What do men who post pictures of themselves in front of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial want to tell potential partners? There are probably as many answers to this question as there are profile pictures of this ilk, of which there appears to be a surprising number. We know this thanks to Marc Adelman’s Stelen (Columns), an art installation comprised of 50 photos that were found on the gay dating site PlanetRomeo. It’s Europe’s answer to Man Hunt.
Collections of all sorts permeate the web, and in this context Adelman’s piece isn’t unique. Douchebags on Grindr collects douchebags, Ok Photography collects the bizarre, the list goes on. Like many of these sites, Stelen removes the profile data to showcase the image—a gesture that mutes context and produces a regrettably dull piece.
Mediocrity is fairly common in the art world, but what’s particularly troubling here is the way Adelman handled the privacy of those whose images he used. He contacted only a few of the men pictured but ultimately informed none because he didn’t want to “be clouded” by their rationale for standing in the memorial. This decision ended up costing the artist a show in its full duration at The Jewish Museum last spring; the piece was removed after a number of privacy and safety concerns were raised by those who were pictured.
These are legitimate concerns that, frankly, should have been better considered by the Museum and the artist. While we post images of ourselves online knowing we do so in public, we do so in the belief that we are in control of how we present ourselves. On dating sites, privacy concerns inform even the most basic decisions made by users; profile headers almost always have handles, and profile pictures rarely include friends. Ultimately, the decision to collect those images for public display wasn’t respectful.
This is particularly true in the case of PlanetRomeo. Its users are almost exclusively men seeking casual sex with other men and are often less concerned with whether their one-night stand is gay, bi, or straight than whether they are simply willing to fuck.
Perhaps Adelman’s artwork would have been received differently overseas. “Being gay is not an identity in Europe. In America, you are what you do,” my friend Marc Bocai told me recently. These words ring true to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that they confirm my suspicions. After all, if we take his words at face value—and I do—then we must also conclude that these images don’t tell us anything about what we want and who we are.
What are the ethical concerns for artists who appropriate images from the Internet? To what extent should artists consider privacy, the personal safety of their subjects, and First Amendment rights?