:: I was making light of something serious, like women always do when something serious is happening but we don’t know what else to do.
Author’s note, March 29, 2022
I wrote the essay you’re about to read in 2016, when the art exhibit I describe was put up, and then taken down, by the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA). I’m leaving up this essay, and its follow up (linked below), as artifacts—records of my experiences as they happened.
As the essays have been shared on social media over the years, confusion arises that causes the same questions to get debated again and again. As an author, I know it is my fault that there is confusion caused by my writing. With this update, I hope to allay some of that confusion.
This essay is about an artist who secretly videoed me and projected the video on a large screen in the NCMA.
(1) What the artist did in videoing strangers and using them in a large public art exhibit without their permission is perfectly legal. In the most general terms (and this should not be construed as legal advice) privacy law provides that a photographer can photograph strangers so long as the photographer is in a public place and the photographer’s subject can be seen from a public place.
As an example, this means that a photographer with a telephoto lens can legally photograph you standing naked in your bedroom, so long as you can be seen, even obscurely, through your sheer curtains and the leafy trees on your property. So long as the photographer is in the middle of the street with a lens is powerful enough to photograph you even though you think you have privacy, he is doing nothing illegal. He can even publish those photographs. This is how paparazzi make a living.
(2) What I was questioning with these two essays was not the legality of the artist’s and museum’s actions, but the ethics, especially in light of the gender imbalance (a cis, white man preying with his camera on unwitting subjects), and the power imbalance (a tenured professor at powerful Duke University). I wanted to share what it felt like to be on the other end of his perfectly legal camera. I wanted others to understand what I experienced. I wanted the NCMA to understand what it was complicit in. Perhaps even the artist (though I failed, as I later learned).
(3) I know how professors make a living. I am one. They publish, and then universities pay them salaries. Although NCMA did not pay the artist for this exhibit, Duke did, indirectly, because it supports the artist’s work.
I documented this experience, and the whirlwind that followed, in my 2019 book EVEN IF YOU’RE BROKEN (winner of the 2020 Gold IPPY Award). You can read the first five pages of the chapter here.
Read on for the original essay:
To The Creep Who Videoed Me And Called It Art:
Yesterday, my husband offered to drop me at a coffee shop to work, and I said no.
“I don’t know if some creep might video me when I’m not looking.”
I was making light of something serious, like women always do when something serious is happening but we don’t know what else to do.
You, a person who is apparently an artist (and apparently named William Noland), secretly videoed me. And now you are projecting my image on museum walls all over the country without my permission.
I just found out about it.
I kind of wish I still didn’t know.
Now that I know, I feel like a creepy stalker dude creepily videotaped my face and body without my permission or knowledge and is making a creepy career using my face and body without my permission (or, until lately, my knowledge).
I haven’t been to a coffee shop since. I’ve stayed inside.
I’m a writer. I love working in coffee shops.
I emailed the director of the museum and told him how terrible the creepy art exhibit is making me feel. I’ve never heard back from him.
I read the description of your art exhibit, called “Dream Rooms,” on the art museum’s website. The description is, at best, ironic.
Dream Rooms examines our wired world of the 21st century. Individuals are seen in coffee shops, wholly absorbed, their trancelike states brought on primarily through an intense engagement with the alternate reality presented by laptops and smart phones.
They are immersed in an interior world of concentration and at times of pleasure, seemingly oblivious to the often busy and noisy surroundings.
You, the artist, preyed on my immersion in my work, on my obliviousness to my surroundings—on my trust in the people I was working near.
You broke my trust in, quite literally, everyone around me.
The long takes of Dream Rooms seek to lay bare the effects of technologically mediated intimacy and chronic multitasking. Questions arise: Are we being rewired by our relationship to interactive media? And how does the idea of surveillance alter our experience of these individuals? Each character is intimately examined in public space, comfortably anonymous and secure in the privacy of his or her thoughts and behavior, while the gaze of the camera records impulses and reactions.
I don’t want to be surveilled, but I didn’t have a choice.
I don’t want to be experienced, but I didn’t have a choice of that either.
I don’t want to be intimately examined, but I don’t have a choice of that.
I’m not secure, or private.
The gaze of the camera has shattered my feelings of security and privacy.
That’s the male artist’s privilege. And my female body is now a stranger’s to consume.
EDIT: The museum has taken down the exhibit. Read the follow-up post about it here.
Read the complete story of this event and more in the Gold-medal IPPY-award-winning book Even If You’re Broken: Essays on Sexual Assault and #MeToo. Buying my books helps support the writing that I do for free or for very little pay.
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