Artist Behind “People Staring At Computers” Photos Breaks Silence About Secret Service Raid

07.13.12 David Lumb

Multimedia F.A.T. artist Kyle McDonald published “People Staring At Computers” on July 4, 2011, a staggering collection of photos surreptitiously taken by Apple Store computers he’d installed covertly with his own software. He woke up on July 8 to a search warrant presented by three Secret Service agents. They seized two computers, an iPod, a flash drive, and a memory card. McDonald contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who advised him not to speak to anyone; aside from a Twitter message advising the world that emails to him would be monitored by the Secret Service, McDonald didn’t speak of the experience for a year.

Yesterday, McDonald explained everything. There are things he’s learned, but scrolling to the summary–what he would’ve done better, how he might have avoided the litigious attention of a tech colossus known for intimidating and browbeating competition with legal challenges–simplifying his efforts into an end-summary ignores the wonder he hoped to instill when he conceived the project. The intention of the project was far overshadowed by the litigation and media shitstorm that took sides and/or raised the specter of internet privacy. Other projects, like Irby Pace’s “Unintended Consequences” that took the photos people had willingly taken at Apple stores and not deleted, were less invasive by comparison. Commenters, McDonald found, dominated the discussion with either criticism of his methods or base bitterness at Apple’s reactive lawsuit policy.

Upon reflection, McDonald embraces the ultimate effect of the piece: the discussion it fostered about art, the relevancy of intention, and the evolution of his piece as it was spread, contorted, and regurgitated across the media and comment battlefield.

In the end, if Apple hadn’t so vehemently condemned the piece, it would have been resigned to live as just another quick F.A.T. Lab project, and part of my ongoing curiosity exploring computer-mediated interaction. But because they had the project taken offline, and my computer confiscated, Apple managed to give it more attention than I could have ever attracted. The reporters using headlines with “artist” in scare quotes got the media artists mad. The censorship and search warrant got the freedom of speech people mad. The feeling of privacy invasion, or just the awareness of surveillance, took care of everyone else. Apple created an amazing discussion I never could have planned.

In a way it became Apple’s work. But most importantly, it became the commenters’.

I feel very grateful that I was able to spark that conversation, and I’m relieved that I don’t have to further defend the work. I’m very happy to let the commenters do that.

(Photo: Kyle McDonald/Flickr)