San Francisco

Jill Miller

[ 2nd floor projects ]

Jill Miller’s “Collectors” generated waves of anxiety among Bay Area art patrons recently. The exhibition consisted of surveillance videos, photographs, and related sculptural objects gleaned from a six-month period during which the artist and a team of assistants trailed local patrons without their knowledge. In a National Enquirer–style tabloid that accompanied the show, Miller reveals that she trained with a licensed private investigator to learn the fine art of the stakeout. For the purposes of the exhibition, her use of the skill yielded bulletin boards of blurry photographs, articles (with names redacted), Post-it notes, and lengths of string linking images and handwritten observations. Repeating, though unnamed, figures are seen unloading shopping bags, dining in restaurants, and mingling in art-opening crowds.

At 2nd Floor Projects, three hanging video monitors played mundane footage shot from a car parked outside homes and art spaces. Surveillance Video #2 (March–October 2007) (all works 2007), the most engaging of the tapes, documents, among other things, the shaded front steps of a collector’s home during a party attended by artists, collectors, dealers, curators, writers (myself included), and neighbors. For those in the know, the edited footage had a gamelike component (identify those on the guest list), and instilled a slight feeling of being duped—the photographs reveal that the camera was inside a car parked across the street.

A subtext of the work is the exclusionary nature of the art world—Miller portrayed that equation with politically charged wit and not so veiled resentment: The artist/detective was invisible to her subjects, at least until word of the show spread through the collector circuit. The work also limns a contemporary social condition in which we are all legally accessible through online searches and cell-phone cameras, yet remain out of focus as actual people. All the material gathered here adds up to very little in terms of a recognizable picture of the subjects or even as a disturbing invasion of privacy—so ubiquitous are both security cameras and art-world aspirations.

These themes, along with ideas about potential truths buried in mediated imagery, have been consistent in Miller’s work. For Waiting for Bigfoot, 2005, for example, she set up a campsite with twenty-four-hour video cameras in the hope of capturing an image of the mythical beast (the convergence of art, nature, and legend evoking Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, 1977). And in The Cupcake Project, 1999–2001, she delved into the semi-participatory realm of internet voyeurism by posing as a pigtailed schoolgirl engaging in wienie roasts and Girl Scout romps for a potentially pervy users’ group. With “Collectors,” Miller reflects a cultural moment awash in ambivalent public exposure, as embodied by the documentation of Britney Spears’s every mundane move, simultaneously condemning and courting the publicity machine. Ironically, one of the unnamed but high-profile art couples trailed by Miller had their private Napa Valley gallery lavishly—and by mutual consent—profiled in the New York Times during the run of this exhibition.

At a moment when collectors and curators are taking on increasingly public profiles—their activities at auctions, art fairs, and biennials are reported on ad nauseam—and when notions of privacy and legislation concerning it are in dispute, Miller’s subject is ripe. The project, though, verges on being a timely prank more than enduring art—unlike, say, Sophie Calle’s The Shadow, 1981, in which Calle was the subject. Part of the problem is Miller’s role as artist, which actually grows most troublesome and ambiguous with the inclusion of discrete objects. One of these, titled get in bed with the *********, consists of some pillows and a blanket imprinted with photos of collectors’ cars and a grand residential exterior, artworks tailored to enter the collection of Miller’s subjects. It is ultimately a sales strategy, but it’s unclear whether anyone’s buying.

Glen Helfand