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Privacy invasion or webcam art? 'Screening Reality' walks a fine line

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Deep in the heart of Europe sits a massive display full of live camera feeds from all over the world. Visitors drop by to peer in on unsuspecting strangers, staring blankly at scenes both intimate and banal — sleeping babies, pedestrians, empty storefronts. A computer silently churns nearby, bringing up new video streams and with them, new windows into the lives and habits of others.

It may sound like something out of a dystopian future, but for Pierre Derks, it's reality.

Derks, 33, is a Dutch graphic designer and artist whose latest installation, Screening Reality, compiles 805 live feeds from insecure IP cameras to create a stunning — if somewhat startling — digital tapestry. The exhibit, which opened at the LhGWR Gallery in The Hague late last month, includes a collection of illusory videos and looped surveillance feeds, but it's Derks' real-time streams that sit front and center.

800 live streams on full display

Upon entering the gallery, visitors are immediately greeted by a rectangular grid of 23 different live streams, projected against a large white barrier that stands in the center of the room. The soundless feeds come from various insecure IP cameras that Derks found through Google searches or on previously published web databases, and they cover a wide range of domains. Some are owned by businesses or municipalities for security purposes, while others are installed for private use within bedrooms and living rooms.

Derks spent a full year hand-picking his 805 streams from the more than 8,000 he discovered online. Unlike the thousands of Trendnet camera feeds that were exposed through a security hole last year, the streams he culled required no sophisticated software, hack, or password guessing; according to the artist, all he needed was an IP address and a camera brand name.

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After selecting the feeds, Derks began organizing them into groups based on setting and context. In its finished form, the display automatically refreshes itself every few seconds, bringing up a new array of 23 streams that share some thematic thread. Glance at it one minute, and you'll see a collection of security camera feeds. Wait a little longer, and the setting suddenly shifts to the domestic. In one feed, parents stand over their baby's crib, in another, a woman eats breakfast in her bathrobe.

"It’s as if reality itself isn’t enough."

Underneath each frame is text from a tweet or news ticker that acts as a subtitle, automatically generated in real-time based on the images, context, or location of a given feed. According to Derks, this extra layer of real-time data adds a media-like quality to each stream, underscoring a fundamental tension that the exhibit seeks to explore: the ever-blurring distinction between the reality we experience and the reality we absorb through screens.

"I'm just fascinated by the fact that everyone's constantly looking at their mobiles or tablets, which convey some sense of reality, but with extra information layered on top," the artist explains, singling out augmented reality apps, in particular. "It's as if reality itself isn't enough. We always need extra information."

Even standing inside the space can be a strange exercise in voyeurism. Before opening to the public, Derks installed photosensitive one-way mirrors in front of the gallery's windows. During the day, people outside the gallery see only their reflection in the windows, but are visible to those inside. When the sun sets, it reverses, putting the installation on full display while shielding the outside world from anyone inside.

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In an interview with The Verge, Derks admitted to having some reservations when he embarked on the project, but ultimately decided that he wasn't crossing any boundaries, legal or ethical. Although he says it would have been easy to access IP cameras by guessing passwords (most tend to be some variation on "admin," by default), he says doing so would have been "a step too far."

"It's out there on the internet, I'm not hacking into anything."

"It's out there on the internet, I'm not hacking into anything," Derks explains. "Everyone can see this if they want to." He notes, however, that he has no plans to publish his aggregated streams on the web.

"I find it different from being here, in an isolated environment," he says of the online experience. "As a website it would become public, and it would be easy for people to edit or manipulate it. It's true that everyone could find these streams if they want to, but they can't see them the way I've put them together."

Derks has yet to receive any complaints over his project, though he realizes that it's always a possibility — especially since many of the private camera users are completely unaware of their exposure. Thus far, however, viewers have met his work with intrigue rather than disgust, displaying only the slightest signs of discomfort whenever images of parents and babies flash across the screen.

Potential controversy notwithstanding, Derks believes that by bringing issues of surveillance and security to a larger audience, Screening Reality will ultimately serve a greater good. "There are still a lot of people who buy IP cameras without realizing how publicly accessible they are," Derks says. "So if a work like this can contribute to raising awareness, then I think that's a good thing."

Screening Reality is currently on display at the LhGWR Gallery in The Hague, Holland through February 24th.

The Verge
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