Public, Private, and In-Between

Installation, Collaborative Work
IN//BETWEEN #4 Residency
Green Hill Gallery, Berlin

- 2019

The notions of Public and Private are complex, as they relate to multiple aspects of our lives and affect us by forcing a constant decision-making process that dictates our conditions of safety. What is public, and what is private, becomes an issue of binary opposites when there is an obscure and confusing area that lies in between. Are public and private separate, or can they be the same? Who is able to draw the distinction? What is at stake when defining private and public? Is this all related to safety; and if so, of whom?

In an attempt to answer these questions, one can start to differentiate between public and private as social constructs that establish boundaries around spaces to create safety, and are channeled through our personal morals and cultures. Most people interact daily with computers, phones, alarms, surveillance systems, text messages, video chats, bank accounts or data. The most intimate scenarios of human relations and domestic space navigate these boundaries. New forms of data and digital communication attempt to redefine the relationship between user and provider. Examples include the choice to accept or decline terms and conditions, our engagement with social media and the appearance of new concerns that touch the most intimate stories, thoughts and creative processes of our contemporary living, where more than once sector claims ownership.

Today it is estimated that around 500,000 video surveillance cameras are in active use across the city of London. This figure not only takes into account cameras that are operated by the UK government and Scotland Yard (situated, for example, outside of official government buildings and throughout underground railway lines) but also the many privately-owned video surveillance systems that can be found in both business and domestic spaces. Regardless of the intent, ownership or use of such cameras, it is estimated that, on average, an individual may be recorded on camera 300 times within a 24-hour period in London.

Berlin, on the other hand, has so far resisted London’s example public monitoring. In a country scarred by a history of oppressive state surveillance, it is hardly surprising that those born in Germany before reunification in 1990 still bare distrust of authority. Even after a new wave of discussions on the topic of public safety was opened up in 2016 (following a spate of violent terrorist attacks in Germany), the city of Berlin has still held on to comparatively restrictive surveillance laws that protect the rights of its residents. New legislation proposed to relax the use of video surveillance within Berlin in the wake of these attacks (through the introduction of facial recognition software in railway stations, for example) has nonetheless divided public opinion on the matter and sparked new debates that have brought fresh concerns to further contest the boundary between public and private space. As a result, decisions made by the state that risk infringing on the privacy of individuals are made tentatively.

Privacy in Germany is a sensitive subject. In a country that still displays social evidence of the effects of the Cold War, privacy is seen widely as a right worth firmly protecting. Within the context of the exhibition at Green Hill Gallery, which is situated in one of the last haunts of punks and squatters in Berlin, CCTV cameras installed throughout the exhibition challenge our ideas of individual private space and also question our wider engagement with camera surveillance in the city itself.

The cameras can be seen to interact with other artworks in the exhibition and, with varying success, blend in with the different simulations of domestic surroundings they occupy. Throughout the gallery, these cameras increasingly appear to mimic familiar, human gestures – one camera seems to peek behind a door, while another is positioned to look as if it is peering out of the window on to the street. Despite the impression of innocence suggested through their playful encounter with the space, the CCTV cameras represent a significant invasion of privacy by their very nature and thus create an uncomfortable feeling of observation. The question of whether these cameras are truly recording individuals in the exhibition is left unanswered. 
Photographs by Bridget Lollihell, Ioana Bultoc, BobbiJo Brooks