If there ever was a semblance of privacy during the early days of the Internet, it was a tenuous one at best. Over the course of the last fifteen years, there has been a persistent disconnect between activity carried out online and the ostensible privacy that surrounds such activity. Longing for the last bastion of a “private life” online is at best an archaic gesture. The intimate minutiae that make up our lives are, to various degrees, out in plain sight and can be tracked down whether or not we like it. Furthermore, laboring under the assumption that one might momentarily escape the ubiquity of digitization simply by strolling down the street or riding public transportation is a gross misunderstanding of how we currently live. Look no further than a website such as Tap That Guy—a blog that solicits photos of “hot,” unassuming men captured by anonymous photographers around the globe—to understand where the desire to look and the inherent speed of digital life intersect.
Desire, as it is played out within the omnipotence of a screen-obsessed culture, is never really “logged out.” It does, however, insinuate itself into the most unassuming of places, and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is no exception. The speed at which desire is broadcast is one of the most salient aspects of the Internet’s relationship to cultural production. Close examination of the everyday provides an opportunity to uncover visual narratives within the constant flow of raw material that inundates a screen at any given moment. Hyperconnectivity—in a massive, unprecedented swoop—has provided a space for contemporary artistic strategies to mine the “amateur,” frayed, and unrefined images that relentlessly hit the web via numerous digital platforms. This rapid movement has drastically altered where, when, and how images are viewed, as well as the ability to recontextualize them.
While the creation of new images continues to be a vital practice, the archive of web-based digital media is intoxicating for an artist who is obsessed with the political potential of the quotidian. Can a critical art practice be based upon the principle, as artist John Stezaker has asked, of “just finding, and taking out of circulation?” The fact that several hundred men (and likely many more) posed for casual, flirtatious snapshots in the Holocaust Memorial cannot be reduced to sheer coincidence. I have far too many questions about the tangled web of image making, the unconscious, belonging, memory, and the traumatic history of the AIDS epidemic that reverberates through contemporary queer relations. If we are in fact living in a time when images impact and speak to how we live our lives more than ever before, then we need to continue to think more critically about what the production and reception of images might mean as the digital field continues to grow exponentially.
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?