We Spoke To The Artist Putting Photos Of Texting Drivers On Billboards
"TWIT Spotting: Texting-and-Driving Vigilante Exposes Distracted Bay Area Drivers" via
"TWIT Spotting: Public Shaming Used To Get Others To Stop Texting While Driving" via
"TWIT Spotting: Will This Form Of Public Shaming Stop Texting While Driving?" via
TWIT Spotting, Brian Singer's new artwork, is already under intense pressure from the public eye. Presumably, it will continue to blow up as the media continues to focus on wrong (or, obvious) aspects of the socially-minded project: terms like public shaming, vigilante, pivacy invasion, and exposé continue to be tossed around to describe Singer's process of taking photos of Bay Area residents texting-and-driving, and posting them on billboards and online. In reality, the project is more nuanced than the reasons for its public outcry:
Singer, known in the art world as Someguy, has previously focused on calling attention to social issues such as homelessness, and the rhetoric that surrounds what's good or bad for the economy. "We should be asking what's good or bad for people," Singer says.
In many ways, TWIT (Texting While In Traffic) Spotting is a continuation of his earlier artworks. The artistic statement on his site states that he explores "visual representation of information, attempting to uncover new meaning," and this endeavor does just that.
Over the course of many a standard Bay Area commute, Singer began noticing several patterns: "I'd see the same things—buildings, and billboards, and then people distracted while driving," he told The Creators Project. He started taking photos of these texting drivers (only while he was sitting in the passenger's seat, of course). After amassing enough evidence of this distracted driving, Singer purchased ad space on a few billboards throughout the Bay Area, and posted his findings. On such a large and confrontational scale, it's a pretty meta exhibit: by magnifying a localized behavioral misstep on the same roads where these transgressions are taking place, Singer was able to turn distracted driving into a medium with a message. Finally, he began a website in order to expand on the sharing of these pictures, alongside facts about the dangers of distracted driving.
While the project is undoubtedly provocative, even shocking for those who find their unwanted images on billboards, it is equally undoubtedly an interesting experiment in socially-mediated artwork. TWIT Spotting essentially both creates shared public artifacts and sparks a dialogue about a prevalent, preventable problem. While Singer might be invading a bit of privacy in the process, but his goal is ultimately to enact net change by starting necessary conversations.
We spoke with Brian Singer about his goals for this project, and why people fail to notice its subtleties at work.
The Creators Project: How would you describe this project? Is it "art" or something else?
Brian Singer: That’s a great question. I feel like as an artist I do a lot of projects that are trying to raise awareness or instigate a reaction—whether it's participatory or force people to respond and think. I would say this is a socially-minded art project.
The juxtaposition was based on the fact that as I was commuting as a passenger, I was commuting on the same route and I'd see the same things—buildings and billboards. First, I was noticing how distracted everyone was and I began documenting it. As I amassed this collection of photos—I thought I'd put it up on a wesbite. Plus, the fact that I was passing the same billboards struck me and seemed like the right platform.
Did you pay for the billboard space out of your own pocket?
I did pay for the billboards. I contacted some campaigns for distracted driving, but was contacting them through the contact info on their websites, so I wasn’t sure if I was getting through to anyone. A lot of those were just emails sent out into the ether. I tried reaching out to the AdCouncil, for example. Also, the California Office for Traffic Safety and the Impact Teen Drivers campaign.
Do you think people fully understand your goals with this project? I keep noticing the terms "public shaming" and "privacy invasion" used while describing TWIT Spotting.
I think people are taking this very literally, as I suppose most people in general would. They're asking is this a good idea, is this a bad idea? People aren’t necessarily focusing on the juxtaposition of people on phones and people on a billboard on phones.
In 2012, I was doing a project where I put images of President Obama and Mitt Romney on Pepsi and Coke cans, respectively, each with their names displayed in the brands' font. The response I got back was "I hate Romney but I love Coke," rather than anything about this being commentary on the two party system and the branding of such a system. I think the public misses these type of nuances.
Why do you think people respond strongly to the "privacy invasion" aspect?
I think part of the ability to generate interest and public reaction is that the work is unexpected or provocative. I think some have reacted to this as an invasion of privacy, but it will be a different story if someone in one of the photos contacts me and lawyers get involved.
Do you think the artistic aspects of Twit Stopping are noticeable without someone being familiar with your work? Is there a reason you shared this under the name Brian Singer, rather than Someguy?
I was doing a lot of work under Someguy and something that I noticed was that the folks I interacted with on either the blogosphere or in the press felt it was inauthentic and it was more brave for me to say I'm doing this. When I was sharing TWIT Spotting, it seemed more effective if it wasn’t a weird artist name I was hiding behind, and was just me saying I’m doing this, I think it’s important, what do you guys think?
All the headlines are about shaming and vigilantism, but it’s not what I’m centered on. I understand that this is what it’s effectively doing or what it appears to be doing. For me, it’s a beautiful juxtaposition of something confrontational in a public space and something that people wouldn’t expect on a billboard. I think it’s also about raising awareness about this behavior.
What have some of the responses been like so far?
There’s been a huge positive response. Obviously a lot of negative replies, too, but I think most of us have driven distracted at some point. Some of the reaction and even anger is over the, Why are you shaming me for something we all do? cop out.
It’s not just about the art project. I’m looking to facilitate a behavioral change in people. If people are getting more aware and are doing something less because they saw this project, is it all worth it? Absolutely. The grander goal is to have people paying more attention and driving safer.
Will the images of people texting be displayed elsewhere besides the TWIT Spotting website and on the billboards?
Not yet. A couple people have asked about that through email and I don’t have current plans. I’ve been inundated with the photos other people have taken of distracted drivers. Should I resurface them? Every photo I’ve taken has been shot while I was a passenger and on a freeway. It might dilute the initial quality and integrity if I start including countless other photos—or it might increase the impact or increase the awareness. Is it helpful to have 10,000 photos of texting drivers? I don't have the answer yet.
I feel that this project has certain goals similar to The 100 Journals Project—it's a shared artifact and relates to what's good or bad for people. Do you think this is a continuation or split from your earlier work?
I think a lot of the projects I've done—say the homelessness project, or the economy project—they’re about social behavior and calling attention to certain things. People ask, is x good or bad for the economy? They should be asking, is this good or bad for people? Similarly, it's so easy to stop paying attention to homelessness, I even stopped and that bothered me. I wanted to call attention to this and raise awareness to others about the same things I was noticing.
TWIT Spotting is falling in the same family as those. I want people to consider something they haven’t considered in a while because it’s so common due to its frequency.
What is your ultimate goal with this project?
What I would love is for one of the organizations who are passionate about this to help me. We'd focus on impacting teenage drivers. How can we expand this beyond what I can do? What if the AdCouncil got involved or a cell phone company or an insurance company? We might lose the localized aspect and diminished the neighborhood-focused nuances, but it could have a greater effect on behavior overall, which is ultimately the end goal.
For more information on Singer's project, see TWIT Spotting's website.