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Dries Verhoeven with the projected Grindr messagesDries Verhoeven via Facebook

Artist causes outrage with public broadcast of Grindr PMs

Dries Verhoeven is projecting other people's private Grindr texts in the middle of Kreuzberg, Berlin – and many aren't too happy about it

What would you do if you arranged a Grindr hook-up, only to turn up at the guy's address and realise that he was broadcasting your PMs in a public square as part of an art performance? Because that's exactly what happened to Parker Tilghman, a Berlin photographer who was approached by "Dries" on the dating app. 

Tilghman says that he wasn't that into 'Dries', a bearded slim man who said he was "exploring the undiscovered areas of Grindr" on his profile. But he was intrigued by Dries' unusual request for Tilghman to shave his beard, and set off for the man's address on Heinrichplatz in the centre of Kreuzberg, Berlin.

"Are you going to murder me?" Tilghman typed. Dries replied: "No, but I'm afraid you might be the one to murder me."

As Tilghman got out of the U-Bahn station, he saw what looked like an glass-walled shipping container on the pavement with projections on its walls. Walking over, he realised that his entire Grindr conversation with Dries had been blown up and projected on a huge LED wall panel. Anybody walking down the busy street of Oranienstrasse could effectively read all of Tilghman's private messages to Dries. 

"I would not consider myself an angry or explosive person, but I lost it," Tilghman says. "I opened the trailer and lunged at him. I punched him. I screamed. I flipped a table." 

Tilghman had unknowingly become the latest participant in "Wanna Play?", a live art installation by Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven. For the past two days, Verhoeven has been living in a glass trailer in Kreuzberg in order to – as he puts it on his website – "expose the opportunities and tragedies of a phenomenon in gay culture: the sex date app". 

"'Wanna Play?' is a social experiment," Verhoeven writes in an article on the piece. "For 15 days my life will only take place online. I will contact men in my vicinity and attempt to induce them into visiting me to satisfy my nonsexual needs. I will play chess with them, have breakfast, make pancakes, trim nails… I see this container as a research laboratory in which I will investigate the degree to which the internet can serve as a new meeting point."

In the process, Verhoeven is also projecting the screen of his smartphone for anybody to read – and that includes the profiles and private messages of anybody who contacts him on Grindr. Oh, and he's live streaming it 24/7, too. 

Needless to say, Tilghman was not impressed after he realised he had been set up. "I screamed how dare you, you are violating people's lives, you are publicly mocking people and projecting the pictures and words onto a screen that an entire city block in one of the busiest parts of Kreuzberg for everyone to see," he says.

Berlin avant-garde performance centre Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) commissioned "Wanna Play?" with the support of the Dutch embassy. They say that the LED software blurs out any profile pictures and is meant to censor profile names. Tilghman maintains that he was still recognisable in the image anyway, and that his Grindr name was broadcast too. 

"I feel so violated I am having trouble formulating the words to describe it," Tilghman writes in a Facebook post reflecting on the experience. "How can you ethically project conversations that are considered private to the other person, when they have no knowledge of what you are doing?"

He says he isn't embarrassed at being caught on Grindr; he's furious. "Gays require safe spaces to exist in," he explains. "Granted, Grindr is not exactly a 'safe space', but it is a space for us to communicate our desires and needs. In this digital world, it's one of the few safe spaces we have. (Verhoeven) is violating that."

Tilghman's post on Facebook has since gone viral, with outraged Berliners questioning the legality and ethics behind Verhoeven's performance piece. Many have taken to Verhoeven and the HAU Facebook pages to express their anger. 

An HAU spokesperson confirmed that they had received complaints regarding "Wanna Play?" but declined to state how many. The representative noted that the centre had not received any complaints in the first three days before Tilghman's Facebook post, but are now waiting on Dries to issue an statement regarding the piece. They confirmed that Tilghman has threatened HAU with legal action for violation of privacy. 

"The project is led by Dries and we need something by Dries first to find an artistic response," the HAU spokesperson said. "We're trying to contact Dries at the moment. He doesn't want to be in contact with the outside world apart from Grindr."

UPDATE: Verhoeven has responded to the complaints on his Facebook page. "I find it regrettable that people actually feel their privacy has been infringed upon," he writes. "I find the opposition exemplary in a time in which we, as homosexuals, are once again hiding and choosing to express our sexual feelings in (apparent) anonymity. That anonymity is, I believe, a myth."

"Everyone who loads Grindr or a comparative app on their smartphone can see the photos and profiles. In the agreement with Grindr uses have to accept that their information will also be viewable without having to be registered (from the agreement: 'You acknowledge that some of the Grindr Services may be accessed… Without the need to register an account')."

You can read his whole statement here.

UPDATE: Grindr has sent us this statement, describing "Wanna Play?" as "entrapment" and encouraging users to flag Verhoeven's profile:

"While Grindr support the arts, what Dries Verhoeven is doing by luring Grindr users under false pretenses is entrapment. This is an invasion of user privacy and a potential safety issue. We encourage other users to report his profile by using the 'flag' function on our app, so we can take action to ban the user. Together, we will work to keep these users out of our Grindr community.”

HAU issued a press statement this afternoon which says "it is by no means the intention of the artist or of HAU Hebbel am Ufer to take part in any kind of outing whatsoever."

It continues: "Since Friday all of the photos being shown have been blurred to the point of complete unrecognisability. In addition, in his profile on the Smartphone apps, Dries Verhoeven is now making it clear that his chat partners are taking part in an artwork located in public by requesting their consent in advance."

"No one should find himself in a situation through the digital contact with Dries Verhoeven that is not based on mutual agreement."