Earlier this fall, an exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art abruptly disappeared several months ahead of schedule. It was a 19-minute film called “Dream Rooms,” made by Duke professor William Noland with a theme of surveillance.
A self-described java junkie, Noland spends lots of time in coffee shops doing what many people do in such settings: staring at a computer screen, oblivious to the surroundings. So Noland began surreptitiously filming people entranced by their computer screens to make a film examining “our wired world of the 21st century.”
The end result was “Dream Rooms,” which was destined to be part of a wave of controversial found-art artifacts – a growing trend.
About a month after “Dream Rooms” went on display at the museum, one of its unwitting subjects discovered she was in it. That was Katie Rose Guest Pryal, a writer from Chapel Hill, and she began registering strong objections starting with an email of protest to the museum. Pryal also published a blog post headlined, “To The Creep Who Videoed Me And Called It Art,” in which she wrote of feeling “preyed on,” exploited and violated:
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).
Pryal (who declined to be interviewed) also took her complaint to Twitter, where the consensus among her followers was that “Dream Rooms” was “Scary & creepy.” In response, the museum issued an apology and canceled “Dream Rooms,” which was to have shown through Feb. 5.
“I really didn’t think it would be an issue and did not think twice about it,” said Linda Dougherty, the museum’s curator of contemporary art. “We were surprised but also wanted to be considerate of (Pryal’s) feelings. She found it extremely upsetting and we did not want to keep it up if it was going to cause that much distress.”
‘As old as time’
However one feels about the privacy issues involved, Noland broke no laws. In general, if you’re in a public place and see something, you have the right to photograph or film it. And in the case of “Dream Rooms,” no money changed hands – the museum did not pay Noland for the film.
To make “Dream Rooms,” Noland said he would sit at a coffee-shop table with his camera out in plain sight. When someone sat across from him, he’d turn it on.
“I’d been thinking and reading a lot about surveillance, what this is doing to us as individuals and as a society,” Noland said. “And as someone who spends a lot of time in coffeeshops, I found that is one of the most interesting public spaces. People there tend to be doing cognitively active things.”
“Dream Rooms” is one of several recent cases where issues of surveillance, privacy and copyright bump up against each other. Farther afield, New York artist Richard Prince is known for “rephotographing” the photographs of others, to the point of taking blown-up images of people’s Instagram pictures and displaying them in galleries.
Then there’s “The Neighbors,” a series of photos taken by photographer Arne Svenson. True to its title, “The Neighbors” shows people inside their New York City high-rise apartments, in pictures Svenson took from outside. Claiming invasion of privacy for being photographed without consent, some of the subjects sued. But they lost.
“Ultimately, the judge said, ‘Sorry, close your blinds,’ ” said Allen Thomas, Jr., a North Carolina photo collector who included several of Svenson’s “The Neighbors” pictures in “Currents,” an exhibit at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum in 2013.
Controversies like this seem new because of modern digital technology, which means many people have a camera in their pocket. But it’s not a new phenomenon. In legal briefs defending “The Neighbors” as legitimate art, Svenson’s legal representatives cited works such as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s candid photography in 1950s Paris.
“There is some discomfort from feeling spied upon, or having someone else use your image for their own gain,” said Pamela Chestek, a copyright attorney in Raleigh. “But that doesn’t make it unlawful. This is as old as time, or at least photography. Street photographers have been taking pictures of people in public places when they didn’t know they were being photographed for a century or more. It’s not a new legal issue at all.”
‘We’re being watched’
Noland, who is retiring on Jan. 1, has been professor of the practice of art, art history and visual studies at Duke since 1986. He’s been taking pictures and making films touching on various aspects of surveillance for decades, shooting people at everything from political protests to horse-racing tracks. After the museum canceled “Dream Rooms,” it was replaced with “Occulted” – a similarly styled Noland film about London as the most heavily surveilled place on earth.
“Something I’ve long observed as a photographer is how people feel anonymous in public spaces,” Noland said. “They can look remarkably relaxed and ‘themselves’ in the middle of a lot of other people, exhibiting things that seem more likely to be seen in a private space. It’s almost the flip side of mob rules. That’s the premise of a lot of the work I’ve done in photography and video, and the genesis of ‘Dream Rooms.’ In the most delicate way, speaking about myself as much as the individuals showed, I tried to pick people who looked like I could identify with.”
Over the course of its 19 minutes, “Dream Rooms” shows 28 people, four at a time. While none of the subjects are in anything like a compromising position, they all appear to be deeply engrossed with whatever is on their computer screens.
Noland was distressed to learn of Pryal’s reaction to “Dream Rooms,” so he did not object to the film being taken down. But he believes the larger point of the work remains valid.
“I’m interested in what people are ceding by constantly using devices that allow them to be charted assiduously by Facebook, marketers, retailers, the government,” Noland said. “We’re being watched. The ground is shifting because of digital technology and the reckoning has not happened yet. In exploring the issue, I put myself in an awkward position. But I have a long history of trying to ethically and delicately negotiate my way into this.”
What: “William Noland: Occulted” (replacing “Dream Rooms”)
When: Through Feb. 5
Where: East Building Level B video gallery of N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; closed Monday
Info: 919-839-6262 or ncartmuseum.org