People Staring at Computers: the discreet gaze of the commodities

Kyle McDonald

Kyle McDonald is well-known for exploring the boundaries of public and private space in our post-privacy world. With his Keytweeter he placed himself under digital surveillance for an entire year, capturing everything he typed with a keylogger and posting in on Twitter – 140 keystrokes at time. His most recent project gives another conceptual twist on spyware. ‘People staring at computers is a simple application that takes a webcam snapshot every minute and uploads it on a website. Kyle installed the software on computers on display in several Apple stores around New York City, collected over a thousand pictures and then launched a slide show on the same machines to an audience of perplexed customers. The material is a physiognomical study of Apple’s consumer base, a collection of candid, sometimes unflattering, portraits of people interacting with their objects of desire. In their mundanity, they are fascinating shots: humans are used to performing in front of webcams, aware of their publicaudience, while products are supposed to be stared at, docile and alluring. The intervention was only meant to be a three-day long experiment but it quickly turned into a complex affair. Days after the deactivation of the software and the publication of the results, four agents from the Secret Service (the branch of the US government who handle cybercrimes) raided the artist’s house and confiscated his computers, iPod and flash drives. Kyle is allegedly accused of computer fraud and could face up to 20 years in prison. The case is generating heated discussions about the limits of privacy: after all, taking pictures in public spaces is allowed, and customers entering a store implicitly agree to appear on security cameras and have their behavior monitored. Would a spin off project that replaces people’s faces with Steve Jobs’ face still be considered computer fraud? And on the top of everything, how can the Secret Service afford to allocate resources to persecute a media artist in a moment when high-profile attacks perpetrated by hacker groups like anonymous, anti-sec and others are happening on a daily basis? Only time will tell if this a tragicomic example of poor judgement or just the way authorities deal with whoever dares to desecrate the cathedrals of consumption.

Paolo Pedercini