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  1. Culture
18 May 2011

Reclaiming the right to privacy

Two studies into the nature of privacy form part of the London International Documentary Festival's

By Sean Gittins

If you walk through the Barbican main entrance and follow the steps down to the mezzanine floor in one of the corners of the room you’ll see against the venue’s sparse interior architecture an incongruous sight – three walls made up to resemble a typical family home. Whilst only two of the walls have fake doors all three of them are adorned in framed images. There are also two green cushioned chairs and a coffee table with a book that has a plain black cover. Open it on the first page you will see hand-written the words “WHAT IS PRIVACY?” If you continue over the next few pages you’ll find a range of answers written down by visitors to the exhibition.

That there is a plurality of definitions of this concept is the inescapable conclusion one gets after visiting this exhibition and watching the film Article 12, which together made up a special focus on the nature of privacy as part of the London International Documentary Festival’s opening weekend.

The exhibition described above is called Privacy, but from the images on the walls its creator Juan Manuel Biain doesn’t answer the question he set the viewers in the black book. Instead, he shows how privacy can be lost. The majority of images in the frames on the exhibition walls are, for example, pictures of tools that are used in to erode our privacy such as CCTV cameras.

That the pictures appear in an exhibition space designed to look like the one place people feel their privacy should be preserved – the home – gives them veritas. Even more effective, however, is that the images are chosen to alter the role of the viewer. At one point, looking at the framed picture of a camera, the device was staring straight back at me. I was being watched. In the next I was viewing at an image of female figure silhouetted against a dimly lit bedroom window curtain. I was now the watcher. In today’s increasingly digital world the transformation between these roles is that easy.

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The exhibition’s accompanying piece -a documentary exploring the erosion of privacy enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 – is also created by Biain. Similarly, it portrays the negative and oppressive forces that intrude on our privacy. In attempting to understand what privacy is and how it is encroached upon the documentary links the erosion of article 12 to the growth of laws that have promoted national state security over individual rights since the 9/11 attacks and 7/7 bombings. Ironically, it is London which is held up in the film as being the most intrusive city in the world.

Formed against a backdrop of decades of turmoil caused by totalitarian regimes, article 12 created a legal notion of privacy that is based on opposition to totalitarianism. As if to assuage any doubts that it is this notion of privacy that is the director’s focus the penultimate scene of the documentary blazes the words “REMEMBER ARTICLE 12” across the cinema screen.

But this is only part of the story. During the Q&A session that followed the film many more complex issues surrounding the concept were discussed. The fact, for example, that privacy is now not only a real world phenomenon but also a digital one. So too the role of corporations and their unprecedented ability to collate, share and use data about our private lives. But most importantly perhaps, is the role of ourselves not just as complicit in this process but as over eager to partake in the real and especially digital world that come into direct conflict with traditional definitions of privacy as defined in article 12.

Ticket and program information for the London International Documentary Festival can be found at: http://www.lidf.co.uk/