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July 12 2011

Artist's covert Apple store camera project - was it illegal?

People staring at computers.

It could make an interesting study of our changing behaviour, a clever way of changing the view on a culture that is increasingly screen-focused. A look out, rather than a look in.

Unfortunately, New York artist Kyle McDonald made a rather too liberal assessment of laws around spying and public photography before installing a customised camera app in Apple stores in New York City, automatically taking photos every minute and sending McDonald 1,000 images. These are all posted on his blog,

The project was up on McDonald's site for a full two days before the secret service called round, he tweeted, and confiscated his laptop, one other computer, an iPod and two flash drives.

McDonald hasn't exactly defended the project with detailed theoretical, contextual explanation, but then he is now following the advice of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and keeping quiet pending the results of the police investigation.

What he did say on his Free Art & technology project site is that: "Before sharing the photos online, I decided to exhibit them in the same places they were originally captured. So I wrote another app that could be remotely triggered after being installed on all the computers in one location. When the app starts up, it takes a picture and slowly fades in that photo. A moment later, it starts cycling through older photos.

"Most people instinctively quit the app less than 10 seconds after recognising their own face, so the exhibition was relegated to the unused machines."

More explanation in his video about the project.

Noble and innocently artistic as his intentions may have been, his interpretation of the law has been more than a little naive. "As I understand, photography in open spaces is legal unless explicitly prohibited," he tweeted.

A modicum of further consideration might lead you to conclude that Apple stores are not "open spaces", by which he presumably means public areas. He later tweeted that he had been told his work violates "18 USC section 1030". It does seem surprising that Apple's in-store security didn't have some sort of system in place to protect itself from this kind of mischief; stores do wipe computers every night, but McDonald came back every morning and reinstalled the software.

It does seem remarkable that, as McDonald explained, none of Apple's customers were particularly phased by being faced with pictures of other people staring at computers though it might have made them dismiss it,
being on a strange machine inside the Apple store. Mashable reported that McDonald had eventually installed the software on as many as 100 computers in the Apple store.

"That's a lot of network traffic, and he learned that Apple monitors traffic in its stores when he received a photo from a Cupertino computer of what appeared to be an Apple technician. The technician had apparently traced the traffic to the site McDonald used to upload the program to Apple Store computers — and installed it himself." It's safe to assume that the visit from four secret service men was triggered by Apple.

Despite the assumptions about this kind of covert photography, one legal expert advised that customers in an Apple store have no reasonable expectation of privacy. "How is this different to being photographed out in the mall, on the beach, at the ballgame?" media law and ethics tutor Craig LaMay told the Sydney Morning Herald.

No updates as yet on those investigations, but there was a rather cryptic tweet on Sunday in which he nodded to the ambiguity of comment threads.

"Thinking about comment threads as a modern exercise in Anekantavada/the Jain parable of the blind men and the elephant." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 07 2011

The race to save digital art

Pioneers of computer art are in danger of becoming the lost generation of our cultural heritage because scientists are unable to preserve their work

A race is on against the fast pace of technological change as scientists search for ways to preserve today's most innovative artworks.

A team of experts is warning that some of Britain's contemporary artistic landmarks will be no more than memories within a decade unless conservationists can effectively archive digital works and stop them degrading.

"The threat is very real that, unless we do something, we will have a 'lost generation' in terms of our cultural heritage," said Dr David Anderson, who, together with his colleague Dr Janet Delve at the School of Creative Technologies at the University of Portsmouth, is leading efforts to save the more complex artworks of the digital age from oblivion.

"Past generations captured who they were and what they did via museums and books," Anderson said, "but the pace of technological development in the digital age has now outstripped our capacity for preservation."

At the same time as the visual artist Hilary Lloyd is nominated for this year's Turner Prize for her inventive work in film and video, "digital preservationists" are campaigning for more shared research and have organised the first of a series of symposiums to be held at King's College London and Cambridge next month.

The fast pace by which technology changes means that many of the earliest works of art created on computer are in danger of being lost, or are already impossible to read, while new interactive digital artworks, such as 3D visualisations and video games, are so complex that scientists are not yet capable of faithfully preserving them.

"Digital preservation is desperately important," said Anderson. "In technology little things change all the time. Over the course of a 20- or 30-year working life, the software we use is updated or made obsolete all the time, but most of us aren't really bothered by the changes. But in terms of science and art, digital preservation is increasingly important."

Preserving today's works of art poses more of a challenge to science than continued efforts to restore and conserve the great oil paintings and sculptures of the past, Anderson and Delve argue.

It is a problem already faced by collectors and contemporary art galleries, as formats are updated and CDs, DVDs and digital recordings degrade.

Lloyd, 48, from Halifax, creates innovative work that poses typical problems for conservators. Her recent film and video footage, previously on display at the Raven Row gallery in London, was put together in a way that subverts expectations of art. A piece that initially appeared to be a still life, for example, turned out to be in perpetual motion. Projectors and monitors formed a part of the work itself.

"In digital art, the key is to find ways of preserving the colour and visual aspects of a piece of art. If we don't preserve the digital art made today, it could be like walking into a world-famous gallery and seeing nothing on the walls, that no art has survived some global meltdown," said Anderson.

A new digital art gallery is to launch on Monday in the centre of Cambridge. The vaulted section, set up by Anglia Ruskin University inside the Ruskin Gallery, which was opened by the art critic John Ruskin in 1858, has been fitted with cutting-edge 3D plasma screens to enable digital artists to experiment.

But the preservation of this kind of work, in contrast, is still a work in progress.

Dr Simon Payne, a digital video artist and senior lecturer in film and media at Anglia Ruskin University, who will be exhibiting at the gallery, points out that many contemporary artists are happy for their work to have a short lifespan, or at least can accept that its temporary nature is a key part of the experience for viewers.

"Some artists who make digital art that is ephemeral, who are almost like performance artists, are dedicated to the idea that it will not last.

"But from an academic point of view, of course, you want to be able to recreate the culture of the past and to show it to students."

Payne's own work is what he describes as "perceptual", playing with what the viewer can see, such as the Op Art movement of the 60s and 70s.

"It is designed with the idea of creating a discrete physical effect on the viewer and for me, ideally, it should be shown in the context of a cinema, so I don't know how you would ever preserve it effectively."

Ironically, an artwork made or recorded on celluloid, or even on videotape, is more likely to survive the test of time than more recent work created or archived digitally, Payne added. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 24 2009

All the world's a screen

Once a novelty, giant film screens and web feeds are transforming our experience of live performance

As the print media struggle with the impact of the digital age, what is the effect of technology on live performance? Are we finally entering a time, predicted by that great maverick pianist Glenn Gould a generation ago, when technology supplies all our needs – when public concerts will cease, and the perfection of quiet communication from a recording studio will supplant the unpredictability of the live experience?

The evidence points in completely the opposite direction. Public engagement with the live performing arts, sustained by years of investment, has never been greater. Audiences are thronging to live venues, both traditional and challenging, from the new Alan Bennett at the National to choreographer Michael Clark's recent take on David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Shows are sold out across London, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

That engagement is heightened and complemented by digital technology. Arts websites buzz with imaginative life. Artists such as Robert le Page, Bill Viola, Simon McBurney and Katie Mitchell are ensuring that video, film and the interactive media are becoming firmly embedded in the art itself. This month, on the South Bank in London, the Philharmonia invited audiences to get close to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring by watching different sections of the orchestra on 20 video screens, with scores you could follow: never has the panic of that opening bassoon solo felt so real.

Technology began as a very simple intervention in performance; the parallel to what happened with sound recordings is interestingly close. In the beginning, recordings simply captured and preserved the live event. But it was not long before conductors such as Leopold Stokowski realised the immense potential of the recorded medium, creating works such as Fantasia. At the start of the LP era, the producer Walter Legge created a lush, new orchestral sound that was superbly suited to the new medium – one that Herbert von Karajan then developed into an art form, glorifying himself. Similarly, the arrival of the CD in the 1980s, with its bright, transparent textures, was perfectly suited to the sounds of Christopher Hogwood, Trevor Pinnock, Roger Norrington and their perky period-instrument bands.

Video and television were originally just about capturing and relaying performance. Connoisseurs argue endlessly about the value of music television, but events such as the Last Night of the Proms have become embedded in popular consciousness. Now, with the arrival of free-to-air digital TV, more Proms than ever reach the viewing public – a privilege we take for granted. The high-definition relays from the Met Opera in New York to cinemas have been followed by the Royal Opera House here – first just outside, and now around the country.

Today's directors are increasingly making use of live filming: no Peter Sellars production seems complete without TVs on stage. A stunning Viola/Sellars production of Tristan und Isolde, yet to be seen here, sets huge, ritualistic videos in counterpoint to Wagner's intense score; the two rival each other in power and magnificence. Last year, Le Page's Lipsynch built video castles in the air out of odd fragments on stage, so we saw more digitally than we could live. Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes's collaboration with a visual artist on Pictures from an Exhibition, one piano with five screens suspended around it, comes to London next month.

At the cutting edge of this interaction between live and digital, last weekend the Dutch Toneelgroep company brought its six-hour conflation of three Shakespeare plays, Roman Tragedies, to the Barbican; the action developed over different areas of the stage and beyond, even into a nearby road, while the audience moved from the auditorium to sit around the stage. What bound the experience together was the continuously filmed performance, available on screens wherever you were. Of course, not every experiment will be successful: a recent woozy and pointless video accompaniment to a concert performance of Berg's Wozzeck at the Royal Festival Hall showed how not to do it.

No one would argue that there is no longer a place for the traditional drama or concert. But the notion that technology distracts from the purity of the live experience no longer holds true. It also means that thousands more people now have access to live performance, either online or via broadcasters. Power is passing to the participants: anyone can publish their work on YouTube; the Association of British Orchestras has just published a booklet of new ways for orchestras to connect with their public, many of them via digital media. The funding that has brought all of these things to pass is one that will soon be under threat, under whatever government. Yet there can be few investments as life-enhancing, and indeed as necessary: what could demonstrate this more powerfully than the public thirst for the arts in a time of recession? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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