What is it really like to be alone, if only for a minute? No expectations and no pretense. Alone to be your natural self, out of reach of any gaze, calm and relaxed. Think about those moments in the third person. See yourself watching television, checking your phone every few minutes, a blank stare, a ritual stupor. Would you expose this version of yourself to the public? Let them see you in your ideal state?
These questions all stem from something I’ve seen from a friend named Ash. She’s a local actress and performance artist, who is always working on a project. Most of her public work is subtle and goes largely unnoticed before she’s off to the next thing. It’s work done for self-fulfillment and maybe a distant hope that it will elicit any kind of reaction. Her most recent project is a kind of public installation and video experiment. She has used tape to draw out a giant rectangle on an industrial street-facing wall. It’s a representation of a video screen or I suppose it could also be a proscenium arch as well, basically a framing device. On the opposite side of the street there are three fake surveillance cameras in plain public view and positioned at different angles, but all pointing toward the frame. Hidden out of public view, a real wide-angle camera continuously captures whoever passes through the installation.
I recently saw an early cut of the piece and it was a revelation. It opens with a montage of people passing through the installation, oblivious to their surroundings. Most have their eyes locked on phones or not looking at anything at all, completely missing what they’ve walked into. Others do things they’d find embarrassing or even shameful if they knew someone was watching – talking to themselves, picking noses, littering, minor acts of vandalism. Out of all that, there is a cut to a series of four or five short sequences where people realize they’re being watched. They are all very different people in age, gender, race, etcetera, but there is no mistaking that moment when they realize something is different about the surroundings. It stands out on the screen. Their demeanor completely changes. A primal instinct takes hold. But there is an order even poetry to the way they cope with the situation. They all follow the same process. First they do an up-close inspection of the fake cameras – where they’re pointed, mental consideration of how they record, and where the information is sent. Then they take themselves completely out of the scene and observe it from the outside, trying to understand the logic of a randomly placed scene, far from heavy foot traffic. Finally, just before leaving they document it all by calling someone or taking a photo.
In the final act Ash makes herself a part of the installation. She stoically stands in the frame for a long stretch of time. Suddenly someone approaches and she immediately locks eyes with them. Staring in an obvious and uncomfortable way. The other person, perturbed, slows down and stares back, while they take in the larger scene. A performative public dance ensues. Ash tells the other, solely through movement that she is wearing her mask, out in the world with nothing else behind it to show. The other person reciprocates, mirroring. A fleeting moment of order, forgotten as soon as it’s really considered. Dostoyevsky wrote ‘If there is no God, then everything is permitted.’ Well there is no God, and privacy is what actually makes anything possible.