People Staring at Computers started as a photographic intervention exploring computer-mediated interaction and turned into a large-scale collaboration with Apple Inc. and the United States secret service, dealing with themes of privacy and surveillance. The work emerged from a brief “sousveillance” project that highlighted the empty expression people wear when using computers. In order to portray this expression more accurately and share it with others, the portraits of unsuspecting customers were captured at two Apple stores in New York. Custom software was installed manually on dozens of computers over several days, taking pictures once a minute and sending them back to a central server for exhibition online. On the final day the photos were exhibited simultaneously on all the computers at the Apple store at the site where they were taken.
Two days after the in-store exhibition, secret-service agents executed a search warrant, seizing the hardware used to create the work. Apple sent cease and desist requests to all web services hosting the work. This collaboration heightened the already present controversy, and the work found new life. Hundreds of commenters across the web joined in, not only discussing the work’s legality but debating the definition of art itself, trying to distinguish public from private space and arguing about the role of surveillance in everyday life. The piece evolved from a photographic intervention into a sort of online happening.
Because the photos themselves may be subject to possible C&D requests from Apple, the work is now exhibited in collaboration with artist David Pierce, who has interpreted the images in watercolor.