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  • 09.19.14

Inside Private(i), An Immersive Surveillance Art Project

The Always-Online Dystopian Future Comes to Brooklyn.

The presentation started like a typical technology conference. A sprightly, well-dressed man stood behind a podium in front of a small crowd gathered at Building 92 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a kind of community think tank for a neighborhood that’s quickly becoming a hub of the tech economy. The founder explained how his company, ePublik, designed a device called the BiRD, a bracelet that would collect and share users’ “social biometrics,” creating a “live emotional profile” that could be accessed by friends and family, like an auto-updated Twitter feed for your feelings driven by measurements of your pulse and other bodily signs.

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ePublik BiRD

In fact, the year was 2020, and BiRDs were required by law, with regulations outlined in news stories stuck to the wall of the Building 92 space. American citizens were under a regime of mandatory biometric reporting. Emotions had become impossible to hide, and any inadvertent step out of line with the emotional mainstream would be flagged. The ePublik founder, played by performing artist Peter Musante, was actually here to free us all from the tyranny his own company had pioneered.

First, though, we had to give up all of our biometric recording devices, including any and all smartphones and other electronic devices. When I slid my iPhone into a black, signal-blocking envelope, I realized that for the first time in days, if not weeks, I was without a way to get online.

This was going to be trouble.

Right now, we carry our technological devices 24/7 because we want to always be connected to our friends and social networks. But what if we had to be connected? The Brooklyn Navy Yard performance, an hour-long piece of interactive theater called “Private(i)” put on by the artist collective Fixed Agency, was a way to experience that threatening possibility. Blanket digital surveillance is already a fact, and the government is rolling out biometric surveillance systems like Next Generation Identification, which promises to make public anonymity difficult.

Being alone seems nigh-impossible, which it actually is in the “Private(i)” scenario. That is, unless you illegally go off the grid (“opacity terrorism” or “aloning,” in ePublik’s parlance), which I did with Lucy Kaminsky, my guide to the Navy Yard as well as the scenario of the performance.

Kaminsky, the daughter of a fishing family (in character, at least), led me out of Building 92 into the vast industrial spaces of the complex. She told me about how she came to Aloning–which requires careful hacking of the BiRD bracelet–after the death of a close friend who had always been suspicious of biometric technology.

As we wandered through the warehouses, we ran into various other participants in the narrative, who had each carved out niches to be alone. A dark basement lit by dozens of flickering candles was a shrine to one of the earliest Aloners, attended to by another rebel burning a smudge stick. In one abandoned lot, I was instructed to listen to a tape recording of a famous socialite who, after a protest, decided to cut off her BiRD and narrate the sudden rush of freedom.

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Giving the pitch for “ePublik,” the company inside a performance art project.

The recording had become an inspiration for the cause, and for good reason. The breathy voice on the tape was flush with the kind of exultant realization (“I could do anything!”) that we usually associate with life-or-death political causes–which the BiRD had become in this fictional future. (The Aloner revolutionary is not unlike another interactive performance heroine: Eva Lucien, the imaginary force in theJejune Institute, a San Francisco experiment in reality gaming that shut down in 2011.)

I won’t spoil too much of the experience, but running along the rooftops with Kaminsky and without the encumbrance of a phone was liberating even without the theatrical conceit. The performance traverses large blocks of the Navy Yard, so the guide paired with each individual visitor becomes a necessary part of the experience. Equal parts urban spelunking expedition and political provocation, “Private(i)” is a reminder that being truly alone is necessary, despite how utopian the connection enabled by technology might seem. The reminder is potent, given that the Apple Watch is distressingly similar to the BiRD.

At the end of the performance, we Aloners were returned to Building 92 for a debriefing, and then it was over. The performers broke character to talk about the project’s motivations. “When the Snowden revelations happened, we were immediately very interested in that–how vast and pervasive surveillance can be,” Fixed Agency’s Eva von Schweinitz, who played a facilitator, told me.

Government surveillance is pervasive, of course, but self-surveillance might be even more of a threat. Being always on, never off the grid, has an impact on how we perceive ourselves. Letting go of the Internet, as in the performance, forces you to reconsider your own identity. “My Internet self is constantly curated… it’s this addiction,” Fixed Agency member Isaac Eddy said. “Who are you really, and who do you want to be?”

Visitors can experience “Private(i)” at Building 92 by signing up for a time in advance this weekend through the project’s website.

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