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Public Secrets

I am really good at keeping secrets. Do you have a burning secret to tell? Come and whisper it in my ear. Don't worry I won't tell anyone, I will just tell everyone.

produced by: Jesse Wolpert


We live in an age where very little can be kept secret anymore. Through the internet and social media people reveal their lives and thoughts in the public domain. We are constantly bombarded by personal revelations and the forced unveiling of private information: big-brother-like reality televsion shows, podcasts of real-life therapy interactions, recordings of politicians private conversations, leaked personal data and intercepted messages and phone calls.

Public Secrets is an installation that plays with the meaning of privacy. It skews and distorts a private and intimate interaction of trust and makes it public and visible for all to see. 

On one wall a hidden face solicits and encourages users to come close and whisper a secret into a disembodied ear. In this act of release, the users are promised secrecy and confidentiality. 

On a separate wall users are beckoned over to a mouth that will whisper a secret in their ear. The secrets are the same secrets that have been told to the ear previously, and they are related loudly enough in a whisper for all to hear.

Concept and background research

I am fascinated by the relationship between our individual private worlds and our public-facing image. The idea for the Public Secret istallation came from an experience I had a with a trainee therapist. Part of their training required that they audio record all of our sessions. I often worried about what would happen if the recordings were made public, how I would feel and what might be the consequences. I wanted to try to recreate this feeling with an installation that deliberately revealed your deepest secrets.

My research originally focussed around confession boxes. I wanted to subvert the idea of confession being a private act and to bring it into the public domain. I was strongly drawn to the confession box aesthetic and spent some time creating an altar for secrets that required the user to kneel to receive and give a secret.

Having experimented with my first confession box prototype and tested it on some people, I felt uncomfortable about the religious connotations and the convoluted messages I felt it transmitted. I had seen the work of Mark Dion at the Whitechapel Gallery and was impressed by his piece 'Theatre of the Natural World'. His representations of natural environments using the techniques of scientific enquiry led me to opt for a much simpler and more natural visual interaction, playing more with the idea of walls having eyes and ears. My final piece represents a a wall that has been violently punched through by the underlying eye, mouth and ear. The face hidden behind the wall has aggressively entered into our world and is demanding you give and receive a secret.

The 'secret-giver' and the 'secret-getter' are hidden and invisible until someone comes close to the installation. They reflect the nature of real world secrets that are hidden until they are passed on or uncovered by others. The face gradually appears as the user approaches, and becomes more and more visible and demanding. In this way both the visual and aural inputs mirror the way a secret grows and gradually becomes part of the public knowledge.



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This installation was coded in the Openframeworks and Arduino environments. Both the secret-giver and the secret-getter are attached to an Arduino with a time of flight sensor. The sensor is placed unobtrusively behind a hole in the card that obscures the screen. The sensor indicates when someone is standing in front of the installation and how far they are away. The sensor value becomes zero when they put their head very close to the virtual ear or mouth of the installation. This sensor information is sent via serial to Openframeworks, where it is used to control the pausing and transparency of the video images, the playing of the whispered secrets and the recording of the new secrets. In order to record the secrets I was able to use the ofxLibsandfileRecorder library created by Angelo Semeraro. For the time of flight distance sensor, that communicates through I2C, I used the Adafruit VL53L0X library. 

The biggest challenge was to hide the sensors so that they were not visible to the viewer. I have tried placing them in a number of different positions and finally chose to place them behind the curled back card that sits in front of the screen. The code for this iteration of the project is relatively simple and when I develop this project further I will create a more complex and complete interaction between the video footage and the user actions.

Future development

There are many ways in which this project could be developed further in the future:

  • Use computer vision to track the viewer positions with a greater degree of granularity and accuracy
  • Change the aesthetic of the interface using a mash-up of many different eyes/mouths/ears. 
  • Add a mechanism to physically open and close the holes that reveal the video image.
  • Link the collected secrets directly to the secret teller - this would require some analysis of the recordings to censor any inappropriate recordings.
  • Use video of famous secret tellers/givers. Spys, whistle-blowers, politicians, religious figures and psychotherapists.
Self evaluation

I originally had a very different project proposal that involved filming a swimming pool and diving board. That work turned out to be impossible to achieve in the amount of time available. I hope to encorporate that original project idea into my final MA project  instead. This 'replacement' project was therefore done in haste and is consequently not as developed as I would have liked. If I had more time I would have worked on a more coherent interaction between the viewer and the 'secrets-wall' that would have accounted for more complex viewer behaviour. 

Although I was very short of time, I feel the installation has worked well and has a good mix of the thoughtfulness and the playfulness that I was trying to achieve. This feels like the first iteration of a project that could grow into a much bigger, more complex and satisfying piece of work.



  • Secret recording code from Angelo Semeraro:
  • Arduino Code using Time of Flight sensor Adafruit_VL53L0X


  • Mark Dion, Theatre of the Natural World.
  • Christine Clinckx, Walking confession box
  • Candy Change, Confessions.
  • RNR Associates.