Artistic Expressions of Privacy


Privacy issues go beyond the domain of legalese and social media settings. Our human need for privacy is also essential to creative development. Without privacy we have no basis for the autonomous self and the self-awareness which fosters our creativity. Privacy allows us to be ourselves and express ourselves freely.

Increasingly, digital privacy itself is the subject of art. Surveillance, data security, and questions about identity have recently inspired work in visual art, theater, movies, novels, television, and comics. Though some material presents dystopian themes taken to bleak extremes, others have been funny, satirical, and even uplifting.

Privacy in Visual Art

Privacy Illustrated is a project born from Deep Lab, a week-long initiative at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University in December 2014. Answering the question, “What does privacy mean to you?” the team collected drawings from children and adults and is now seeking contributions from around the world.

Open Informant is an art project which “attempts to confront the unsettling realities of surveillance in a networked age.” Using an app and e-ink badge, the device publicly display NSA trigger words for surveillance in one’s own e-communication. According to Nancy Choe of the American Art Therapy Association, “by wearing the badge out in the public, one’s body becomes an integral part of challenging and exploring the narrative told about surveillance in our society.”

Privacy in Theater & Film

Privacy, a play than ran at the Donmar Playhouse in London last year, explores themes of technology, law, surveillance, and the Snowden revelations. One of the play’s more innovative approaches involved the live data-mining of audience members’ information and use of media from their profiles in the evening’s performance.

While Hollywood has a long tradition of integrating privacy and surveillance elements as part of action thrillers, there are documentary films which confront privacy concerns head-on. Citizen Four, for example, is the Laura Poitras documentary about Edward Snowden and NSA surveillance was nominated for an Academy Award. Deep Lab, by Jonathan Minard, covers a group of women hackers, artists, and theorists who gathered at Carnegie Mellon University in December to ask what about the Internet “isn’t working” in the post-Snowden age. (The film can be seen on Vice’s Motherboard now.)

Privacy in Television

Like a modern day Twilight Zone, the BBC series Black Mirror explores a tech-saturated world where privacy is truly lost. The series has been so popular, there’s even talk of an American remake.

Dystopian sci-fi isn’t the only place you’ll find privacy issues on television. Comedy takes them on as well. A recent episode of the NBC show Parks & Recreation integrated online privacy and aggressive tech targeting.

Privacy in Comic Books

One of the most engaging artistic explorations of privacy issues can be found in Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martín’s The Private Eye, a serialized digital comic. As Vice magazine describes the series:

“In 60 years, the internet will be obsolete. At some point between then and now, there will have been a catastrophic leak of every piece of data stored online, from bank details to Twitter drafts, and America will become obsessed with privacy. New laws will allow citizens to start adopting a string of pseudonyms when they turn 18, and everyone will wear masks whenever they leave the house. Journalists will be allowed to investigate matters of public interest, but only as trained members of the Fourth Estate, a tax-funded force that will replace cops.”

Privacy Inspires Us

Information may empower us, but the expression of an artist’s creative skill and imagination puts privacy in a new perspective. Art has emotional power – it shocks, it makes us think, and it asks us to take stock of our culture and the direction society may take. Privacy as a subject of art is both relevant and timely. The depiction of these themes as artistic expression increases our awareness and helps us make more mindful choices.

Art is a defense against the idea of a “post-privacy” society. It is at the heart of a free society. As the writer Ursula K. LeGuin said in a recent speech at the 65th National Book Awards:

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”

Privacy inspires art. The art inspires and influences us. In doing so, privacy inspires the potential for a larger reality.

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