Smart Phones as Our Modern DataVeils

I’ve always felt that artists will play a leading role in helping us understand the deeper subjective and identity dimensions of commoning.  In Istanbul this past weekend, I encountered a number of artists who confirmed this fact for me.  I was at the “Paratactic Commons” conference, hosted by Istanbul Technical University and Winchester School of Art.  The event brought together a number of artistic interpretations of the commons as well as activist-oriented initiatives on the commons in Turkey. 

I was quite taken by several performance and video works by the Dutch artists Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat.  (I’ll talk about other projects featured at the conference in my next post.)  One of their most provocative works is called Tele_Trust, a performance project that explores how we come to trust each other online.  It explores how our bodies – especially our eyes and sense of touch – are critical to developing trust.  So what does this fact mean as more of our personal and social lives migrate to online platforms?  How do we develop trust there? 

Speaking at the conference, Hermen Maat described how he and his partner wanted to explore the subjective experiences of trust and privacy in a world of ubiquitous personal communications.  We face a paradox in our world of ubiquitous telecommunications:  “While in our changing social eco-system we increasingly demand transparency, we cover our bodies with personal communication technology.”  Our mobile phones function as a kind of “personal armor,” said Maat, covering our bodies and rendering us inaccessible to the public.  And yet we still need to cultivate trust, if only to consummate business deals. 

If our electronic devices function as “digital data veils,” Maat reasoned, why not explore that idea by connecting it to its nearest analogue – the wearing of a burqa? 

Maat and Lancel developed an interactive wearable “DataVeil” to cover one’s entire body.  Gender-neutral and one-size-fits all, it is “inspired by eastern and western traditions, like a monks’ habit, a burqa, Darth Vader, and a 'trustworthy' chalk stripe business suit,” they explain.  “When wearing the DataVeil it functions as a second skin.  Flexible, invisible touch sensors woven into the smart fabric of the veil, transform your body into an intuitive, tangible interface. It is a a membrane for scanning an intimate, networking body experience.”

The idea is to explore what it feels like to meet strangers online while enshrouded in the public anonymity of the DataVeil.  “Inside the DataVeil you may be unidentifiable but before ‘disappearing’ your portrait is added to an online database. By gently caressing their screens, anonymous smartphone users worldwide can unveil your face online.”  When a call comes into the DataVeil, the person can only connect with the voice by running his hands all over his or her body to identify the smart-node that has been activated.  A call from outside the DataVeil thus induces the touching of one’s body.  The experience is intended to probe emotions and statements of trust in electronic communication.  Among the questions raised:  “Am I here with you? Who is watching who? Who is controlling who? In what identity and in whose body?”

Maat reported that men, especially, felt quite empowered when shrouded in the DataVeil, perhaps because it gave them anonymity but also connection.  He speculated that the DataVeil experience might be a way to bridge varying experiences of publicness, trust and intimacy in western and eastern culture.  Obviously, the DataVeil is not going to become a hot fashion statement any time soon, but it surely is a fascinating social and performance art experiment.  (For more, see a video of Karen Lancel’s TEDx Silk Road presentation here.)

Another Lancel/Maat project exploring trust in electronic spaces is called StalkShow. This interactive exhibit is meant to probe the social insecurity and loss of privacy that people may feel in public spaces. Here’s how it works:  A “performer” wearing a backpack containing a laptop with a touch-screen accosts anyone in a dynamic public space such as a public square or railway station.  The person is invited to stand behind the performer and allow the laptop to record his or her face and project it onto a large billboard-sized space nearby, such as the side of a building. 

Then the person is asked to navigate through a series of statements on social isolation and vulnerability written by “experts” on the topic, such as a prisoner, a nun and an asylum seeker.  The person can select any of the statements on the laptop screen, which is then superimposed on the live image of the person’s face on the big screen.   The deeply personal vulnerability suddenly becomes flagrantly public.

StalkShow invites people to experience their social isolation through unexpected encounters with the roving laptop "performer."  The projections of isolated individuals onto large, public screens is a way to “represent both fear of and desire for the other -- they haunt the mind like a 'stalker'.  StalkShow invites the audience to ‘infiltrate’ our smart city public spaces, like train stations, museums, squares, airports; and provide the alleged threat with a personal face and space.”

What makes such performance art so fascinating to me is its role in exploring the inter-subjective dimensions of human connection in large, crowded urban contexts.  How can we publicly acknowledge our private insecurities?  How can we connect in spaces in which the norm is to closely guard our public affect and feelings?  It strikes me that such emotional, experiential issues are closely related to how we might create a commons in modern, impersonal contexts.  Lancel and Maat remind us that this process is not just governed by analytic rules, but by some very deep, subjective, intimate feelings.  StalkShow is a wonderful instance of art making such things more legible.