Annually, the Privacytopia arts festival will work with a new curator or curatorial team. The first edition of the arts festival welcomes Régine Debatty, a Belgian curator, blogger and art critic who lives in Turin, Italy. In 2004, she created we make money not art, a blog that has received numerous distinctions over the years, including two Webby awards and an honorary mention at the STARTS Prize, a competition launched by the European Commission to acknowledge “innovative projects at the interface of science, technology and art”.
We invited Régine to curate the Privacytopia festival, coming to Ghent, Belgium in March 2024, and asked her some questions about her mission, and her thoughts on the intersections of science, art and technology.
How did you come to work with Privacytopia?
That one is easy. Thierry Vandenbussche, Privacytopia’s artistic director contacted me. He had been following my work for a number of years and he believed I might do a good job at curating the Privacytopia exhibition. That was very brave of him.
With what mission are you approaching your work with Privacytopia? Can you tell us more about your involvement with the Festival?
The first mission I gave myself is to demonstrate the value of privacy. After all, why should we care about data protection when there is war on European soil, when the climate is heating up and when biodiversity is in decline? It some- times looks like privacy is the least of our worries. And to be honest, I’m more anxious about drying rivers and the mass extinction of species than I am about what Google knows about me. But even if there is a hierarchy in our concerns, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about having control over our online identity and personal information, it doesn’t mean that we should disregard people’s right not to have their life turned into (often obscure) sources of corporate profits, it doesn’t mean we should let the Marks, the Elons and the Jeffs of this world off the hook.
I’m also crudely pragmatic. We cannot fully control what the planet will be like in 10 or 20 years. We can, however, develop awareness and influence when it comes to data protection. We can defend out rights and push back against any -big or small- product and innovation that threatens our autonomy, freedom of expression or ethical standards.
Speaking of pushing back… Another key interest of mine that will permeate the whole exhibition is the resistance that citizens, artists, activists and other citizens deploy in order to reclaim privacy online and elsewhere. By exploring legal loopholes, by devising tools that distract and deceive algorithms, by hijacking consumer electronics, by mapping and countermapping the physical infrastructures that make our digital existence possible, etc.
I’d also like to look at the meaning of privacy outside of our (seemingly) comfortable EU realm. What does surveillance look like in authoritarian countries? How do Palestinians defend their digital agency against online surveillance? How do Chinese people carve out and preserve spaces for dissent and debates? What does privacy mean for a refugee who resorts to burning their fingerprints and their passport in order to get another shot at a dignified life? Another topic I’m keen to explore is the environmental and social cost of all that data exploitation. What is the carbon footprint of “addiction by design”? Why are the people who train the algorithms often working in excolonised countries? How can we accept that the people who moderate the content we post on social media suffer from PTSD? What will we have to do in the future to ensure that our thoughts remain ours? And conversely, it is also critical to look at who is being left out. When the elderly gentleman next door cannot fill in his tax returns on- line because he doesn’t own a smartphone or a laptop, what consequences does it have on his sense of belonging in society?
The list above is far from being exhaustive. And these are still early days, I am hoping I will further refine the whole approach in the runup to the exhibition. Not on my own, but with the help of the artists we will invite to the festival. And with the help of the people in Ghent. One element that emerged during the first discussions with cultural actors in the city was a desire to involve local communities right from the start.
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your work? What inspires you?
Olala! Long story! My background is in linguistics. I studied Classics at university. Then I worked mostly in cinema, radio and TV in Belgium, Spain and Italy. In 2004, I started blog- ging and I will probably never want to stop blogging. The blog is my anchor. That’s where people find out about my work and that’s why they invite me to write texts for exhibition catalogues, teach masterclasses in art schools, give lectures in conferences, run radio shows, etc. Or curate exhibitions.
What inspires me is feeling like an eternal student. I discover something new every single day. Through artworks and through discussions with brilliant and creative people, I not only learn about the scientific and technological innovations but I also get to think about their less advertised ethical, cultural or political dimensions. Some positive, others decidedly more unsettling. In the process, my ideas and pre- conceptions are being constantly challenged and questioned. As a result, I’ll never feel like an expert but I still believe that I am in a very privileged position.
How important is it to talk about the way art- ists, hackers and designers use science and technology as a medium for critical discussion?
Very important. Technology plays a massive role in our everyday life. We shouldn’t leave it in the sole hands of its developers, manufacturers and promoters.
Media and education are already doing a good job at raising awareness around important issues related to artificial intelligence, neurotechnology, at-home genetic testing, cyberstalking, transhumanism, conspiracy theories, media literacy, biases in face recognition technology, etc. And yet, I’m not sure that we give these questions the attention that they deserve. We are facing a narration challenge. That is where art comes in. If deployed effectively (which is usually the role of curators, art producers or members of cultural institutions), art has the power to articulate complex technological challenges, myths, ramifications and promises in a way that speaks to our imagination and emotions.
We need artists, hackers and designers to engage with science and technology in order to stir us into debates and actions.
However, I also believe that for art to have an impact and be truly relevant, it needs to weave a closer connection with the so-called ‘broader public’. Art shouldn’t be the apanage of an elite that has the financial means and the inclination to spend time in an art fair or a gallery. Art should get out of institutions and meet the public. There’s no other way for it to demonstrate its power to act politically and socially in the world, to connect with communities and provide them with an affective experience. That’s why the exhibition is going to be spread around the city. Sometimes in unexpected places. Some of the events of the festival will even take place in the streets, will be playful and will truly engage with diverse audiences. At least that’s what I hope.
What role does data protection play in your life, especially refer- ring to your art and media?
My main entry point into data protection has been labour. My dad was a unionist and I often wonder how he would have responded to the slow erosion of privacy in the work place. But in general, data protection is complex and exciting. You and I keep on having to reevaluate its scope and significance in the light of the latest technological shifts. Legislation notoriously lags behind innovation. That’s why artists, but also organisations like the Privacy Salon and events like CPDP, have a crucial role to play: they detect the risks and flaws as they emerge and they raise awareness about them before appropriate legislation can actually be formulated and implemented.