While much of the press around Arne Svenson’s newest photo series, ‘The Neighbors’ (2012), notes that the photographer inherited the telephoto camera lens he used from a deceased bird watcher, none of it considers what those unsuspecting birds have to teach us about our habits of watching and being watched. Rather, so much talk of ‘creepy’, ‘voyeuristic’ and ‘illegal’ camerawork merely encourages us to conjure innumerable lurid mental images, rather than actually take a look at Svenson’s near-life-size glimpses of the activity at the windows of a single luxury condominium in New York, and to see in them not only what they don’t reveal through their prudent tactics but, more significantly, what they do, both in their visual effects and through the anxieties that they provoke.
Consider Neighbors #26. As with all of the photographs in this series, the subject’s eyes are concealed, while her face is illuminated by a light that appears to hold her attention in a protracted way that only our computers and mobile devices can. Does Svenson spot this woman for her way of life – as the birder might? In looking, how are we to read the details, allusive and partial as they are? For example, the binder clip perfunctorily hung on the curtain; the woman’s face caught in what must be an act of looking, only her eyes withheld from our view. Or, elsewhere, the silhouette of a figure gently tugging at a lock of hair, but mostly concealed from us (#4), or a manner of relating captured in an expectant couple breakfasting together (#1).
In many of these works, Svenson adapts the steel frame of the building’s windows to the framework for the photograph itself, conflating these structures, rendering them simultaneously architectural and photographic, protective and exposing. The presumption that ‘looking at’ always means ‘looking through’, onto a private scene within, is betrayed by these photographs wherein the life of the interior appears to happen at, or even on, the window’s surface. ‘I photograph what is given to be seen,’ Svenson has said. And in a city that is itself framed by so many windows, the artist is charged, on our behalf, to do the work of seeing, not just what the rest of us do not see, but also what we do – even as we daily fail (or, worse, refuse) to recognize it.
There is a lengthy history to the conceit of the window as a frame wherein domesticity gets performed, not just for public consumption, but also for those inside where, by night, glass becomes a mirrored surface. ‘The Neighbors’ extends this history but adds the fact of this building and its locale: a boutique condominium designed to serve the scopic desires of its upper-class clientele, their conspicuous consumption and their wish for a masterful view of the city below. But contact with those who reside on the other side of the window is ‘inevitable’, as Svenson has said, even as some are outraged that anyone would notice. In turning his camera on these spaces, Svenson exposes the impossibility of anyone ever truly owning that voyeuristic position (in spite of billion-dollar efforts), or of escaping the gaze returned.
Surveillance in 2013 is ubiquitous, and with it our understanding of ‘private’ space is rapidly and radically transforming: the Internet, smart-phones, social networks and search engines follow us everywhere, tracking our activity, storing our data, algorithmically anticipating our desires. In the minds of at least one segment of its viewership, ‘The Neighbors’ has provided a possible occasion to displace and transfigure much more real fears about the ways in which we are all always being watched. And so, while Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scope of the NSA’s surveillance continue to reverberate, the Boston bombings propel the prospect of domestic surveillance drones one step closer, and Google threatens to ‘interpose itself’ (as Julian Assange wrote in June), it is precisely the artist’s calling to engage these conditions and the charged emotions they arouse, and to represent them to us and for us. What’s more: according to a recent court ruling following a lawsuit filed against Svenson, such artistic representation – even when it directly resembles us, indeed pictures us – is not an invasion of privacy, but a matter of free speech.