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Exploring the limits of privacy at Henry's 'The Talent Show'

The desire to be on the public stage is on display right now at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. It’s called “The Talent Show.” The exhibit raises a lot of questions ranging from how much should we put on display to what happens to our images once they are out there.

It’s easy to forget how much effort went in to trying to be seen by the public eye.

Years ago you could make a home movie, but then who would really want to watch it? Or you could work hard at something and get good at it, such as acting or writing novels and try to find an audience that way. Today, there is YouTube.

My way

On a monitor in the exhibit’s space there are clips of different girls, some who still look young enough to play with Barbie dolls, all singing the same song: “Gonna Go My Own Way” from the Disney film “High School Musical.”  The video display was created by artist Amie Siegel and is called “My Way 1.”  Sara Krajewski, one of the galleries curators, says all of the videos were taken surreptitiously from YouTube.

“This represents some of the most contemporary reflections of this notion of being on stage. That when you put yourself on YouTube or social media you give up certain rights to your own image. If we put it out there online it can find its way to any number of places we don’t intend it to go to.”

The artist, Amie Siegel didn’t tell the people in “My Way 1” what she was doing with their images. They likely have no idea they are now on display inside an art gallery.

Right next to “My Way One” is “My Way 2. ”  Also working from YouTube, Siegel edited together people singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” They are men from all over the world, broadcasting from their bathrooms, living rooms and kitchens.

Speaking on the phone from Germany where she’s working on her latest installation, Siegel says she found sorting through all of the videos to be a clear window into some very personal spaces.

“It really shows how people live with all their stuff, how their things that they use, that they make their interiors, expresses their interior selves. These are very curious spaces. And the men in 'My Way 2' have spaces that are often quite tricked out in terms of home recording devices and gadgets. There is also a generational difference too, because the teenage girls are just singing into their computers.”

Seeing these videos edited together, and viewing them in a quiet gallery feels kind of creepy. It’s as though you are sort of spying on these total strangers and their homes. Yet, this is what they want. Right?

Photography exhibit

Another piece in The Talent Show predates YouTube by about 10 years. A photograph by a Japanese artist Shizuka Yokomizo of a Japanese woman standing in the middle of her living room. It’s neat and tidy. She is staring out into space and appears to be waiting for something to happen. Curator Sara Krajewski says Yokomizo left letters to tenants in ground floor apartments.

“She wanted to take portraits of them at a certain time of day if they would open their curtains and stand a certain way. It was up to the receiver of the note to decide if they wanted to have their picture taken.”

Yokomizo and her subjects never actually met.

There are other pictures in The Talent Show. One is of a sex worker in Santa Monica who is paid the same rate for his services to simply be photographed.

Death tapes

The largest and most difficult display to watch is a series of videos called the “Intravenous Tapes” by performance artist Hannah Wilke. They are snippets of the last two years of her life as she dies of lymphoma.

So what is it about humans that propel so many of us to share intimate details of our lives? Kari Lerum, an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Washington’s Bothell Campus says it’s all about the desire to tell a story. Our own story.

“People love to tell stories, people love to hear stories and we do like to be known as people. We like to be respected. We like to be seen. If we don’t feel like we are seen, heard, respected, then in some ways we don’t really exist.”

Putting yourself on YouTube singing your favorite song, or updating your status on Facebook satisfies that need to be seen.

Redefining privacy

But what about privacy? How much is too much? From a sociologist’s perspective, this gets Lerum  excited. She says we are in the process of redefining what privacy is.

“It’s not private any more if we are showing everyone what it is. So now there has to be new formulations for what it means to be private, which is fascinating. We are all watching with great curiosity of how this is impacting us. There is no one answer it’s just clearly profoundly impacting us.”

Lerum predicts that with so much of us out there more than ever before, the new version of privacy will be to manage what she calls the Identity Production Machine. 

If we don’t take control and manage our social media selves, someone else eventually will. Meanwhile, YouTube artist Amie Siegel is taking charge of her creations. “My Way 1” and “My Way 2” cannot be seen on YouTube, you can only catch them at The Henry Art Gallery.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.