Following Vito Acconci: Demonstrate's Public Art Precedents
PhD. Candidate, UC Berkeley, Department of Rhetoric
The Demonstrate art installation placed a telerobotic webcam on UC Berkeley's historic Sproul Plaza from September 1 to October 15, 2004. The project commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement and the massive student demonstrations that took place on Sproul Plaza. The interface allowed multiple users to access and collectively control the camera. Users could capture images, put them in publicly viewable archive, and converse with other users about the images. In this essay I consider the art historical context of this public work, relating it to two performance pieces by Vito Acconci, Following Piece (1969) and Proximity Piece (1970).
Demonstrate calls attention to the invisible and shifting line that separates "public" from "private." It forces one to consider the existence of private individuals in a public space. It provokes a series of complex questions about public life, especially in the light of recent developments in surveillance technology and contemporary infringements on civil liberties. Can one claim the right to privacy while engaging in the public sphere? Does a public even exist or is it always a mass of distinguishable individuals? Demonstrate is part of a long history of art works that put pressure on these very questions. Vito Acconci provides 20th century benchmarks for the articulation of these arguments. He sets up scenarios where individuals determine when and how they become private people. Demonstrate builds upon these precedents and extends them. It brings issues of public and private in to the digital realm.
Vito Acconci's Following Piece and Proximity Piece (1969, 1970) have structural and conceptual similarities to Demonstrate. In Following Piece, Acconci tracks individuals through the streets of New York and into "public" spaces. Each pursuit is carefully documented with photos and time coded text. The chase could last for hours if the subject remains in what Acconci considers public spaces – streets, parks, movie theaters, restaurants – and ends only when the public person "goes private," entering a residence, a car, and so on. What seems to designate a public space for Acconci is simultaneously his ability to gain access to it and to not be noticed. Private space begins where one might be denied access or forced to identify oneself. Invisibility is paradoxically present in one's assumption of publicness. Acconci remains public, unnoticed and unidentified throughout the piece. So does his subject, typically seen from the back, faceless and anonymous. Even less visible, less of an individual, private person is Betsy Jackson, the photographer who documents Acconci's pursuits. And through her camera, the viewer is linked to this anonymous chain.
Acconci's Proximity Piece plays with these same ideas of observation and demarcation of private space. In this project he allows the subject to determine this boundary. During the 1970 Software exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Acconci, as the wall text denoted, followed visitors around the gallery. He stood close to them. Then, at some moment in the surreptitious performance, he stood too close. The act ended when the visitor intentionally moved away from Acconci and left the museum. It seems that there is always boundary, a physical limit, at which one becomes private even when in a crowd, or in a space in which one comes into to contact with unknown others. Again in this piece, the transition from public and private hinges on the moment at which one "goes private" – whether by entering a space in which one would have to identify oneself or be a particular person, or demarking one's own private space when the public encroaches.
Demonstrate resembles Acconci's works formally and conceptually. Demonstrate, like Following Piece, is documented with images and text. An on-line participant views a public space and photographs elements of the scene. The photographer enters time coded textual information about the subject of the photograph and what occurs in the scene. The camera prevents the viewer from looking into and photographing "private" spaces (private apartment windows, for example), and the camera even restricted the zoom so viewers could come up against a personal space boundary. What sets Demonstrate drastically apart from Acconci's work is the way in which it doubles the potential private individuals and public crowds. These constituencies exist on both sides of the camera. While Acconci's works show how one can be a both a public and private individual in physical spaces, Demonstrate explores this idea in cyberspace. A crowd of users gathers online and work to share the Demonstrate camera. They vie for control of the space, are jostled and pushed by others. Or they can just follow the flow of the crowd. These online users transform from part of an anonymous public when they choose to take a photograph. Online participants can see where the others in the cyberspace crowd are trying to look, what each is trying to look at. At that moment their individual looks and actions become apparent to the others and are open to discussion and debate. When one captures an image on Demonstrate one identifies oneself and speaks openly as a private individual. The conversations sparked by images on Demonstrate directly engaged the private and public rights of persons within a public space. When users suddenly came up against a barrier that limited their access, had a picture censored (because it generated complaints from other users or invaded the personal space of a individual, see images 152, 409) lengthy discussions ensued about their rights to privacy, whether their photographs constituted speech acts, if the internet should be a censorship-free zone, as well as discussions about propriety, taste, and respect.
As film scholar Linda Williams and others have argued, scopophilia is to some extent universal. We all experience the temptation to read a diary, a tabloid, or casually glance into the medicine cabinet. The social norms of public spaces generally suppress acting on such curiosity. But artists such as Acconci challenge these norms and explore the consequences. Demonstrate provokes a new set of legal, political, personal, and artistic questions by putting surveillance technology directly into the hands of the public, placing viewers in Acconci's position, where they are free to cross social boundaries as they themselves become watched subjects.