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Via thickeye we learn about an upcoming Michele Handelman performance where she surreptitiously photographs and audiotapes people in a public park and then, on another day and in the same places in the park, stages reenactments of what they were doing and saying. Live performers--surrogate humans with white hair, white skin, white clothes, and orange-lensed goggles--will sit in the same positions as the tapees and the audio of their conversations will be transmitted through loudspeakers. Fine, so far, but the press release description just gives me hives:
Michelle Handelman will spend one day in Bryant Park clandestinely documenting visitors to the park, recording their conversations, photographing them, and taking note of their location/time in the park. During a single performance, entitled Passerby, she will work with performers to recreate five of the situations she observed in the exact locations at the same time they originally occurred. Handelman's project addresses the possibility for or lack of privacy in public space as well as the prevalence of and high tolerance for surveillance and will take place on Tuesday, June 29th, from 1-4PM in Bryant Park, 6th Avenue between 40th/42nd Streets. Rain date is Thursday, July 1st.
The phrase in bold is the type of earnest curatorial recap they use in Whitney wall labels, taking the edge out of the art and making it "socially responsible" for skittish newbies. Plus, it's not accurate. To say the work addresses our "high tolerance for surveillance" is just wrong if these people don't know they're being taped. What if a kid is agonizing out loud about whether to come out, or a couple is trying to decide whether to have an abortion, or, if this seems too farfetched, what if a guy is just obsessing to his girlfriend about his BO? Will Handelman edit conversations down to material she feels is "not too invasive"? Is she going to get releases, now that likenesses and voices are increasingly treated as intellectual property? Or is she just going to throw caution to the winds and see what happens?

Many of the same issues were raised by Sophie Calle 25 years ago in her "Venetian Suite" pictures, where she followed a man around and photographed him without his knowledge. Is the artist critiquing surveillance or just being a voyeur? Also, films such as The Conversation and Blow-up taught us that these little slices of life can be utterly unlike what they appear to be and have only as much meaning as one reads into them. Maybe that's where our tolerance of surveillance, if it's true we tolerate it, comes from? At any rate, those are the kinds of issues that ought to be raised in the press release. I look forward to checking out the performance.

More things will be said about the upcoming show in which Handelman's work appears, "public.exe: Public Execution," organized for Exit Art by Michele Thursz and Anne Ellegood with participating curator Defne Ayas. Stay tuned.

Update: review of the Handelman performance here.

- tom moody 6-04-2004 1:20 am [link]