The Public Isolation Project

This was originally published on another blog on July 25, 2011, but is no longer available online, so I’ve republished it for the PDXX Collective.

For the month of November 2010, everyone walking by in Portland, Oregon got to watch Cristin Norine sleep, eat, blow her nose and read her email. The Public Isolation Project was a statement on how communication technology affects privacy and face-to-face relationships. For the duration of this installation art, she lived in the bSIDE6 gallery behind two walls of windows. Norine communicated with friends and family only through social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, texting, and video chatting on her iPhone. All of her computer activity was projected onto a wall, large enough for people on the street to read. Her only time out of sight was in the bathroom where she changed and showered.

She never intended to raise questions involving gender, but the experience would inevitably be different for a woman than a man. When Portland artist Joshua Jay Elliott contracted the bSIDE6 space, he wanted to take advantage of its windowed fishbowl quality by putting someone’s life on display. Norine was about to move out of her Los Angeles apartment, was between art projects, and was considering a move back to Portland. There were worries about her safety. Stalkers were possible. The gallery was around popular bars. Elliott was concerned that someone might flash her.

The good news is Norine was not sexually harassed. One man did press his phone number up to the window, but that was the worst of it. Most notes on her windows were encouraging. Exercising on her elliptical didn’t feel much different from the gym. Doing yoga in front of the windows was strange at first, “because you’re doing the downward dog and your butt’s in the air and everyone is looking at you.” But it seemed to make others more uncomfortable than she was. These awkward positions made her audience acutely aware of their voyeurism.
The anonymity of the internet invites trolls to say bigoted and sexist things that they would never say in person. But what Norine saw about her online didn’t make her feel objectified. She’s aware that a t-shirt company called her “the fox in a box.” When CNN interviewed her, she was introduced as “beautiful.” Elliot has said that he doubts there would be as much media attention given to the project had its subject been male. Something may be more approachable and sympathetic about a woman on display.

Through transparency, power is both gained and given up. Living in the public eye allowed Norine to further her visibility as an artist and start conversations social media. Social networking, video sharing (such as YouTube), photosharing (such as Flickr), and other communication technology aid the tranfer of social information, improve virtual interconnectedness and can even lead to viral fame. At the same time, users of social media are losing control over their exposure. Just as Norine didn’t have any say who came to gawk at her, the omnipotent, omnipresent Internet and mobile phone networks preserve minute narratives and locations for curious friends and foes. This new, remote audience for the voices and images of women has the potential to create and strengthen friendships and alliances, tell personal stories, promote discussion of ideas, and develop commerical endeavors for female entrepreneurs, but protecting privacy boundaries requires vigilance for the vulnerabilities of technology.

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