#JenniferAllen #SommerakademieSalzburg #cities #public #private #surveillance #circulation #socialmedia
Sommerakademie Salzburg, also historically known as the “school of vision,” opened its doors in 1953 to anyone interested in studying art. Now entering its 61st year, the academy attracts a broad range of practitioners to participate in courses taught by artists and cultural theorists. This year’s public program was entitled Cities—Spaces for Art, Politics, Living…, and I was especially drawn to Jennifer Allen’s talk, “The End of Privacy and the Fate of Public Space.” Although I recently relocated to Berlin, I spent the previous three years living in San Francisco—a city that has undergone tumultuous changes as a result of the third wave of tech gentrification. My response to Allen’s talk on privacy is certainly colored by interrelated topics like affective labor, the relationship between technology and the arts, and gentrification, all of which are ongoing conversations within the Bay Area arts community.
Allen began her presentation with the premise that she no longer believes in the divide between public and private space. “Sure, the traditional divisions between public and private still exist—from abstract laws to concrete fences,” she concedes, “but the virtual realm of digitization can permeate both abstract and concrete barriers, like magic dust or voodoo.” Allen’s argument extends claims made by artist Seth Price in his now-canonical text Dispersion—written “way back in 2002” before the age of YouTube, tablets, and smartphones. More than a decade later, when even my grandmother uses Facebook on a daily basis, it’s not only “digital natives” who prove Price’s assertion that “collective experience is now based on simultaneous private experiences, distributed across the field of media culture, knit together by ongoing debate, publicity, promotion, and discussion.” Yet if our notion of collectivity has expanded—now extending from the town square to the deep web—Allen argues that our notion of public art largely has not. To support this claim, she sketches a line from the classical monument—linking the genealogy of public art to Abbé Henri Grégoire’s conception of the “national object[s],” which, he writes, “belonging to no one, are the property of everyone”—to incursions of private, customized gestures into public space. One such gesture, a work by Swedish artist Lena Malm titled Have You Wondered How Many People Have the Same Name as You? I Did (1994–99), entailed the artist poring over the phone book and other public records in her native Stockholm, looking for other individuals with her name; her labors resulted in a lunch for fifty-five Lena Malms at the Moderna Museet, which Allen likened to the analog version of a Google (image) Search. Other examples, like the artist and architect Vassiliki-Maria Plavou’s work Locus Erectus (2013) treat the physical and digital public as “continuous” spaces. In this work Plavou feeds algorithms of her physical and virtual observations of a gay cruising zone outside of Athens into her computer to generate a digital design for a drilling machine that would enable her to penetrate this forbidden territory. Allen considers these works self-portraits executed in public, noting that they often extend beyond the realm of media into the virtual. Allen considers these works self-portraits executed in public, noting that they often extend beyond the realm of media into the virtual.
And here I must digress: The fluidity between the real and the virtual has become an accepted part of contemporary art and life, producing more or less anxiety depending on a person’s age, cultural affinities, and social class. Although Allen addresses this only obliquely, her talk prompted me to think about the waves of anxiety—expressed by either boosterism or conservatism—that accompany any social revolution. The contemporary perception that the internet induces a psychic strain on human consciousness is mirrored in early sociological writing about the space of the city. For example, in his canonical text The Metropolis and Mental Life, the German sociologist Georg Simmel writes about the differences in psychological comportment between urban dwellers and those living in smaller communities with self-reinforcing networks of accountability. Simmel writes, “For the metropolis it is decisive that its inner life is extended in a wave-like motion over a broader national or international area.” Sound familiar? One could argue that social-media platforms resemble cities in this manner, each having a distinct and particular way that it broadcasts public opinion, personal vanity, and cat photos in a similar wave-like motion through the info-sphere. Likewise, according to Simmel, a person does not “end with the limits of his physical body or with the area to which his physical activity is immediately confined, but embraces, rather, the totality of meaningful effects which emanates from him temporally and spatially. In the same way, the city exists only in the totality of the effects which transcend their immediate sphere.” In other words, the city is always here and somewhere else—both in its streets and in our minds. Simmel wrote this text in 1903, but substitute the word “internet” for “city” and it could be a companion piece for Seth Price’s Dispersion. If metropolitan life is predicated on the swell of bodies, the directed flow of capital, and the act of “constantly touching one another in fleeting contact,” then the same could be argued about the content generation—children and young adults in constant contact with their peers through devices, chatrooms, and photo-sharing technology. Accustomed to living in public, this generation has developed its own distinct approach to media based on imitation, customization, and circulation.
Yet when Allen talked about the collapse of private images, she skirted a discussion of the privatization of images. Like the traditional analog vacation photo or family snapshot, Instagram photos could be called public images in that they are explicitly made to be shared. While earlier private moments staged publically for the camera might bestow the social capital of having attractive children or the money to travel to distant places, these ubiquitous photographs are now monetized in numerous ways by advertisers when shared through social-media platforms. Somehow the questions surrounding the blurring of the public and private sphere seem especially relevant in San Francisco, where local residents found a downed personal drone adjacent to the city’s scenic Alamo Square Park. This incident, like the outcry surrounding Google Glass, clearly illustrates the contested model of self-surveillance popularly adopted in the wake of social media and geolocation—and also externalizes the controversy surrounding NSA spying on a personal, local level. In the Bay Area, where the labor to create so much of this technology resides, the “magic dust” of digitization concretizes into the public policies, ordinances, and physical architecture of the city.
Jennifer Allen’s talk “The End of Privacy and the Fate of the Public” was part of the public program at Salzburg International Academy of Fine Arts on August 21, 2014.
 Seth Price, Dispersion (2002).
 Abbé Henri Grégoire, Rapport sur le vandalisme (Report on Vandalism, 1794).