Personal Photographs November 2007, 2019
Customized cable trays from OBO Bettermann, ethernet cables, digital images, single-board computers, metal cases, micro SD cards, USB flash drives, ethernet adapters, own-developed software
Courtesy the artists and Apalazzo Gallery
Personal Photographs November 2007 is a self-contained network between two Raspberry Pi microcomputers connected by cables and constantly exchanging files with each other. The cables and cable trays create a temporary site-specific sculpture. As the title of the installation suggests, 101 personal photos of the fellow artists circulate in the closed system. The image files, however, remain deliberately invisible to the visitors – images without viewers, yet always there. Like most images nowadays.
The installation is based on the code developed with David Huerta and available on the Github open-source platform. Huerta is a digital security trainer at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, where he works on ways to train journalists to take advantage of privacy-enhancing technologies to strengthen a free press. Open sourcing allows developers and artists worldwide to use, extend and adapt the code.
The image files circulating in the Personal Photographs system were taken by Eva & Franco Mattes in November 2007. The selection gives an impression of the huge quantity of images that accumulate on mobile phones, computers and data centres as communication and interaction increasingly take place in the form of digital images and are uploaded in vast quantities.
Since the public internet first emerged, there have been significant phases of development. Initially used as a read-only instrument – i.e. purely for accessing information – it became an interactive communication network. Direct user participation became possible from 2004 on with the introduction of Web 2.0, enabling anyone to generate and publish content themselves. In subsequent waves, image platforms became the trend, replacing each other in ever more rapid succession: the image host Flickr (2004), the photo blog WordPress (2005), the social network Facebook (2004), the microblogging service Twitter (2006), Instagram (2010) or TikTok (2016) as well as instant messaging apps like WhatsApp (2009), Snapchat (2011) and BeReal (2020).
The vast majority of images nowadays do not exist in the form of printed photographs, hung on a wall or featured in a book, rather as ubiquitous files that are constantly copied and transferred between devices, from one data centre to another, via miles of cables or through thin air.
The voluntary participation of all users worldwide offers the few global internet corporations the possibility of using the totality of published content as data sets. On the one hand, little awareness exists of the corporations’ access to the data. On the other hand, the accumulation of information by the small number of major corporations is so frighteningly high that they can use big data management to make predictions about collective behaviour – and also to exercise control over societies. Politics and democratic structures lag behind.
Digital images reveal additional information via the metadata: the date and time the picture was taken, geographical coordinates, but also details about the technology used. Thus, when images are shared, additional information is unwittingly passed on to the public. Furthermore, since its creation, social media content has also been used as data sets for machine learning without the knowledge of the users.
While users upload content on social media for entertainment and leisure, this accessible information is used and monetised by companies to generate revenue with no concern for authorship.
Long before the advent of social media, Eva & Franco Mattes explored the sharing of personal information. In their performance titled Life Sharing, which took place from 2000 to 2003, the artists published all the contents of their computer: all their artworks, as well as private material – including emails, texts, photos, and bank statements – were freely available for viewing through their website. Considered a radical – and paradoxical – gesture at the time, today this act of excessive sharing is perceived as acceptable, even desirable, on social media.
Through their installation Personal Photographs, the artists revise this practice and exhibit a private archive to which outsiders have no access. Only the support structure, the hardware, remains in the space as a sculptural manifestation.
What is revealed here is not their private space, rather the infrastructure of data. The materiality creates a presence in the space, reminding us that digital content and images require a material infrastructure to be stored, sent and shared. The physical fragility of digital networks is transformed into sculpture. Adapting to the pre-existent architecture, it influences the way visitors move in the space. In this case it only channels physical movements, but of course technology shapes our behaviour, emotions, memories, expectations, fears and dreams, too.
We thank OBO Bettermann.