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When a Peeping Tom Makes Art

Mike Newton May 18

Arne Svenson: The Workers
Julie Saul Gallery
Through May 30


In photographer Arne Svenson’s 2011 series “The Neighbors,” people lounge around, sit in repose or otherwise find moments of simple ease: lying on a couch, say, or sprawling against a plate-glass window. The images are spare and restrained, made with a sense of stillness and quiet. These images — placid as they are — made a big clatter when they were first exhibited in 2013. Svenson made “The Neighbors” by secretly photographing his neighbors across the street in Tribeca’s Zinc Building, one of those new, glass-and-steel citadels with high ceilings, high rents and — of course — nice, big windows.

Unsurprisingly, a pair of the neighbors sued. The courts twice upheld Svenson’s right to display the images, even while calling his conduct “invasive” and “disturbing” in the most recent decision, handed down in April. The New York Post was arguably more blunt, denouncing him as “creepy.” But what’s interesting is what Svenson did not do — he didn’t install spy cameras in the hallway, for example, or hack someone’s laptop camera. He simply shot what he could see from the perfectly-legal vantage point of his own apartment, albeit with the aid of a powerful telephoto lens.

Svenson’s new series “The Workers,” on view at the Julie Saul Gallery, functions as a sort of sequel to “The Neighbors.” As in “The Neighbors,” the people appear more as sociological types than as individuals — their faces tend to be turned away, partially obscured or out of the frame entirely, keeping their personal identities hidden. Both series involve subjects unknowingly photographed in shiny New York buildings, but the focus of “The Workers” is on construction workers rather than hapless apartment-dwellers. Like “The Neighbors,” it has a neo-classical vibe, with dirty window glass giving these freshly printed images an aged, dappled patina. “The Workers” doesn’t carry the same voyeuristic thrill as “The Neighbors” — construction workers, it is understood, spend much of their time in public view.

Notably, while the concept of “home” brings with it connotations of privacy and security, for these workers, the home they’re laboring on is not their own. In this light, “The Workers” becomes a commentary on the transitory or unstable lives that so many manual laborers are forced to lead.

But then, in 2015, does this idea of home as a safe, private place really hold up? Love them or hate them, Svenson’s photos make for a tasty and relatively low-tech interrogation of the concerns Americans face in this post-Snowden age. The subjects of “The Neighbors” were in their homes, sure, but more and more, it seems naïve to assume that “home” is private, just like it’d be silly to assume that a “private” email is private.

An emergent common wisdom tells us that virtually all information online — even the so-called private stuff — should be considered more or less public, that if you really want your information to stay private, well, you’d better keep it off the internet or dedicate your life to learning about encryption technology. Or, even better, don’t put anything personal on any internet-enabled device whatsoever. In this context, privacy starts to seem like an oil painting or a quill pen: a decadent luxury from a pre-digital time.

Svenson’s compositions have an old-world allure, but they’re very much products of the present day, reflecting this new American reality. On June 1, Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act — the section that, in the Obama administration's view, grants massive powers to the NSA — is set to be renewed, and as The Indypendent goes to press, Congress is debating ways to limit this seemingly unbridled government surveillance. But even if the government curtails its surveillance powers, the possibility of it will still hang over every online interaction for what may be a long time to come. Like the ever-shinier New York, the landscape of the Internet has been deeply changed. New homes keep being built, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that we can never go home again.


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