The city streets used to be places where you could blend in and disappear. No longer. As a resident New Yorker, I hate to think of how many tourist selfies I’ve accidentally appeared in. I imagine little pieces of myself in phones all over the world. Somewhere, in some remote place, a returned tourist is undoubtedly giggling over my backside in leggings in one of their shots.
Between ubiquitous cell phones and street cameras, you are more likely to be tracked, recorded, photographed and broadcast while going about your daily business than ever before. According to the World Atlas, New York City is the fourth most surveilled city in the world after London, Beijing and Chicago. It’s making the streets safer, but in exchange for what exactly?
I took this photo of artist JR’s giant Peeping Tom pasted onto Galerie Perrotin’s brick facade this past summer just as a man walked by. It’s art about the act of looking: from the outside in, as a curious act, and as an intervention. Ironically, as I captured the image, I became a spy on the man walking by underneath. I was watching the guy watching his phone and capturing it for the Internet.
It’s a sign of the times that in Gary Shteyngart’s new comic novel, Lake Success (Random House, 2018), the troubled hedge funder Barry Cohen leaves New York via Greyhound bus to find anonymity. Trashing his phone and credit card to avoid his persistent high-octane assistant, he goes on the lam in search of the self he has lost. It seems it’s now easier to get lost on the highways of America than in the streets of New York.
Anonymity is a bubble that could instantly pop. Maybe, like Tom Hanks and Madonna, we all need to wear sunglasses and baseball caps outside. It’s nice to be unseen in broad daylight.