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As I step to my right, out of the corridor and the stark white walls of the “Humansbeingdigital” exhibition, the darkness of Nye Thompson’s “Backdoored” fills me with a sense of anxiety, a nervy feeling of entering somewhere forbidden, sinister, somewhere out of bounds, illicit.
My eyes adjust and I start to make out what seems to be a workstation for an absent security guard, an empty desk at the back of the room, set up in front of twenty small screens* mounted on the wall, apparently transmitting footage captured by CCTV cameras – the guard’s empty coffee cup still sits on the table – whoever was there has now gone, and I take my place at the desk.
I switch on one of the two small desk lamps and take in the cables sprawling in a tangled mass across the desk and the green fern-patterned wallpaper which decorates the wall where the displays are mounted. I start to wonder if I am at a workstation, or in someone’s personal and private space.
Looking up at the twenty screens the diverse and surreal nature of the images slowly comes clear to me. Some appear to depict innocent, unchanging scenes, landscapes, scenery, others are windows into domesticity – clothes hanging in the entrance hall of someone’s flat, an unmade bed in the darkness of a bedroom, a grotesquely decorated bedsit – banal, and yet disturbing in how they spy on the innermost spaces populated by people we don’t know. Others go further still, depicting people unaware they were being watched, being spied on – young ladies in low cut tops at a work station as they count the day’s takings. A camera positioned in the corridor outside the room lets me spy on my friends as they approach the room.
I discover that the images that “Backdoored” relays to us were all taken by unsecured webcams and surveillance cameras and then released into the public domain, open access to all, violating the privacy of the people whose spaces and property and actions are projected here so very openly.
And so the curious observer has become the anonymous voyeur, looking in unseen on a bizarre mix of imagery, taken and made public. I feel something like an uneasy mix of titillation and guilt, of power over people as I watch them unobserved, but stronger still is my feeling of anxiety: “if I’m looking at this, who’s looking at me?” I start to think about all the situations I could be observed in, without me knowing, all those situations where I get access to things I want, but in return give access, opening my life out for others to gain entry.
I move on to browse the other installations in the “Humansbeingdigital” exhibition. I gain immediate entry to the Hipster bar, as my moustache and glasses persuade the face recognition algorithm that I look cooler than I actually am, I watch the video about cooking with homemade hormones and enter the echoing hall of The Dialogue, and am left with that nagging thought – that access equates to opening ourselves up, either by publishing our personas, or data, or by inviting others into our domain.
“Backdoored” the installation has got me thinking about its meaning, and feeling vulnerable.
*The twenty screens referred to in this article are Raspberry Pi Premium Display Kits, supplied free of charge to the artist by DesignSpark