Critical text by Nato Thompson for Overexposed series. May 2015.
Vulnerable All

We are all vulnerable. Even the powerful. That appears to be the sentiment that underlies the smiling faces of artist Paolo Cirio’s artwork Overexposed. This artwork certainly feels, at first hand, like dangerous work. Is Cirio tempting fate? Probably. But that said, what Cirio is doing is neither difficult nor unreasonable. He is merely demonstrating what already exists. In the vein of Internet-based activists attempting as best they can for transparency on the Internet – such as Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden –, Cirio’s work literally exposes those in charge of America’s most active Internet security apparatus. A world of governmental acronyms (NSA, NSC, CIA), these agencies are those most involved in security and those most involved in the program revealed by Edward Snowden, PRISM (the program is actually called SIGAD US-984XN), among others. And while these agencies might appear as complex phenomena of governmental administration, the specificity of these images, and the intimate privacy in which they are taken, make for a personal approach to a complex global issue of surveillance and privacy.

As part of his interview with Edward Snowden for HBO, television host John Oliver conducted an informal interview with the American public. Asking random men and women on the street if they knew who Edward Snowden was, most people didn’t know and for those who did, they thought he had given away information he shouldn’t have, or erroneously thought he was in charge of Wikileaks. It suffices to say, they were muddled. But when they were asked if they minded whether or not the government could monitor pictures of a person’s dick, they all responded that such efforts would have to be curtailed. In sum, the American public showed a vague disdain for Snowden but clear desires to protect images of their private parts. Funny, yes, but also, strangely, accurate. People approach the complex world in very intimate ways. They might be abstract about political issues, but go toward the story of one’s personal world and the tone of the discussion changes.

We are intimate beings. Perhaps this is what strikes us as so threatening about government surveillance. While pictures of penises might be John Oliver’s comedic point of entry, the point itself is well taken. We feel sensitive about having our private worlds available for all to see. Perhaps, this is why Cirio has acquired these images by way of social media hacks. Cirio has taken what could be the poster children of these programs and pasted their images across the globe. Their smiles scanned, copied and pasted in the urban centers of the planet. Whether these images were taken at a wedding, a party, a private dinner or public event, each and every one of them came by way of some private social network. The reverse maneuver in Overexposed suddenly makes the powerful all the more vulnerable.

While many of these faces may seem new or at least unfamiliar to the world public, their role in overseeing surveillance of phone calls and the Internet itself is widely known. They are not secret agents but, instead, visible public officials. These are people whose public faces represent the secret networks: from the Central Intelligence Agency to the National Security Agency to the National Security Council. And like any public official, they too like to separate work from life. While they might monitor other people’s phone calls by day, they, like anyone, would like to go back to the privacy of their own homes by night. They too are private beings with friends, relationships, love entanglements and various other personal matters one would rather not have spread all over the Internet. Perhaps, they too, would like to keep pictures of their private parts to themselves like any good global citizen. Perhaps Overexposed is a warning. Perhaps it is too late.

Nato Thompson

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