Public Spaces and Private Faces in New Media Art

Kyle McDonald staring at his computer from his "Autotimelapse" video on Vimeo

Artist Kyle McDonald staring at his computer


          There is a certain subset of videos on YouTube and Vimeo where users (and doting parents) take daily portraits for years, cobble the snapshots into jerky homemade videos, and then post the chronology of their faces on the Internet. The artists who create these videos share something of themselves with a vast online community. Like their spouses or children, and perhaps with an even greater intimacy, we can watch the minute changes that develop in their faces over the course of several years. For these artists, the art is in their aging, and its precise video documentation.

            Other artists shy from using themselves as subjects, and instead post the faces of strangers. This artistic endeavor comes with certain ethical and legal dilemmas. Brooklyn-based artist Kyle McDonald recently found himself the target of an unexpected Secret Service visit after working on an art project of this nature.

            McDonald installed software on several Apple store computers in Manhattan that automatically takes photographs of whatever happens to be directly in front of the computer’s webcam. The photos were sent to McDonald’s own computer. Then he would upload them to a Tumblr account called People Staring at Computers, which has since been taken down.

            People Staring at Computers, a concept McDonald originally tested on himself, was meant to be art. According to the initial Mashable article on the project, after McDonald acquired the photos of strangers, he staged an unauthorized gallery exhibition at two Manhattan Apple stores: “when people looked at an Apple store machine, they saw a picture of themselves. Then they saw photos of other people staring at computers. Amazingly, nobody made a fuss.”

            Days after he began his project, McDonald was approached by four Secret Service members with a search warrant for computer fraud. They took two computers, two flash drives, and an iPod, and told him that he would be contacted by Apple.

            McDonald, and many members of various online communities, are trying to determine whether he indeed committed a crime. In a New York Times article from July 19th, McDonald’s lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, is quoted as saying, “There are no limitations or conditions when you use those [Apple store] computers…He [McDonald] was using that which was available to him or to anyone else. He didn’t violate the law, and he certainly had no intention to violate it.”

            McDonald’s project has elicited strong reactions primarily because it deals with personal privacy in the Internet age. Few articles debate the validity of McDonald’s artistic statement; rather their authors focus on the ethics and expectation of privacy.

            Many artists and philosophers have considered the link between art and exposure, but this relationship acquires greater immediacy against the backdrop of the Internet. As a global public forum, the Internet eliminates any conception of privacy. If something is out there, and it’s not password-protected, then anyone can and will view it.

            If projects like McDonald’s are thought to violate the privacy of technology-users, then how can we use technology to maintain our privacy? Media artist and University of Maryland professor Hasan Elahi has discovered a creative and surprising way to ensure his private life remains private.

Places Hasan Elahi has visited and documented


          In 2002, Elahi was detained at an airport in Detroit. In a video from May on the Lift Conference website and in a recent article on Mashable, Elahi explains that he was mistaken for a man on the U.S. terrorist watch list. When he returned to his home in Florida, he had to take nine consecutive lie detector tests to prove his identity.

            Elahi was never formally charged with any crimes, so he could not be officially removed from the terrorist watch list. In order to avoid any future detainment, Elahi began to call the FBI before every trip he took outside the country.

            Elahi says that his phone calls turned into e-mails, which in turn became lengthy e-mails with pictures. Eventually he began to create websites for the FBI to explain where he was going, and what he was doing, including restaurants at which he was eating and the tourist highlights of his destinations. These websites evolved into Tracking Transience, an online art project where Elahi records his whereabouts at all times.

            Every time Elahi changes locations, whether it’s a trip to Edinburgh to speak at the recent TED International conference or a visit to a local grocery store, he updates his website through GPS software. In addition to his exact location, Elahi uploads views from his car, photographs of airplane meals he has eaten, and even close-ups of the doors to restrooms he has visited.

            Although Elahi records his flights, debit card purchases, and outgoing cell phone calls on Tracking Transience, he notes, “I’m okay with giving you everything, but you’ve got to do some work for it.” This means that photographs are only partially dated with a location, time, month, and day, but no year. Elahi maintains that the connective work of sorting this massive amount of data into a chronological sequence is best left to the FBI.

            It may seem counterintuitive that a drastic revelation of information would result in greater privacy, but Elahi says, “…what I’ve decided is that by providing every little bit of information, I generate so much information about me that I actually live a rather private and anonymous life.” Elahi may release a vast quantity of personal information, but he dictates its structure and content, making it purposefully difficult to reach any specific conclusions about the artist.

            Elahi’s self-determined information is an opaque curtain of minutiae that blocks access to the intimate details of his life. Elahi deluges the FBI with trivia to distract from what really matters: the lectures he gives when he travels, the opinions he expresses when he teaches university classes, and the things he does in the privacy of his own home. Tracking Transience sates our curiosity for information while simultaneously denying us any data of real value.

            In the vast global database of the Internet, specificity matters. McDonald’s People Staring at Computers became a sensation because close-up images of real people were being recorded without their consent. Hasan Elahi chooses to record his own movements, but because the individual components of his data are vague and, as he acknowledges, mostly unimportant, Tracking Transience reinforces the distinction between his public and private lives. Elahi’s faceless art creates distance, but McDonald’s unexpected portraits of strangers reach out to other computer users, thus magnifying our own behavior in public spaces.