The art world may soon see the end of techno-utopianism. At least, that’s the impression I got from an afternoon of well-attended panels at Pratt’s PHATT-B digital arts fest on Saturday. Net art savants tended to express optimism about sharing and expression– but often, couched in a more realistic understanding of the Internet’s industrial and social fallout.
Andrew Norman Wilson’s video “Workers Leaving the Googleplex,” a clinical examination of Google’s “fourth class” of workers, is a good example. I walked in at the beginning, when Wilson’s voiceover described his own observations as a “red-level” contractor, producing Google video content. Over security-style footage of workers milling around campus, he reads:
The workers wearing yellow badges were not allowed any of the privileges that I was allowed: ride the Google bikes, take the Google luxury limo shuttles home, eat free gourmet Google meals, or set foot anywhere else on campus, except for the building they work in. They also are not given backpacks, thumb drives, or any chance for social interaction with other Google employees. Most Google employees don’t know about the yellow badge class.
Most yellow badge-rs, he says, are people of color, and each of two video windows is bordered with colored stripes, indicating the percentages of each class. About 3/8s are white, for “full-time Googlers”; nearly 1/8th is red, for contractors; 1/100 is green, for interns. Yellow fills an entire border on a second video window, for the fourth class, or “Scan-Ops.” Wilson notes that these workers are the equivalent of digital janitors, who work in an “extremely confidential” factory on campus, and supposedly, scan books all day, every day, for Google books. Wilson reports that he was caught taping the factory, and was promptly fired. The revelation– that Google’s white homepage masks all of the real class and racial injustice, on which it depends– was hard to forget.
Apparently the consequences of digital living were on at least a few panelists’ minds. Artist Lance Wakeling’s videos examine the Industrial no-mans’ lands that often surround data centers. Similarly, for his project “Field Visits for Chelsea Manning,” Wakeling travelled around the world to locate the physical, but often, hidden infrastructure of the Internet. Wakeling’s project shared many of the issues raised in Metahaven’s essay “Captives of the Cloud,” a look at how governments have wielded excessive power over data centers. Considering how governments and companies make quiet DDoS attacks all the time, on data which they physically hold and hide, the ideals of Internet freedom seem absurdly delusional.
You could compare Internet delusions to drugs, as they’re seen in Jon Cohrs’s “Alviso’s Medicinal All-Salt” project. Cohrs takes runoff water from pharmaceutical companies and distills the sludge into a white, powdered, “cure-all” salt. Since most drugs don’t fully break down, and inevitably end up in our sewer system, our public waterways are now a pharmaceutical cocktail.
Also focusing on unseen consequences, curator Karen Archey spoke about how Harm van den Dorpel’s “ethereal others” project truly made her understand how it feels to be surveilled. In his 2008 project etherealself.com, Dorpel’s site allowed people to see themselves in a diamond frame; in his 2009 project etherealothers.com, Dorpel published a massive grid of images he’d secretly been grabbing through visitors’ webcams. Etherealothers.com is a seemingly-endless grid of lone faces looking into their computers, often, from beds. I personally find the project interesting because it’s a slice of the New York and European art worlds (several faces on-screen were also in the PHATT-B audience and panel), and the image is far lonelier, and less professional, than the one we see from blogs and social media.
New media documentarian Jonathan Minard eloquently summed up that discrepancy (being online, versus being in the world and on a computer) in the following panel. He described his fascination with the Internet like the game Myst, “a map of the world exceeding the size and limits of the world itself.” Beautiful. He also loves how hacking communities and social media encourage creative sharing, something he doesn’t see from the New York filmmaking community. On the other hand, Minard feels that being online all week makes him even thirstier for film and literature offline, what he called (paraphrasing here) “a richness which simply can’t be replaced.” It was refreshing acknowledgement after a year of hearing New Aesthetic creator James Bridle sneer at the smell of books, and insist that we all plunge headfirst into the digital realm.
If your understanding of net art is that it fetishizes the Internet, PHATT-B might have changed your mind. Several of the following panelists made even more direct online interventions, almost in protest to the endless stream of media. In their keynote, Eva and Franco Mattes (0100101110101101.ORG) showed us clips from their project “No Fun,” in which Franco pretended to be hanged by the neck in the corner of his studio, and then put a webcam on himself. The Mattes then went on Chatroulette. Reactions ranged from shock, to laughter, to, in one case, playing a mourning song on the guitar. Franco felt that “No Fun” was an attempt to pause the “endless flux of information and communication” online– though frequently, Chatrouletters took a quick photo and moved on.
“No Fun” was just one of a few protests against the garbage and waste that’s hidden by sleek browsers. Down the hall in the exhibition “Phatt Space”, Jeremy Bailey makes a sickeningly peppy spiel for his facial recognition technology, “The Future of Television,” in which he’s mapped triangular shards of YouTube videos to the planes of his face. “I’m coming to you live from Silver Spring, Maryland, where I just got married!” he announces. “I’m supposed to be on a honeymoon, but of course, Omar, the curator– who was in attendance at the wedding– asked me, hey Jeremy, you’re a famous new media artist, surely you could ignore your nuptials and your honeymoon and make a new work of art for me? Of course I can!” He then explains that mapping YouTube videos on his face is “really about sharing,” because “liking” videos is about using self-expression as a billboard for advertising. By smiling over and over again, Bailey flips through the channels on his face, American flags, lips, sexy women, the whole nine yards. It’s great, and horrifying.
And finally, there’s Anthony Antonellis’s “Document,” a printer which ceaselessly spews out densely colored, CMYK glitch-style prints, alongside larger, more “art” prints. As the prints pile up on the floor, you know somebody’s going to have to refill the ink cartridges soon. This could invoke a few different reactions; for me, this causes anxiety over wasting a precious resource, like printer ink. For my editor Paddy Johnson, it causes anxiety over the prospect of getting cut off from the flow of information, when she knows she has to power down her phone for a two-hour plane ride. Like “No Fun,” “Document” objects to the endless production of the Internet– and in doing so, unavoidably adds to the problem.