If there’s ever doubt about how paltry Svenson’s efforts were in comparison to state and corporate surveillance, consider that in 2005 in the Financial District and TriBeCa alone—the neighborhoods in which Svenson and his neighbors reside—there were 1,306 closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. Elsewhere in Manhattan in 2005, there were close to 5,000 CCTV cameras below 14th Street and in Harlem combined. What about the other parts of New York City? What about other large cities? What about the growth in CCTV use in the interim nine years?
One man and his camera are the least of our worries. Of course, when it appeared personal, it was hard for his subjects not to take umbrage. And when it appears serious, it is hard for us not to take it serious. A-ha! Therein lies the true value of Svenson’s Neighbors; its playfulness, brash and simplistic subversion. Neighbors is a rather one-dimensional comment on the issue of privacy but by virtue of collective anxiety and misplaced paranoia, the work assumed far more attention than it warranted. Neighbors got into the bloodstream of the media and of public imagination and spread. Such behavior is common to the best advertising, the best activism, and the best art.
It is tragicomic that Svenson’s work toyed with long lens and with the cinematic visuals of espionage movies, Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and countless other police stakeouts in TV and film. Tragic, because we bought the conceit and because we thought there was something actually at stake in his images. Comic, because Svenson’s gesture is ultimately slapstick. Svenson is pointing his camera at the world, not in a surreptitious way as the visual clichés he parades would like us to believe, but instead in a direct, calculated manner. If Svenson had kept the images under his bed and for his own edification that’d be a different matter; for one, I would not be writing this and you would not be reading it. But, Svenson made the pictures intentionally for the public and to wave a pretty juvenile provocation their way.
The subjects and the public bought it. One other issue attendant to this work, which bears a mention here and a much larger analysis elsewhere, is the issue of class. Svenson and his subjects occupy multimillion dollar condominiums, which have within their design the intention to display the lives of these privileged elite. Is it a surprise then that a reaction to the work was a lawsuit? Only the wealthy can afford lawsuits.
Jill Filipovic wrote wonderfully about the class versus privacy tension in Svenson’s work:
"The very homes Svenson photographs offer only a transparent line between private abode and public display—they're showcase homes, with walls made of glass that are meant to let the casual observer see in as much as they allow the residents to see out. Their windows are frames for their interior; residents know people can see in, and furniture and art are positioned accordingly."
I’m not looking here to incite class division or suggest that the rich deserve every inconvenience that happens to puncture their inoculated lifestyles, rather I’m pointing out that Svenson’s photography immediately neutered the tactics of the ostentatious show of wealth literally built in to those floor-to-ceiling windows.
Having pegged Svenson’s Neighbors as a clever but childish gesture, I’d like to move on and suggest that the best art that needles the invisible incursions of the state into our private lives is that which turns its aesthetics back on itself. Josh Begley’s visualization of the New York City Police Department’s profiling of the Muslim community, which he dubbed “the visual vernacular of NYPD surveillance,” is a wonderful case in point. As too is Harun Farocki’s I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts, a collision of prison surveillance and shopping mall mapping software.
Then again, if you’re not Muslim, or a criminal, or an ardent chain-store consumer, you might not be affected by these artistic gestures and remain docilely complicit with an ever-invasive state. Well, how about a live stream of your front room? In one of the most audacious and unnerving efforts by an artist to uncover the boundaries of surveillance, Pierre Derks’s project, Streaming Reality, scraped the feeds from unsecured webcams of people’s living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens.
At the same time it was exhibited in the Netherlands last year, Parsons The New School Of Design grappled with issues of privacy in its show The Public Private. There’s no doubt that surveillance art is upon us and we must be able to figure out if those interventions and descriptions of our withering privacy help us comprehend the scale and degree, or if they’re nothing more than high-spirited distractions.
Maybe gallery- and museum-sponsored discussions are the place for that. It depends on how comfortable you are sharing your ideas, because we all know that coders can hack your iPhone and control your laptop camera, that conversations on the bus can be recorded, that the police are using facial recognition technology, that states are entering the driver’s license data and photos of non-criminals into facial recognition databases, that cops are scanning every mobile device for movements within a five-block radius, and that the lampposts have ears.