The DIY scanner at neverhitsend's event "post-private." All images courtesy of neverhitsend.

The DIY scanner at neverhitsend’s ‘Post Private’ (all images courtesy the artists unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — In the wake of Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency (NSA) leaks, which continue to reveal more about the American government’s epic surveillance program, it seems pretty meta to make art about being spied on. Yet what we read and understand about the NSA is filtered through the media, our ideas about privacy often divorced from the present tense. What if we were more aware of the thoughts and exchanges that we’re unwittingly making public? That’s the intention of neverhitsend, a 12-person LA-based arts and technology collective that formed in 2013, post–Snowden leaks, to discuss issues of digital communications today. At the opening night reception of their recent two-day exhibition Post Private, at Monte Vista Projects, neverhitsend brought audience members into the fold for conversations about whether or not there is such a thing as “private” anymore. Meanwhile, a security camera recorded the goings on — just to keep an eye on things.

A security camera records the opening night of neverhitsend's event, "post-private."

A security camera recorded the opening night ‘Post Private.’ (click to enlarge)

Here’s how it began: An email was sent out before the opening, asking those reading it to help “author a collective e-reader.” All who intended on coming were asked to bring in “any and all material in response to the prompt ‘post-private.’” This could be anything, from an old family photograph to a used Playboy magazine to a birth certificate. At the opening, each person selected a glass plate from a shelf on the wall and brought it with them to the DIY scanner, which looked like it was under the tent of a 19th-century camera obscura. The selected item was covered with that plate, which had painted on it either the phrase “never hit send,” swirly designs, a question mark, or a pattern that looked like enlarged fingerprint lines; then it was scanned and exposed, going into the creation of a new object a collectively, anonymously authored ebook of all the submissions that will be sent to whoever signed the email list.

This is an interesting idea, but by keeping the recipients limited to the people involved, it actually creates an insular effect, unless someone on the email list forwards it on (or blogs about it, like here). The ebook represents a collection of private objects that participants have willingly made semi-public, but not necessarily post-private.

Visitors were invited to select one of these glass templates and place it over the "post-private" object of their choosing. Photo by the author for Hyperallergic.

Visitors were invited to select one of these glass sheets and place it over the object they brought. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Observing the participants who wandered over to the scanner, I noticed they were carrying a variety of objects that didn’t seem all that personal: a term paper, scribbles on notebook paper, emails from past lovers, an “open” sign, pages ripped out of books on literary theory. In an age when privacy is increasingly valued and nebulous (especially with new information regularly surfacing about the NSA, like the fact that it’s been using fake Facebook websites to load surveillance software onto private computers) such objects seem quite benign. If someone had brought in a birth certificate, credit card bills, a social security card — something that, if legitimately obtained by another person, would cause threats to one’s security and identity — then perhaps this event would have gone further into the true meaning of “post-private.”

In the meantime, it was just the usual appearance of seemingly private objects. Even a selfie made an appearance: a girl scanned it from her iPhone, and made sure not to obscure the image too much so that it would be unrecognizable. When we willingly choose what to make public, it’s less a question of privacy and more: who wants to be seen now?

Selected image from neverhitsend's "post-private."

Image from neverhitsend’s ‘Post Private’ ebook

Selected image from neverhitsend's "post-private."

Image from neverhitsend’s ‘Post Private’ ebook

Selected image from neverhitsend's "post-private."

Image from neverhitsend’s ‘Post Private’ ebook

Post Private ran March 14–16 at Monte Vista Projects (5442 Monte Vista Street, Los Angeles). 

Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...