As I stood waiting at the 18th and Castro intersection for the bus which takes me to work, I noticed a man walk past on the other side of the street. The man was nude, save for a sheer white nylon which had been fashioned to perfectly cover his penis and scrotum (this can be attributed to San Francisco’s recent ban on public nudity, which, rather than deter, has emboldened the creative impulse of our nude populous.) 

Being a resident of San Francisco for the past three years, the casual nude did little to dissuade me from my routine of coffee in the commuting queue. What did catch my eye, however, was a clothed man following three steps behind, camera cocked in hand, the lens maybe two feet from the subject. The way the photographer was keeping in-toe with the nude man, following him from such a swift, close distance, and dodging any incoming obstacles in order to keep a perfect surveil of subject fascinated me. 

Vito Acconci, Following Piece, 1969
Vito Acconci, Following Piece, 1969

Were the two in tandem? In some sort of voyeur/exhibitionist tango that had been agreed upon beforehand? Was the photographer a stranger, seduced and pulled into the orbital allure of this absurdist quotidium? Or was this errant spy a taker of images? An archivist? A government plant attempting to create evidence to claim public nudity’s catastrophic effect on the community?

I became fascinated through these observations at the way that all artists engage in some sort of espionage. The relationship between the artist and the subject is always fraught with a power dynamic which is best when it shows itself, but many other discourses on art utilize the lexicon of the spy. Keywords cover dual ground: secrets, foreignness, forged identities, voyeurs and exhibitionists, disguises, gadgets, reconnaissance, research, war, dissent, peeping toms and Hollywood clichés of espionage… giving birth to the visual manifestation of these ideas, I sought to collect images which do them justice.

Vito Acconci, Following Piece, 1969
Vito Acconci, Following Piece, 1969

In 1969, Vito Acconci conceived of a project to document how the body occupies and moves through public space using scripted action. Following Piece dictated that for every day of one month, Acconci follow a different stranger until they entered a private space. The resulting documentation takes the form of photographs and charts, resembling Hollywood constructions of crime investigative offices. The piece itself questions our role as observers, the role of the individual in the public sphere and raises sharp questions and intuitions about the culture of fear which surrounds us in the present moment. Stranger danger, indeed.

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City, 2013
Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City, 2013

Liu Bolin uses the disguising apparatus to hide himself within Chinese cities. At once visually playful and arresting, the images speak to a higher notion of the invisibility of Chinese labor in the production of culture and its objects. Liu says of his process, “When applying makeup, I borrow a sniper’s method, to better protect myself and detect the enemy”1 The sniper that Bolin is referencing is Arnold Schwarzenegger, specifically, an image in which his face is covered in camo-colored war paint. Bolin’s war paint is bright and colorful and sometimes humorous, but his tactic to use invisibility to make visible is one that resonates, as we are still pondering why artists feel this overlap with the work of a spy.
David Vestal, Man Walking Under Neon Sign, West 22nd Street, 1958
David Vestal, Man Walking Under Neon Sign, West 22nd Street, 1958

What enemies has art made that it requires disguise, forgery, secrets? Or is the import in art its ability to blend, to mold and to seep beneath cracks and fissures in order to oust the double-agent antics of culture and power? I would argue for the latter, and seek solace in the former. That art still has the potential and the power to make enemies is somehow comforting. That art is able to challenge the culture industry, while existing within it, is a complicated game. A game suitable for a Hollywood thriller…

This post is in conjunction with an open source project on
If you have any images or ideas on the twinning of art and espionage, feel free to contribute here:

1 Bolin, Liu.


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