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ALBUQUERQUE — If you live on the West Coast, you’ve probably already read plenty about Jessamyn Lovell’s “revenge” piece Dear Erin Hart,. Google it — the results page will be full of posts and reposts from Booooooom, Art Practical, SF Weekly, SF Gate, and any number of lesser-known blogs, describing how Lovell’s wallet and phone were stolen from the art space SF Camerawork, and how, although Lovell promptly wiped her phone remotely, the thief was able to forge a false identity with what she did have, and subsequently went on a spending spree in Lovell’s name, committing a few additional minor offenses along the way, all of which landed Lovell herself in court. Depending on which link you choose, you may or may not get the angle about how Lovell got even with the identity thief (the Erin Hart in Dear Erin Hart,) by making her the subject of an exhibition. If you go to Reddit, you’ll find opinions about the legality of Lovell’s project, justifications for going even further, and suggestions for how the thief can strike back.
The exhibition — which hung from September 3 to October 18, 2014 at the same gallery where Lovell’s identity was stolen — consisted of surveillance-style photographs of one Erin Hart as she went about the mundane activities of her life. It recorded places Hart had lived and caught her on her way out of clothing stores. Initially, Lovell began searching for Hart because she wanted to deliver a letter she’d written, the contents of which she has reserved for Hart alone but which I infer attempts to demonstrate to the thief that she harmed a real person. Once Lovell starting photographing, however, she got caught up in the process. She had actually done this before: her project No Trespassing is a similar search for identity through surveillance of her estranged father. If you saw Dear Erin Hart, you might have been angered at the thought of using art to get revenge on someone. Or perhaps you’d be one of the viewers who felt that Hart should have expected much worse from Lovell.
Looking at the photos online, however, I didn’t immediately think of the word “revenge.” I felt empathy, for both Hart and Lovell and the circumstances that brought them together. I felt bad for Hart, the subject of an artistic “investigation.” I felt bad for Lovell, so distraught about how her identity had been used that she went searching for answers. And reading the comments on various blog posts and articles, I started to think observers were putting words into Lovell’s mouth. It didn’t seem a stretch to assume that some publications thought “revenge” would make for good click-bait. Since I happen to know Lovell — we both live in Albuquerque, where she teaches art at the University of New Mexico — I arranged to talk with her about the project, as well as some of the response.
When we met in December at the university’s Fine Art & Design Library, she was only days away from a return flight to San Francisco, where she hoped to deliver a letter encouraging Hart to contact her. We talked about the piece itself and the internet’s apparent taste for revenge.
As I write this, I realize the only person who might be in a position to accurately comment on the effect of Lovell’s piece is Erin Hart, from whom we may never hear. If you ask me, Hart has every right to move on, and after talking to Lovell, I believe that she thinks so as well.
Finally, a little free advice: Don’t try this yourself. Lovell consulted her PI on every move she made, and she says his guidance kept her out of trouble.
* * *
Matthew Irwin: I see Dear Erin Hart, as an examination by practice of the relationship between surveillance and identity, yours and hers, in the technological age. Everyone is a sort of public figure, and we’re more easily able to claim, co-opt, or steal those identities. You seem to be testing the limits of this. Can you, with that framework, describe what the project entailed in terms of artifacts and how you created it?
Jessamyn Lovell: The very beginning of the whole thing was a physical object of mine, my New Mexico state driver’s license. It was my new identity. I had just moved to New Mexico; I had started fresh. This physical object contained me, in a way, even though I didn’t really think about it in those terms.
A year and a half later, when that was used and abused and I found out about it, I was like, “This is my information.” That was the violation. It was my face. My name was associated with these things [Erin Hart] had done. That’s what it really was. It wasn’t that I had to go to court. Sure, all that cost a lot of money and it was horrible, but I just wanted to know what she did with my ID. I just wanted to know what she was doing with my information that I don’t know about, still. I just wanted to know, what did “I” do? It’s not about vengeance.
MI: How did you prepare for some of the privacy issues that a project like this would most certainly bring up?
JL: When I teach my students about street photography or we talk about laws around photography, imaging taking, appropriation, things like that, I always cite the law about being able to shoot in a public place, and knowing what’s public and what’s not, and knowing your rights, but that if you’re in a situation that feels wrong to photograph someone, then maybe that’s your red flag, like, maybe this isn’t cool anymore.
I’m really fascinated by Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads project and how his lawyers were able to defend him in court and have the ruling that [Erno] Nussenzweig was in perfectly visible public space and so, sorry. Even though, ethically, people might disagree with that — that he shouldn’t be able to take this man’s image because it was against his religion or whatever — that’s how our society functions. In public space, you are signing a waiver, allowing yourself to be seen and photographed.
The gallery I ended up showing this work at, Camerawork, did the final confirmation for me. One of the board members is a lawyer, and he and a team of people got together — I mean he had me give him every single scrap of everything. The main things were: Did she do what you say she is doing? She was convicted, so that’s not libel. Got that crossed off the list. Did you invade her privacy, legally? Well, I didn’t photograph in places where she had any expectation of privacy. I didn’t shoot through windows. I stood clear of anything private. I feel good about that, legally, and I feel good about it morally and ethically.
MI: I want to ask you the question that you put to your students: did you ever think, “Whoa, this feels wrong?”
JL: There was one image of her crossing the crosswalk. She was leaving the Goodwill. The Goodwill was a super intense moment. So, we’re in the Goodwill and I’m taking photographs with my iPhone. And I’m standing across from her, and [one of] the PIs motions to me and he whispers, “She’s stealing clothes.”
There’s something that happened for me … it made me feel connected, strangely, to her. She just wants similar things that I want: She wants to look good, she wants a new start. I don’t think of it as, like, “What a horrible person. She stole clothes from people.” I think of it as, “Damn. OK. This sucks. Her life is not good right now.” So, that’s what was going through my mind as she was crossing the crosswalk. Like, “Oh my god, should I be doing this? This isn’t just black and white. She isn’t just my ID thief and I’m getting photographs of her.”
MI: In what ways was this inspired by Sophie Calle’s work? Do we have to know her work to understand what you’re doing?
JL: The context you’re referring to of Sophie Calle and maybe Merry Alpern — when people bring those names up, I know that they “get” the work, because those are deep inspirations to me, but I don’t think the everyday, average person needs to know about Sophie Calle or Merry Alpern’s work to get what I’m doing. I feel like my job as an artist is to use a visual language to tell stories that are accessible about my life but also reference art contexts that the art world will find interesting. My main thing is I don’t want it to be opaque.
MI: I was thinking in terms of some of the comments and feedback. Do you think understanding that there’s a precedent for this kind of work would change some of the feedback?
JL: That’s a really good question. Um, I’ll be honest, I’ve made a point not to look at a lot of the comments. I started to at first. I looked at Reddit the first moment a friend told me. I couldn’t really deal with it. It’s not because most of it is negative … most of the time, people say things that make me think that they get it, but I would say maybe half of the people who sort of “get it” think I invented it. But if it’s like, “Hey, good job getting revenge on this woman” or “Revenge is best served cold” — I kept hearing that and I’m like, “You don’t get it.”
MI: OK, let’s go there. I want to talk about the revenge context. In a number of the pieces I’ve read, revenge keeps coming up.
JL: I want to say a couple things about that. First of all, I’m pretty sure that most of the articles where people contacted me and got images from my Dropbox and asked me questions, asked my permission — interacted with me — almost all of those contacts are not referring to it as revenge.
The Daily Mail was the first place that was like — well, Beautiful Decay and then the Daily Mail — “It’s all about revenge.” I contacted the editor who approached me from the Daily Mail, and I asked her to have it corrected. She immediately got on it. They took their time fixing a couple things, but they were minor things. Unfortunately, it was over Thanksgiving and I think it took a couple days to get fixes, and in the meantime, a lot of places just pulled from the Daily Mail.
I’ve been more aware because my colleagues and friends are pointing out, “How do you feel about it being about revenge?” And I feel very strongly that it is not about revenge. But I also want to say, in contrast to that — I’m not going to lie and say there was not a feeling of power that I felt in pursuing her. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I did feel some anger and frustration in the whole situation, but my piece is about understanding that about her and about me, and picking apart my identity and my understanding of this experience of what happened to me. How is that revenge? It’s my story, and I’m telling it.
MI: Many of the comments I read were along the lines of, “Erin Hart got what she deserves” or “If she did that to me, I wouldn’t have stopped at stalking her.” What do you think of these reactions as a sort of critique of your piece? How do they understand or misunderstand what you were doing?
JL: I think it’s really disturbing. There was one comment in the first couple of days, where [after that] I just stopped reading the comments. This guy had said, “I’ll laugh if she cuts you and you bleed out,” and it was pretty gruesome. I had been keeping very close track of the [Anita] Sarkeesian story, and it’s exactly what she’s pointing to, in the misogynist tone and storylines and graphics. That gave me a feeling of, “Who would write that? Who would think that?” What’s the word … depraved. Those things really disturb me.
MI: So, you’ve addressed some of this stuff already, but I’m going to ask it directly because the comments were directly related to these things. Is your project a form of sanctioned stalking?
JL: “Sanctioned stalking” … interesting. I could see how someone would see it that way. And I think anyone outside — anyone who is not me or my PI — I could see that perspective. But I do not consider it to be that at all.
MI: Were you violating her rights in any way?
JL: Legally, no. Not a doubt in my mind. I want to follow that up by saying it’s the expectation of privacy. There should have been no expectation of privacy on her part. She was in a public space, and she did the things that I’m saying she did.
MI: On December 8, you’re flying back to San Francisco with the hope of meeting Erin Hart. I don’t want to say confront. You’re not trying to confront her, are you?
MI: What are you hoping to accomplish?
JL: I want to meet her and I want to ask her questions. I want to interview her. I think that’s the best way to put it. I wrote a letter to her. I sent her an invitation to the exhibition.
All I want is a chance to know her a little bit, to ask her some questions. The questions that I want to ask her are along the lines of, “What did you get to do with my ID that I don’t know about?” That’s one of the main things that’s just burning me up.
Lovell spent four days in San Francisco, waiting for Hart to respond to her letter. Hart’s probation officer confirmed that Hart had received the letter, so it was just about waiting. Lovell says that every time her phone rang with an unidentified number, she would get nervous and hopeful, but each time it was only a journalist on the other end. Hart never called.
After she returned to Albuquerque, Lovell sent me this note, along with her answers to my follow up questions:
I want to say that something has changed for me about this project since returning to try and find her one last time. I realized that although I always knew this project was not about retaliation or punishment, I started to see my desire to track her down and find her as unnecessary once I knew she knew of my existence. I think that is always what I wanted. “Dear Erin Hart,” is and always has been a letter to her, and now it’s been delivered. I will continue to show the work in galleries, I will publish my book, and discuss the work I have put in, but I think the project itself may be finished.