Artist’s Grindr-based installation closed over privacy concerns

Whatever point Dries Verhoeven meant to make was overshadowed by outrage. 

Mar 1, 2020, 7:50 pm*



Miles Klee

If invasions of privacy were art, NSA headquarters would be the world’s best-guarded museum. Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven’s latest project wasn’t of quite the same scale as mass surveillance, but it did engender a fiery backlash that eventually imploded the piece for good.

The controversial installation, Wanna Play?: Love in the Time of Grindr, was mounted as a collaboration with Hebbel am Ufer, a theater in Berlin. The concept actually seems pretty cool, at first: Verhoeven sat in a glass cage in a city square and surfed Grindr, inviting users to join him in his trailer for non-sexual encounters—a conversation about childhood dreams, or a pancake breakfast, or a game of chess. The performance was meant to last 15 days.

Where Verhoeven ran into trouble was in projecting all his Grindr activity onto the walls of his temporary dwelling. The people he chatted with had their photos slightly blurred, with the colors negatively flipped, though apparently some could be identified regardless, as no other detailed were edited or obscured. Dazed & Confused quoted an unwitting participant who, having arrived at Verhoeven’s terrarium to find his private messages displayed, described it as “digital rape.” (His Facebook comments on the matter have since been deleted.)

After critics noted that Grindr’s anonymity is a major selling point for closeted gay or bisexual men, HAU made promises to further distort the images and guarantee that Verhoeven had explicit consent from the hookup app’s users before sharing their correspondence with the world. That didn’t stop one guy from trying to throw a brick through one of Verhoeven’s windows, however, and in the end the artist and institution decided to pull the plug.

Though Verhoeven harped on technical details and mistakes, opponents identified a troubling mentality in his early defense of Wanna Play? that lay close to the foundations of the work. 

They say great artists are ahead of their time; perhaps Verhoeven is a little too of it.

Photo by Amanda Hinault/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 8, 2014, 11:00 am