Friday, March 26, 2010

Assignment #2: Turning off the breach

In ”Windows: of Vulnerability,” Thomas Keenan asserts that windows function as “the more violent opening of the distinction between inside and outside, private and public, self and other” (124). He goes on to argue that the window is the “possibility of permeability” and is the “breach” of the dichotomy between the public and private. It would initially seem that Liz Canner’s project, Symphony of a City, blurs the public and the private and the other aforementioned binaries when she elects eight dynamic community members to wear video cameras on their heads and document their lives for twenty-four hours. Yet the inclusion of the off-switch on these devices seems to provide participants agency to circumvent these breaches. Interestingly, Keenan neglects to provide any provision for those with the power to literally and/or figuratively close the curtain on the public and make interiors private.

To begin with, Keenan’s main question that fuels his discussion is: what is at stake with the duality of a window that may “give light, or let the gaze pass through” (127)? In other words, Keenan explores the idea of the “light” as providing knowledge on a subject on the interior to the extreme of being “overexposed” (127); or on other hand, the gaze out of the window such as the ability to know and dominate. He asks, “But what would ‘too much’ light do, beyond the reassuring symmetries of self and other, human and transcendence, inside and outside? How might such light disturb these topologies? Where does the light come from, and what can we do about it?” (126-127). To apply these ideas to Canner’s piece, the questions might be transformed slightly to: Is the point of the Symphony of a City to see Boston differently or to illuminate the participants, the persons behind the window? And to what extent is one’s personhood compromised by watching Symphony of a City?

By looking out from the subject’s eyes, the spectator is never able to see the performer, save for the beginning of the day with brushing the teeth in the mirror (and really, any time spent in front of a mirror). This aperture depicts the participant’s experience on a certain day -- human interactions, personal activities, and navigations through various internal and external spaces within the city. Consequently, the spectator transforms, at least partially, to become the unseen actor. Thus, in a sense, the viewer becomes the ones speaking those words, making those actions, or navigating through various spaces within Boston. Canner manipulates this media form by destroying the boundary between the self and the other through this art piece. By the intentional exclusion of the actor’s appearance or mode of expression, viewers are rendered unable to illuminate the unseen and thereby are coerced into becoming the unseen themselves. Accordingly, this virtual window created by Canner confuses the “self” and the “other” via the erasure of the depiction of the central subject. Thus our personhood is compromised not by our thoughts but rather by “our” interactions and “our”(1*) navigations dictated by the unseen.

Keenan claims later on that “the erosion of the security of the private sphere figured by the opening of the window” (135) in which blurs the historically diametrically opposites: public and private. He writes, “The public is not a collection of private individuals experiencing their commonality, nor the view organized for and by the human of what might gather it together. The public is the experience, if we can call it that, of the interruption or the intrusion of all that is radically irreducible to the order of the individual human subject, the unavoidable entrance of alterity into the everyday life of the “one” who would be human” (133). In other words, the public is within a person, all that is not within that person and is always changing but also “defined by its resistance to being made present” (135). Symphony of a City does exemplify this theoretical concept as it creates and projects eight windows that radically irreducible experiences of the daily lives of eight subjects onto Boston City Hall. And although Keenan gestures at the complication of the inclusion of an off-switch or a curtain when he writes, “the subject’s variable status as public or private individual is defined by its position relative to this window,” (132) he does not provide an adequate discourse about those persons or those technologies that allow subjects to instantly privatize the once public (2*).

Finally, when Canner gave the presentation to the class she spoke about the difficulties and surprises that arose by the inclusion of the off-switch. First, the homeless man who always navigated through various public spaces rarely utilized the off-switch; whereas, Alan D. Solomon, the CEO of Solomont Bailis Ventures, navigated through various private spaces frequently utilized the off-switch to ensure certain interiors of his life were kept privatized. So when Keenan writes, “the public […] belongs to others, and to no one in particular” (133) the Symphony of a City project by Liz Canner clearly complicates this by those who uses the off-switch and how frequently (3*). Despite Keenan’s theoretical framework finely mapping out the breach between the self and the other in Canner’s work, Keenan does not provide an adequate discussion about those subjects who can utilize certain technologies to circumvent and subvert the public while keeping their own interiors private.

1. Here I am using “our” to refer to the breach of the viewer and the participant with the digital camera.
2. I just believe that Keenan should not only focus subject’s position to the window, but also his/her ability to control or inhibit the functions of the window (i.e. to light, and/or to let gaze pass through)
3. Remember that every participant is given the off-switch as an option on the physical device.

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