Friday, July 8, 2011

The Secret Service Takes On the "What is Art?" Question

There are any number of layers of interpretation that make the BBC News account of the case of Kyle McDonald interesting.  On the surface McDonald is an artist, currently working on a project-in-process called People Staring at Computers.  BBC News provided the following description of the project:

A photographic intervention. Custom app installed around NYC, taking a picture every minute and uploading it if a face is found in the image.

Exhibited on site with a remotely triggered app that displayed the photos full screen on every available computer.

Since mine is a generation that endured Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a guy’s night of slumber (entitled, appropriately enough, Sleep), I have to say that I find the prospect of looking at how people behave in front of computer screens far more interesting.

One of McDonald’s sites for collecting images is an Apple store in New York.  Having been in the two Apple stores in San Francisco, I again applaud his decision.  Those are lively places;  and, while the people you find there trying out the devices available to them are probably not representative of the overall population of computer users, they are a really great source for people-watching.  McDonald claims he was given permission from security guard, and that may have been the start of his problems.

What has happened is that McDonald’s home has been raided by the Secret Service;  and Apple has “declined to comment” on whether McDonald had been authorized to collect his data.  I can certainly appreciate that a security guard did not have the right to grant this authority;  but, at the very least, we deserve a better account of McDonald’s inquiry.  He may have framed his request for permission in a way that made it more innocuous than it actually way.  These days it is one thing to collect video and photographs on individuals who do not know that they are on camera and quite another to distribute that content globally through the Internet without addressing any questions of invasion of privacy.  On the other hand the guard may have erred by not considering the implications of the request and failing to refer McDonald to someone better equipped to make the judgment call.

Then there is the question of whether or not the immediate action taken by the Secret Service was a raid.  All they have confirmed is that this was an investigation of “electronic crime” having to do with “Fraud and related activity in connection with computers.”  The obvious question is whether the Secret Service felt there were grounds for this accusation by visiting McDonald’s site or by other means that did not wish to state at the risk of compromising their investigation.

All this is one way of saying that it is hard to draw any conclusions (or even formulate some viable hypotheses) on the basis of information currently available.  In this context, however, the real irritant comes from how BBC News decided to headline this story:

Secret agents raid Apple store webcam 'artist'

The implication is that McDonald’s status as an artist is questionable, either because his activities do not confirm to accepted norms for what artists do or because the People Staring at Computers projects is actually a cover for some more nefarious activity.  The fact that the story itself does not use those scare quotes suggests that its author sees no reason to doubt McDonald’s claim to be an artist;  so why did the BBC decided to muddy further the waters of interpreting the events being reported when those waters were already pretty murky?

No comments: