Amie Siegel


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14 January 2011

Invasion of the Image Snatchers
by Ariella Budick

Say you came home one day to find a note slipped under your door:

“I would like to take a photograph of you standing in your front room from the street in the evening. A camera will be set outside in the street. If you do not mind being photographed, please stand in the room and look into the camera through the window for 10 minutes.”

Would you pose for this anonymous stalker, standing in your living-room and staring into the night? Or would you toss the note in the rubbish and wipe the proposition from your mind? Photographer Shizuka Yokomizo never met the subjects she collected for the 1990s “Stranger Series”, secreting herself outside first-floor apartments in Berlin, New York, London and Tokyo. Those who took up her offer look tentative, fragile and bold.

One disembodied installment from the “Stranger Series” appears in The Talent Show at PS1, a ruminative, haunting exhibition about our incongruous hungers for solitude and recognition. The gifted curator, Peter Eleey, has gathered works that mostly predate today’s relentless tide of Twitter tweets, Facebook posts, Flickr sets, and YouTube videos. But they anticipate what Eleey calls “the culture of self-broadcast,” along with the tensions between exhibitionism and voyeurism, and between the viewer and the viewed. Eleey shakes the triangle forged by the artist, the subject and the viewer as each vies for control against a backdrop of increasing government and corporate surveillance.

Most of the artists in the show owe a debt to Sophie Calle, a pioneer in the art of privacy invasion. In 1983, Calle found an address book lying on the street. She methodically called each number, asking for a meeting and a description of the book’s owner, who turned out to be a documentary filmmaker named Pierre Baudry. Out of these testimonies she assembled a fragmentary portrait, which she then serialised in the French newspaper Libération. An outraged Baudry threatened a lawsuit, but then hatched a more suitable way to expose his exposer: he insisted that the paper publish a nude photograph of Calle, repaying one intimate violation with another. (The paper complied, but redacted the artist’s face.)

Calle’s subject was an unwilling participant in her pet project, an innocent caught in the trap of her Peeping Tom-ish brand of narcissism. But it’s hard to condemn Calle’s pre-internet intrusiveness when we now have Google. Her mysterious stranger dropped a piece of his private life on a pavement: today, the rest of us leave far more revealing traces lying around online. We carelessly shop for hand cream, alight on a web page devoted to the occult, look up flights to Madagascar, and at each step add to a composite portrait that can be read by observers we’ve never met. The artists in this show use this flood of material the way previous generations of artists approached the nude model. Subjects, too, expose themselves in The “culture of self-broadcast” has seduced many artists into becoming curators of other people’s ephemera. For “Free Fotolab”, Phil Collins recruited a global army of volunteers. He solicited old rolls of undeveloped 35mm film and promised to process it in exchange for the right to use the pictures. The upshot is a nine-minute montage culled from thousands of images, many of them astonishingly moving and refined. A naked man and little boy share a shower, betraying a touching intimacy. A Brillo-haired woman in a garden stirs her glass of tea. In one affectionate and slightly ghoulish snapshot, a wan spider plant droops over an open coffin. For Collins, creativity lies in the editing process, and he winnows a sprawling archive into an elegant statement about loss. Film itself has become an historical artefact in the digital age, and Collins’ sequence has the poignancy of the recent but already ghostly past.

Amie Siegel doesn’t need collaborators to mail her their contributions; she just collects them from the repository called YouTube. In “My Way 2”, she strung together clips of assorted men singing the Frank Sinatra ballad, gripping microphones and emoting operatically into their webcams, not necessarily in English. It’s an oddly uncomfortable view through a magical peephole, a panoply of puffed-up showmanship and total obliviousness. What makes it so fascinating is the gap between each singer’s self-image and Siegel’s dispassionate collage. The sum of all those paeans to nonconformity is a collective shout of conventionality. Even as technology gives individuals more control over how they present themselves to the world, it also yields ways for others to manipulate that presentation. “This is me!” cries every teenager’s YouTube video. To which the mash-up artist responds: “Actually, that’s you becoming a shard of my invention.”