While my work throughout the past two terms has been centred on privacy and the unaccountability of the US and UK governments and their spying abilities, as this third term progressed, I began to consider whether we, as people, could argue for privacy given how much we give up on the internet. I had already addressed this issue in Term 1 with my spy wall. In this piece, I scrutinised a number of my course mate’s social media accounts and retrieved as much information as I could about them. I then connected them to how they knew each other and displayed my findings on a large wall. Despite having explored these notions however, the students that I used were art students, meaning I was connected to them on social media accounts and had access to all their information. The story would have been different for students I was not connected to or didn’t know at all.
At the start of the Jeremy Corbyn Box incident (read about what happened here), a post on a Lancaster University-related Facebook group ‘Overheard at Lancaster’ (not run by or affiliated by the University in anyway) received a lot of attention and backlash. In the comment thread of this post, students expressed their discontent towards the piece, as well as towards the arts in general. Perturbed and angered by this negativity towards my degree, I decided to create a database outlining the information of one of the students that had spoken disrespectfully. I planned to use this account and invite this student in for a “chat” about their work before confronting them about their comments and revealing to them the ease with which I was able to find out so much about them. The piece would have been my way of getting back at the student, but also a way to show him the dangers of being so vocal on the internet. Given the situation, however, I decided to hold back on going through with this idea as I knew the risks of deceiving a student and the ethical problems that would undoubtedly ensue.
In the days following the post when my emotions subsided, I was incredibly relieved that I had not gone through with my plan. Not only would the piece have been irrefutably unethical, it could have caused harm to another student, and further repercussions could have been detrimental. I used this opportunity to explore how it is useless in some respects for anyone to argue for privacy, given how much we willingly give up on social media.
From ruthless investigation, I had found out the student’s nickname, education history and political views, as well as articles that they themselves had written. From these, I was able to identify their varying views on a number of matters and could form my own opinion of them. What is perhaps most surprising is the ease with which I was able to do all of this. 1 hour of following links on Facebook, scrolling through Google, exploring LinkedIn and scrutinising the student’s website provided me with all the valuable information surrounding them. I could learn about every aspect of the student’s life through a quick google search. I could discover that they achieved 1 A*, 5 As and a B at GCSE, 2As and a B at A level and currently study a BSc at Lancaster simply from their LinkedIn profile. I could also find the student’s interests and volunteer status, and whether they are currently employed. All of this information was readily available online for people to read, which ultimately begs the question: how can we argue for privacy if we give up all of our information online anyway?
The question, however, is not so much to do with how much we already give up, but what we don’t give up. A better way to address this idea is to think of the following story proposed by Glenn Greenwald: suppose you proclaimed that you didn’t care for privacy because you didn’t have anything to hide. If that was the case, then you wouldn’t have an issue with providing someone you didn’t know with the passwords to all of your social media accounts and allowing them to access these pages. If I were to write my email address down and ask viewers to do that exact thing, I project that I would receive no emails because there is a degree of privacy that people intuitively expect. People may state that they do not care about their privacy, but expect there to be a lock on their door, or a password on their Facebook. These things act as a protective barrier; a place to escape for soul-searching; a place where someone can truly be themselves. Given this, then, we can argue for privacy. As Greenwald himself stated: “[people] do things to safeguard themselves. They put locks on bedrooms/bathrooms, passwords on social media. They have places where they can go to escape from world”… “We lose the critical part of what it means to be a free and fulfilled person” if we rid ourselves of our right to privacy. If you put a stick of tape over your webcam, you care about privacy; if you have a problem with showing someone your Facebook messages, you care about privacy. The issue is not that privacy is not sought, it’s that people confuse what can be meant by privacy. Having the ability to lock your room is a form of privacy. Being able to do that is your right as a living, existing, complex human being.
When I began my enquiry mid-way through first term, I ushered the phrase “I don’t care about privacy because I have nothing to hide.” Since then, I have changed my tune. Seeing the extent to which the UK government attempts to find things about about me as a part of a larger collective, the measures they go to and the few regulations that exist to control this made me realise that I, as a citizen, deserve to keep things to myself and need to fight for it. There are some things that the government doesn’t need to know. I do not break the law and I do not have anything that I need to hide, but I still deserve my right to privacy. As Snowden rightly postulates: “The government is supposed to know nothing about us and we should know everything about them. It is private citizens vs public officials. Yet, what happens when a culture of unaccountability takes hold of our society?” What, then, for privacy?
It is hard to say whether the commons will pass the new investigatory powers bill. If they do, the worst can be expected. In an attempt to address this, as well as the issue of having little privacy due to my own actions on social media, I have provided my entire Facebook history to be viewed by the examiner. The marker has the opportunity to browse all of my personal data, excluding my messages (which I deemed to be too personal) for as long as they wish. The piece shows the amount I have already released into the public domain and the ways this can be used to learn things about me. In doing this, the examiner must enter the taped off area. This area, inspired by Carey Young's 'Declared Void' (2003), removes the examiners right to privacy. Put simply, buy entering this area and engaging with the piece, the examiner themselves becomes subject to scrutiny. Is the camera that watches them live streaming to a separate device? Or is it taking pictures at set intervals? This will remain unanswered, but the examiner's right to privacy is lost by entering this area.
The photos below show the taped off area in which the viewer's right to privacy is invalidated. A picture of my notes of other artists I have explored is also shown.
Having explored the foundations of my enquiry into privacy through my video installation, I decided to look at the ways in which we as a society would respond to state surveillance and mass data retention in the future. Inspired by Darren Cullen’s ‘Pocket Money Loans’ exhibited at Banksy’s dismaland, I created fake adverts from the 4 largest internet providers in the UK: Virgin Media; TalkTalk; PlusNet and BT. Through reading articles addressing the importance of privacy (e.g. Anon HQ, The Times and The Guardian) and listening to panel discussions focussing on the same issues, namely the University of Arizona’s ‘A Conversation on Privacy’ featuring Noam Chomsky, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, I decided to focus on the ways in which companies would exploit their customers’ desire for privacy in a fictional dystopian future. In this future, privacy is advertised as an add-on to existing internet subscriptions and is offered in package and bundle deals. This dystopia that the posters reflect is something that is becoming increasingly less fictional and more of a reality, specifically in the UK.
In the UK, the secretary of state Theresa May is attempting to pass a new Investigatory Powers Bill that would essentially rid all British citizens of the right to privacy and security on the internet. Internet providers would be required to maintain user's browser history for 12 months amongst other things. In light of these revelations, it seems privacy will no longer be a basic human right, but an add-on option to our internet services (as stated). In my mind, companies will exploit the public's fear of being watched and will offer "Privacy packages" for an additional fee. In this dystopian world, the poor will be have no right to privacy and the rich will live a lie, existing under the impression that they have more privacy when in actual fact they have as few liberties as the poor they mock. Each poster draws upon consumer and pop culture to create eye-catching and colourful designs. In the Virgin Media poster for example, James Bond (Daniel Craig)–a symbol of power, strength and secrecy–is used to represent a company ethic of privacy; that is to say he is used to present the idea that Virgin, as a company, will not spy on its customers. What is perhaps most interesting about the posters is the way in which they draw upon the public’s fear of being watched. Each assures viewers that they will have their liberties protected, but the small print of each work outlines the opposite. In this fine print, customers are warned that internet companies do not have the power to go against government legislation, and by investing in privacy bundles, consumers are essentially wasting money: they cannot be protected, the law prevents this.
Each poster was created on Photoshop using a variety of techniques. For example, the PlusNet poster is comprised of three different landscapes cut together in one (shown below). The companies patented pink colour and vivid aesthetic is maintained in this piece, along with it’s key salesman who appears in every advert. The poster offers extra privacy for £35, but goes on to note that customers paying extra are not guaranteed any further safety compared to normal customers. Similarly, the TalkTalk poster uses bright and glowing colours to attract the viewers attention. This piece was created using a photo of mine, combined with a number of paint brush layers and light strokes. Similar notions to that of the PlusNet ad can be found in the small print of the TalkTalk poster.
A number of key questions are raised when viewing the posters: why are they contained solely within the studios? Is the intention for them to be seen or for the message that they may portray? Can the works be displayed in a public space? Are they intended to be a prediction or simply a depiction of this dystopia?
The decision to contain the work within the studio lies in its ethics. To take the work beyond the studio, as with the video installation, would have left the pieces up to public scrutiny. Whilst this is important, the very nature of the work would mean viewers could have, and most likely would have, been deceived. The fact that these posters advertise a more secure, private internet, something that is incredibly sort after, it would be extremely unethical and inappropriate to exhibit them in a public space without the prefix that they were pieces of art. If the intention of the piece was to deceive viewers, it would be important to inform various officials of their existence, and to make them aware that no harm is intended through their display. For these reasons, the work is displayed within the studio as viewers are less likely to be defrauded as they are aware it is art. I intend to take my work outside of the studio next year and start to address these issues of ethics further. In order to do this, the scale of my work will increase. I will attempt to make similar posters, but will seek to get them printed for billboard presentation for example. This way, the adverts become a statement against privacy and cause debate within the public sphere whilst also being exhibited in this space.
While it is important for these posters to be viewed, it is more the message behind them that is significant. The notion of additional privacy as a form of service completely negates the right we, as British citizens, have to privacy itself. As the Global Internet Liberty Campaign writes: “Privacy is a fundamental human right recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights and in many other international and regional treaties.” The fact that these posters are offering this fundamental liberty shows the extent to which security services have exploited their powers and how the rise of the internet has resulted in the loss of this basic human right. We, as people; consumers; citizens of a democracy, deserve the right to privacy, and, indeed, thousands if not millions of people attempt to regain control of this right through their own means (encrypted messages, Tor brower etc). Many believe that it is not for the security services to determine otherwise. As Edward Snowden himself stated:
“Privacy is the fountain head of all other rights. Privacy is the right to the self. Privacy is the right to a free mind. Privacy is what allows us to determine what we believe without being subject to someone else’s beliefs.. Saying you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say. To say you don’t care about a right because you’re not exercising it at this moment in time is the most anti-social thing a person can do.”
The posters show that in a world where these government departments work with zero accountability or legislation, it is the people that lose out. Big companies gain the most through exploiting the people. Privacy becomes a selling point; a money-making tactic. In my view, as I stated earlier on, I predict that this will be the bleak future that we, as a society, will soon encounter. Privacy will be an add-on to a subscription; a way to control people. This dystopian vision that Orwell was so against is no longer merely an idea, it is slowly becoming a reality.
Links can be drawn between my works and the campaign ‘Billionaires for Bush’ by Andrew Boyd. Billionaires for Bush was a “culture jamming political street theatre organisation that satirically purported to support George W. Bush, drawing attention to policies which were perceived to benefit corporations and the super-wealthy.” One of the main aspects of this campaign was it’s use of ironic banners and posters. These visuals were used to mock of the former president and his political policies. My posters, in the same light, use their aesthetic ironically to comment on privacy. Links can also be drawn to Women on Waves’s ‘dieselforwomen.com’ and the ways this group unwillingly used big brands (Diesel) to comment on the garment industry to expose the violation of workers’ rights. Their campaign was a hoax and was attacked by Diesel who threatened legal action. My works, similarly, deceptively use the names of big companies to comment on a political issue.
As I moved into third term, the scope of what I was able to create became incredibly narrow. I had pushed the boundaries of how far I could go in the previous semester and had found the limit of my enquiry; I discovered how far I could go before I would get in trouble. This proved incredibly difficult as I struggled to contemplate how I could further my investigations and scrutinise more thoroughly government notions surrounding privacy without breaking the law. I decided to move away from the limits of the law and explored the origins of this contemporary discussion of privacy.
I began the term by looking at the conversations between Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in 2013. ‘Citizen Four,’ a documentary-film created by Poitras showing the discussions with Snowden in Hong Kong before and during the release of top secret government documents, provided me with some interesting insights into the ways in which Snowden himself made Poitras aware of his findings. The email exchanges between the two gave an indication of the extent to which average citizens were having their right to privacy breached by the NSA. The interchange of communications also showed Snowdon’s anxiety towards releasing these documents and the repercussions of his actions. This is all particularly clear and evident to see simply through reading the exchanges. What was deeply interesting about the emails was the way in which they appeared to represent a dystopian fiction; the solemnity of the situation made it appear fictitious; fabricated and untrue. Yet, there is also something disturbingly real and relatable about the exchanges. We as outsiders to the communications understand Snowden’s desire to set things right; we sympathise with his moral standpoint and negate the consequences that may come from releasing the documents. We comprehend the intentions behind Snowden’s actions and know that he only wants to start conversation and debate, he is not interested in bringing about harm. A connection can be drawn between my art and Snowden in this sense: I intend to start debate amongst my friends about the importance of privacy and the significance of unaccountable, unscrupulous state surveillance. That is not to say that my work stands hand-in-hand with Snowden’s actions, given the gravity of his disclosures, but a connection between my practice and his intentions can undoubtably be made.
In an attempt to capture these emotions and ideas that came from reading Snowden’s initial exchanges, I decided to create a short installation video, narrated by myself, consolidating all the emails sent by Snowden. The video begins with an email from Snowden outlining the seriousness of his disclosures, before moving into logistics of meeting up. The piece was recorded using a RØDE NT-USB microphone and edited using Final Cut Pro X. Multiple text layers were used to keep the visuals in time with the audio. The work is displayed in my studio space on a 32 inch TV. The decision to place the video in this environment is worth noting, as it is not within a greater public space; only art students will see it.
The question of the public space has become a key catalyst for debate in my work. I have considered taking my work beyond the studio and placing it in an environment where works like this are unusual and not expected. While this would bring about interesting debate and reactions, the ethics of doing such a thing must be thoroughly considered. I have found that, by keeping works contained within the studios, I have greater freedom with what I can do as what is created and displayed is automatically defined as art. This means that it will be viewed from the perspective of art. To take it beyond this space would leave it open to greater scrutiny with possibly greater risks and consequences. I have decided that my work for this term, and indeed the work for the previous two terms, has been centred on the studio and the reactions of art students. Next year, I intend to take this work outside of the art bubble and expose it to the university. In doing this, I will have to play close attention to ethics and must ensure that all aspects of the work have been considered.
In regards to this piece, an important question arises given what has been stated: could it be taken into a public space? In my opinion, yes. The work does not bring about harm to any other person. The very nature of what it is representing (email exchanges between Snowden and Poitras) suggest that the work would be suitable in any environment. A short description would be needed to outline the ideas behind the work, but generally it would be understood what is going on. This piece can be linked to the work of sound artist Susan Philipsz who uses sound to define a space. The artist uses recordings, mainly of her own singing voice and projects this recording into a space. She is focussed on how sound can trigger certain emotions. Like Philipsz, this work intends to shape the space that it is in. That is to say that it directs attention away from everything and towards itself. The simplicity of the text that unravels as the piece begins is able to catch the attention of the viewer. For this reason, the piece is particularly powerful in the art environment as it is able to detract from the rest of what is being displayed and centre attention on itself. In any other environment, it may be difficult to do this as the sound may not be loud, the space may be crowded with other visuals or it may not be suited to displaying video. As Philipsz herself stated "when the work is placed in a gritty urban setting, you're prevented from fully entering into a state of reverie." In this sense, the viewer would not be able to fully engage with the work. This provides valid reason for displaying the video in the studio. Another question rises from watching the piece: what is the importance of the soundtrack?
Like my video work in the previous term, this piece is accompanied by an ambient soundtrack. My decision to use a soundtrack in this instance is principally down to creating emotion within the work. The central aim of the piece is to create a sense of tension with the audience. The viewer needs to be aware of the risks that the narrator (in this case, Snowden) finds himself in, and this is highlighted with the soundtrack. That is not to say that the soundtrack is the soul source of emotion within the piece, it simply elevates the suspense of the work. In saying this, however, it appears that I am stating that the work is intended to evoke some sort of emotion from the viewer; that the viewer must feel some way towards the piece. This is incorrect. The audience simply needs to understand the anxiety behind the work; the tension that Snowden has created in sending these emails. There must be an awareness of the thrill, but also of the distress. In doing this, an observer will be able to establish their own emotions towards the piece, if any. In other words, the viewer will be able to judge how they feel towards the piece without the work telling them how they should feel. This is, once again, similar to the work of Philipsz.
A key final question to consider is: what is the work trying to show? Is it trying to say anything?
The work is intended to pinpoint the start of contemporary enquiry into state surveillance and government laws surrounding data retention and privacy. The piece takes us back to where it all started, back to the main source of inspiration behind my two terms worth of work. By doing this, I am able to show where my fundamental ideas for the two terms originated and am able to round off this years work by showing what I have achieved (e.g., I have gone from this starting point, to creating phishing letters, posters, information walls etc commenting on our loss of privacy). This does not mean that my enquiry has finished. On the contrary, it shows how far I have been able to expand off this simple idea and how far I can continue to go. In this sense, the piece is showing that this is only the beginning step, I can expand my ideas further and push more at our loss of privacy and how this can be linked to art and cause debate.