Art on the run: Ubiquitous mobility and the camera phone

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Waffa Bilal, The 3rdi, 2010, camera surgically implanted in the back of the artist's head. Photo: Brad Farwell

Over the past decade, cameras have colonised the mobile phone. Just as no phone is complete today without a camera, more phone cameras are sold today than any other kind of camera. Indeed, the mobile phone company who can now claim to be the world's largest camera maker, Nokia, has reportedly put more cameras into people’s hands than in the whole previous history of photography.[1] Apple can’t be far behind. The upshot is that these days most of us in the developed world carry at least one camera at all times, capable not only of recording and displaying images but also instantly sharing them, via the Internet or messaging services.

Unsurprisingly, the resulting promiscuity of gazes has generated equal measures of enthusiasm and anxiety. For as much as phone cameras are advertised as enabling intimacy-at-a-distance, and celebrated as devices of on-the-spot participatory citizen photojournalism – say, for instance during the 2009 Iran elections, or following the 2011 Japanese earthquake – they are also intertwined with larger social anxieties about privacy in an age of digital dissemination. In the Australian media, hardly a week goes by without the latest social media scandal involving the inappropriate distribution of personal imagery, and the terms “digital image” and “loss of control” have become almost synonymous.

If mobile and online media have entrenched ideas about the need to control images for fear of voyeuristic practices like “up skirting”, not to mention paedophilia and terrorism, this has also bred a certain mistrust of professional photographers. Even Max Dupain’s photographer son Rex Dupain has recently complained of being treated like a predator or criminal when photographing at the beach.[2] This is despite the celebrated history of photographers who have made a virtue of working without the explicit permission of their subjects, often working in exposed places like the street to explore the paradox of intimacy in public.[3] Ironically, photographers are under siege at a time when voyeurism has been turned into an entertainment form, and when voluntary self-surveillance has become a leisure pastime.

On sites like Facebook, people actively dissolve conventional public-private boundaries, posting intimate details and pictures of themselves as a form of performative self-representation. Attacks on individual photographers are surely symptomatic of deeper cultural anxieties that manifest as ‘bodily privacy’, but have the unfortunate consequence of naturalising the monopoly of official surveillance by the corporatised state. In this sense they rupture what Ariella Azoulay has dubbed the ‘civil contract of photography’, the possibility for non-state civic interaction allowed by the invention of the camera, and the capacity of photography to circulate political claims.[4]

In key respects, debates about phone cameras parallel the public paranoia that accompanied the rise of portable cameras in the late nineteenth century. The 1898 British Journal of Photography moaned of “the hand-camera fiends who ‘snap-shot’ ladies”, and for a period in Victorian times photographers required permits to take pictures of people in London’s parks.[5] New technologies invariably generate anxiety. However, the assemblage of phone cameras and social media networks is particularly potent, and the introduction of GPS technology complicates things even further, generating new ideas such as ‘locational privacy’.[6] “One of the basic principles of privacy”, Victoria’s Privacy Commissioner, Helen Versey claimed in 2009, “is that people should have the right to be able to move around anonymously”.[7] Hence the recent controversy surrounding iPhone’s hidden ‘tracking’ file – a database of the user’s location stretching back for months – and legitimate concerns that Apple was secretly yielding data for location-targeted advertising.[8]

Several artists, including Rob Pruitt and Joel Sternfeld, have produced works exploring the aesthetic possibilities of the iPhone – its immediacy and the low-resolution rawness of the images. Pruitt’s iPruitt, 2008, is “a stream-of-consciousness photo diary” of over 2000 prints hung in grid fashion – of largely banal subjects that prominently feature moments of intimacy and moments of voyeurism (tellingly, the poster for the exhibition featured a stranger’s blue jean crotch captured on an airport shuttle bus). Sternfeld – best known for luscious 8 x 10 inch view camera work such as the influential American Prospects (1987) – used the iPhone in iDubai (2010) as a novelty device to update the Baudelarian flâneur with the phoneur, “a wired wanderer” who snaps digital images on the fly in the malls of Dubai. He speaks of photography shifting from a “privileged discrete act to something more continuous and generic.”[9]

Even more interesting are artists whose work helps us to question simplistic dynamics of surveillance and privacy in relation to networked mobile cameras. For instance, for two decades the American computer scientist Steve Mann has worn custom-made glasses with a hidden camera that records his everyday life and beams those images to a website. Mann’s philosophy for “wearcam.org” reads like a combination of Dziga Vertov I am a camera, Marshall McLuhan the Internet as an extension of the nervous system and Donna Haraway I am a photoborg entity.

Mann argues that the more cameras there are in the world, and the more democratically images are dispersed, the less chance there is of harmful corporate or state surveillance. Although flavoured with a particularly American paranoia, his thesis of sousveillance or surveillance from below (an ‘inverse surveillance’ involving community-based recording from first person perspectives) is highly relevant to current debates. More recently, Wafaa Bilal surgically implanted a camera in the back of his head for The 3rdi (2010) project, streaming an image once a minute to a website that also showed his location via GPS. Bilal said he wanted to capture the mundane, but ironically his New York university required him to cover the camera while on campus. Such projects raise ethical issues that we are only starting to address.

What has become clear is that traditional theories of privacy are in need of renovation. As a historical and ideological product of the rise of bourgeois society after the Renaissance, privacy tends to be viewed as a right possessed by individuals – the right to be left alone, framed in exclusively individualistic terms.[10] But in relation to the ever-growing demand for more privacy, one always needs to ask: who benefits? Privacy laws often protect vested interests, and while it has become a question of identity management for ordinary citizens, advocates of new concepts like privacy in public must also recognise that individuals with cameras are hardly the most pressing threat.[11]

In countries like Australia, the bulk of surveillance is now invisible, such as the data mining of consumer transactions undertaken with the ambition of rendering desire more profitable via the formation of detailed personal consumption profiles. Such commercial activities should indeed be made more transparent – users should be the owners of their own data. But on the other hand there is no good reason why one’s image in public should not remain just that, public.

Anxiety about being watched is nevertheless perfectly understandable in our culture, and many artists have mined this territory in their work. For instance, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has explored tracking technologies in works such as Surface Tension (1993), an image of a giant human eye that follows the observer as they watch the image on screen. However, in his large-scale interactive work Amodal Suspension (2003) SMS messages were encoded as unique sequences of flashes by twenty robotically controlled searchlights, creating an extraordinary telegraphic spectacle over the city of Yamaguchi, Japan. The effect was to make public the most intimate of communications.

From a more anthropological orientation, Larissa Hjorth has shown a long-standing interest in the gendered rituals and customisation surrounding mobile phone use, both as a researcher and artist. In CU: The Presence of Co-Presence (2009), Hjorth made photographs corresponding to the emotional states of SMS messages, and their logic of the “ephemeral, compressed and abbreviated”, these “fleeting moments of sadness, love and friendship” – and what the artist calls “contextual intimacy” – were then rendered public in an outdoor projection space in Melbourne. In Still Mobile (2011) Hjorth used a mobile phone to take images of people using mobile phones, which she then abstracted into blurry digital images as if to suggest our subjective dissolution into the enfolded visual field.

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Patrick Pound, Crime Scenes, 2001, giclee print on rag paper. Image courtesy Fehily Contemporary and GRANTPIRRIE

In his exhibition Phone Camera Work (2008), Patrick Pound exhibited a five by ten grid of blurry black and white A4 images pinned to the wall. Made with a mobile phone, the images look like the work of a spy or detective but are in fact cropped details from photographs in the daily newspaper – largely from the real estate pages. In his catalogue essay, Blair French calls them “clues, ghostings, memory traces hovering between the real and its shadow”.[12] In keeping with his practice of presenting recurring themes in found photographs, for Pound, the digital phone camera “is the perfect collecting machine ... [that] can copy the world at will”.[13]

Pound revels in the redundancy of old technologies, using an old Motorola phone for its black and white possibilities, which he says approaches the low end technological look of surveillance footage, and Atget’s photographs all at once. In another series of images, Pound used his phone to capture a photographer straining to make images of artworks at the National Gallery in Washington. Most recently, he has again merged the mobile phone with found photographs to mimic forensic photography in the series Crime scenes (2011) taken from his collection People that look dead but (probably) aren’t. Taking to its logical conclusion Walter Benjamin’s claim in response to early twentieth century media of film and photography that “[e]very day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction”, Pound’s ingenious work with the phone camera reveals not reality but a hall of mirrors.[14]

Phone cameras can in fact be used not just to reproduce but to enhance and augment our experience of the world. With a GPS receiver and corresponding software that allow users to pinpoint their location, a myriad of apps have been built to facilitate navigation and social networking. Artists can work with, or even develop, such location-aware software to help reverse the increased personalisation of space brought about by such media. Thus with their augmented reality artwork Transumer (2010), the tactical media group pvi collective armed participants with modified iPhones and placed reality tags in the virtual landscape, mixing virtual imaging into the video stream of the mobile phone’s camera in real time. The resulting journey aimed to reveal a hidden layer to the city, opening up new possibilities for subverting official narratives of space. Thus updating situationist techniques, the pvi collective seek “to devise fleeting moments of cultural intervention that are intended to temporarily transform the everyday … [and] establish a different kind of doing in these codified spaces”.

Smart phones, as Scott McQuire has observed “can all too easily be aligned with the extension of commodity logic into the interstices of both public and private space.”[15] The cultural problem is “not simply the exposure of the previously private” but rather the “failure to imagine new publics”. What is needed – and what artists can provide, directly or indirectly – are moments of reflection and critique, to move beyond an unproductive structure of voyeurism and narcissism.

Such a desire, to enable technologies for social ends, is also apparent in so-called “citizen science” and “participatory sensing” projects. Here, people use the mobile phone’s sensor capacities, such as the camera, to work together for specific purposes, from such simple projects as mapping local pollution to the best bicycle routes in that most notorious of car cities, Los Angeles. Such “reality mining”, as it has been dubbed, operates as a kind of antidote to the corporate dominance of data mining. Certainly, such projects remind us that simplistic concerns about the inappropriate use of camera phones too often reflect a misplaced anxiety about our powerlessness in a world of data and capital flows that are largely invisible. One of art’s roles is to make our movements more visible, if no less enigmatic.

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Larissa Hjorth, Still Mobile, 2010, from manipulated mobile phone footage. Image: courtesy the artist 

Footnotes

  1. ^ See Tomi T. Ahonen 'What to call the past decade? Has to be the Nokia decade, here’s why,' http://communities-dominate.blogs.com, 4 January 2010
  2. ^ Rosemary Neill, ‘Not a Good Look’, Weekend Australian Review, 2–3 October. 2010, pp5–8. 
  3. ^ Daniel Palmer, ‘In Naked Repose: The Face of Candid Portrait Photography’, Angelaki, 16: 1 (2011), pp111–128. 
  4. ^ Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, trans. Rela Mazali and Ruvik Danieli, Zone Books, New York: 2008.
  5. ^ Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Guilty Pleasures’, in Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel (eds.), Ctrl [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, MIT Press/ ZKM Center for Art and Media, Cambridge, Mass, 2002, p451.
  6. ^ See Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva, Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World, Blackwell-Wiley, Boston, 2011.
  7. ^ Mark Russell, ‘Warning on mobile phone tracking’, The Age, March 8, 2009.
  8. ^ Charles Arthur, ‘iPhone keeps record of everywhere you go’, The Guardian, Wednesday 20 April 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/apr/20/iphone-tracking-prompts-privacy-fears
  9. ^ ‘Joel Sternfeld: iDubai’, Daylight Magazine http://www.daylightmagazine.org/podcast/november2010-0
  10. ^ Jessica Whyte, ‘Criminalising "Camera Fiends": Photography Restrictions in the Age of Digital Reproduction’, Australian Feminist Law Journal, 31, 2009, pp99–120.
  11. ^ Helen Nissenbaum, ‘Protecting Privacy in an Information Age: The Problem of Privacy in Public’, Law and Philosophy 17, 1998, pp559–596.
  12. ^ Blair French, ‘Unpack Tripod Into 15 Parts’, Patrick Pound: Phone Camera Work, (exhib cat) GRANTPIRRIE Gallery, 2008.
  13. ^ Larissa Hjorth, ‘Photoshifting: Art Practice, Camera Phones and Social Media’, Photofile, 89, pp32–37.
  14. ^ Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations, Hannah Arendt (ed), translated by Harry Zohn , Schocken, New York, 1969, p223.
  15. ^ Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space, Sage, London, 2008, p204.

Daniel Palmer is a Senior Lecturer in the Art Theory Program in the Faculty of Art & Design at Monash University.

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