Opinion

Public Display of Gay Men’s Photos, Texts Incites Outcry

Dries Verhoeven, “Wanna Play? (Love in the Time of Grindr)” (2014), at Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

BERLIN — When does public, participatory art become predatory?

Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven has provoked a public furor over his “Wanna Play? (Love in the Time of Grindr),” presented by the Hebbel am Ufer performance center. Verhoeven’s private Grindr chats with men — including personal details, and images — were displayed in a high-resolution wall-to-wall projection on a live feed in a shipping container-sized glass box in the center of Berlin-Kreuzberg, and streamed on the Internet here.

Many men in Berlin have already had their Grindr profiles and private conversations with what they thought was a potential date publicly displayed without their knowledge or consent. Verhoeven has effectively disrupted one of the safe communication channels between gay men in the service of what the artist describes as a critique of the sex-dating app Grindr.

Projections (photo by Parker Tilghman)

The project has been widely reported on since it opened Wednesday, October 1. Animal picked it up in New York, as did Die Welt, Germany’s national daily newspaper. Berlin Artnet editor Alexander Forbes pontificated in his curiously uncritical preview of the installation, “Verhoeven has conceded that he may see little response from a privacy-minded city like Berlin and one with a relatively low adoption rate of technology.” How wrong he was.

When artist Parker Tilghman, the subject of a recent article of mine, went to the meeting place proposed by Verhoeven, he discovered his private communication on Grindr projected to a crowd of viewers at Mariannenstraße and Oranienstraße, one of the most heavily trafficked streets in Kreuzberg. Tilghman took to Facebook to broadcast his rage: “What you are doing is unethical. It is digital rape.”

The response from the media was almost immediate. Dazed Digital wrote on Tilghman’s experience, echoed by Bullett, and followed quickly by the daily city newspaper, the Berliner Zeitung. Tilghman is currently working with a lawyer and seeking “an appropriate course of action.”

Audience at the installation, Berlin-Kreuzberg

Facebook has once again become a battleground in Berlin, with a public thread of comments. Several influential members of the art community in Berlin have already weighed in; Ashkan Sepahvand, a curator at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures), wrote a public letter, which intones, speaking directly to the artist, “This is not only unsound research, but sloppy artistic practice, showing a deep disrespect and an offensive exploitation for the individuals you manage to entrap in this action.” He continues, “Your work here offers no discursive possibility in its public mockery of live human subjects.”

The thread recalls the AIDS 3D controversy that rocked Facebook with many hundreds of infuriated posts last year after artist Daniel Keller announced his eleven-person Internet art show would be comprised entirely of men; but that took weeks to unfold, whereas the response to Verhoeven’s project has taken merely hours.

And neither was that the first gay social media art project that has caused problems in Berlin. Hyperallergic reported in 2012 on Marc Adelman’s Stelen (Columns), which collected photographs of gay men posing at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

The public response to this piece has been virtually unanimous in its outrage, and rightly so. This work is a violation of citizens’ right to privacy. It mocks the gay community in Berlin, and the gay community in general. It exacerbates the fear and anxiety of being gay, or questioning, and communicating through private channels with other men. It effectively makes a channel that was once safe now suspect. By releasing sensitive personal information, including very readable, recognizable images of unwilling participants in public and online, Verhoeven has not only violently exposed his victims, but put them in danger.

When I visited the installation today, there were no projections in the glass container. The artist sat alone, behind a transparent gossamer curtain. He was talking on his cell phone, his back to the audience. A pane of glass had been shattered where one viewer had thrown a rock into it. Perhaps the weight of his mistake has finally set in for Verhoeven.

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