THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by K.A. Letts
When the World Wide Web was introduced to the world on August 6, 1991, most of us had no idea how it would change everything. In the 30 years since, the Internet has re-wired our brains in ways that were, while sometimes foreseeable, often completely unexpected.
To a startling degree, contemporary visual artists were enthusiastic early adopters of digital tools and online networks. The Internet has made it easy for creatives to research images, buy products and tools, and find a worldwide art audience. Graphic and animation programs, photographic capture technology and digital printing, to name only a few seductive new technologies, have transformed and enhanced existing analog skill sets. It has begun to dawn on us, though, that these marvelous digital gifts might come with some troubling strings attached. Social isolation, online bullying, political radicalization, and rampant conspiracy theories are only a few of the emerging downsides to our deepening interconnection on the web, now accelerated exponentially by the pandemic quarantine.
In their role as observers and creators of culture, a new generation working at the intersection of technology and art is examining the relationship of our analog embodied brains with the ever more encroaching digital environment. Three of them, all living and working in the Great Lakes region, make work that both describes this moment in our digital present and points to the possibilities and perils of our technological evolution.
Ben Grosser’s work pairs technological commentary with mischievous social observation. As a provocative Internet prankster and digital critic, the Chicago-based Assistant Professor of New Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign thinks about the social implications of software and how it conditions our experience of the world. His interactive experiences, machines, and systems reveal how digital software influences our behavior, sometimes for better but often for worse.
As Grosser said in a 2014 Hyperallergic interview,
Software is now involved in nearly every aspect of our daily lives. It runs our banks, our phones, our cars, our refrigerators. Software tells us how to get somewhere, answers our questions, and suggests which film or book we might like next. Yet most people not only don’t know how these systems work or why they do what they do, but they presume that software systems are neutral actors. This is a problem because software is not neutral—software comes with built-in biases from those who develop it, those who run the corporations who employ software developers, and increasingly, I would argue, its biases come from software itself.
His curiosity about how social media is subverting human psychology has prompted him to develop a series of “demetricators” for Twitter and Facebook and (more recently) TikTok. These web browser extensions hide the metrics that are embedded in social media platforms—the goal of these digital tools is to free us from our neurotic dependence on their “likes,” “followers,” and “notifications.” By making this data disappear, Grosser says, “Demetricator lets us try out Twitter without the numbers, to see what happens when we can no longer judge ourselves and others in metric terms.”
In 2018, David Zweig of the New Yorker tested the extension and reported back about its effect on him:
I saw a blank appear below my name as the three critical metrics—"Tweets," "Following," "Followers"—vanished. I felt an eerie calm: my paltry follower count was no longer there to taunt me... After three weeks of using the Demetricator, the nature of Twitter, for me, changed completely.
With his Demetricators, Grosser has deftly demonstrated how social media interfaces are insidiously designed to elicit certain responses. He has also shown that this isn’t how it has to be—that these harmful features can be changed to benefit our mental health.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic provided Grosser with ample opportunity to observe our Internet conduct in crisis. He’s noticed, in particular, how the constant drumbeat of bad news has engendered a practice now commonly known as “doomscrolling.” He has now designed his most recent commentary on the online media’s manipulation of our psychology: https://endlessdoomscroller.com/. He skewers our pandemic-induced compulsive reading of bad headlines, calling it “the result of a perfect yet evil marriage between a populace stuck online, social media interfaces designed to game and hold our attention, and the realities of an existential global crisis.”
Artist/hacker Abhishek Narula has leveraged a newly minted M.F.A. from the University of Michigan with a pair of degrees in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology to investigate our relationships with our personal devices and the shadowy entities that underlie them. In a video presentation from his M.F.A. thesis exhibit at Stamps Gallery in Ann Arbor, Michigan, last year, he described the basis for his art practice:
Whenever we go somewhere, whenever we go to a new city or a new place, the first thing we do is pull up Google Maps. We try to figure out where we are. We try to figure out where we’re going… There’s been this shift in how we use visual cues around us to locate ourselves in space… There’s this quote that I really like which says that in architecture, when we shape buildings, they end up shaping us. I think the same thing is true for the digital ecosystem that we find ourselves in today—the difference is, though, that our digital ecosystem is very invisible—we don’t see the radio waves or WiFi signals that are continuously around us.
Abhishek Narula, Sometimes I forget my phone gets lonely, 2020, smart phones, Google Maps, installation detail. Photo courtesy of Abhishek Narula.
In his 2020 interactive installation Sometimes I forget my phone gets lonely, he has addressed what wayfinding software such as Google Maps can tell us about where we are—or are not—in the world. Narula uses the technique of GPS spoofing (faking) to make it appear via Google Maps that he (and his phone) are traveling between the towns of Ely, Nevada, and Austin, Nevada, along a desolate stretch of Route 50, even though both phone and artist are, in fact, in a gallery thousands of miles away. As part of the artwork, he invites gallery visitors to text his phone and inquire as to his whereabouts; his phone responds with a picture of its “location” in the desert landscape sourced from Google’s Street View. In a video related to the installation, Narula muses, “What does it mean to be lonely today? Can we ever feel loneliness when we have GPS trackers in our back pockets? What would it look like to disconnect from these technologies?”
Narula describes a companion artwork, Map Jamming, as a “participatory intervention in navigation systems.” On entering the gallery, visitors can access Google Maps on their phones and are told to navigate to a prescribed spot on the map. Their phones appear to indicate that they are moving along a highway even as they remain physically in the gallery. Sometimes, if there are enough individuals in the space using the app, they can even make the software “think” there’s a traffic jam on a completely empty road.
Abhishek Narula, Map Jamming, 2020, smart phones, Google Maps, interactive gallery event photo.
Photo courtesy of Abhishek Narula.
A pervasive mood of isolation and dislocation resonates throughout Narula’s work. Travel has been a constant in his adult life, and one wonders whether his nomadic history has contributed to his interest in the fungible nature of physical location in the digital age. In an email, he says, “I grew up in India and moved to the U.S. when I was 18 in 2004. Since then, I have lived in more than 9 cities. I have always struggled with the idea of a ‘home’ and I have never really felt a deep connection to a place, town or even a country. It definitely influences how I see the world and especially the entanglement of technology, culture and society.”
Sophia Brueckner has always loved computers. In 2005, her love of the technology landed her a job at a then-obscure little company in Silicon Valley called Google, where she designed and wrote code for popular apps used by millions. By 2008, though, her digital romance had cooled as she became increasingly critical of flaws in how online technologies were being developed. In a scholarly essay, Brueckner observed,
Popular connective technologies are designed to be efficient, not to be meaningful. By fixating on making connecting with others as easy as possible, as social networking applications do now, connection is cheapened. In addition, when connecting requires so little effort, we are overwhelmed with such a quantity of signals that they turn into noise. Paradoxically, though these technologies promised to save us time and keep us close to others, the very same technologies are increasing feelings of loneliness and making us more distracted than ever.
She envisioned creating more ethically designed, human-friendly interfaces, and decided to apply her tech background to art, earning an M.F.A. in Digital+Media from Rhode Island School of Art and Design in 2012, followed by an M.S. in Media Arts and Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014. Now an assistant professor at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Brueckner is actively engaged in designing and prototyping devices for a more humane digital world.
Sophia Brueckner, Empathy Box, 2014, 14” x 7” x 6”, wood, bronze, acrylic, heaters, electronics.
Photo courtesy of Sophia Brueckner.
Brueckner has found inspiration for her inventions in science fiction, a literary genre that she describes as “an ethics class for inventors.” She maintains that science fiction writers are great extrapolative thinkers who are good at imagining the way in which technologies might play themselves out in the real world. The science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Phillip K. Dick, provided the creative basis for her functional artworks Empathy Box and a companion wearable, Empathy Amulet. The Empathy Box is a tabletop appliance, pleasantly retro in appearance, that uses shared physical warmth to connect with anonymous others. By grasping the handles, a user feels both the literal and metaphorical warmth of connection with another unknown person grasping a corresponding box in another location. The Empathy Amulet operates according to a similar principle, but asynchronously.
In her art practice, Brueckner aims to answer this question: “How can my work change what people believe is possible?” The originality and emotional warmth of her creative vision animates her ongoing investigation of naturally occurring supportive affinity groups online. She has found hopeful signs of shared human connection on the web in anonymous social networks, such as in the Amazon Kindle Popular Highlight algorithm and in the interaction of strangers all over the world engaged in the generous act of sharing videos of skies on YouTube. Brueckner notes that on a platform known for its toxicity, the interactions among the sky sharers exhibit only kindness and generosity.
In a recent lecture, Brueckner cautioned against what she calls techno-absolutism—the idea that given the right code, algorithms, and robots, technology can solve all of humanity’s problems. She advocates, instead, that both users and designers of devices and programs cultivate what she calls “a critically optimistic attitude” that will allow us to examine problems with existing technology and to imagine thoughtful solutions.
The new media artists profiled here display an impressive array of technical capabilities and a variety of insights about where we are right now in our relationship with all things digital. While the inter-connecting constellation of social media platforms, personal devices, and programs that makes up the current digital ecosystem can seem like an overwhelming Pandora’s box of both endless possibility and dystopian hazard, there’s something hopeful, even optimistic, in the way that Grosser, Narula, and Brueckner wrestle with the complexities of an evolving digital environment.
These artists have all observed that as we have shaped the technology, it has in turn shaped us. But they know, too, that what humans create, they can also change. Donna J. Haraway, a prominent scholar in the field of science and technology, says it well: “Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections—and it matters which ones get made and unmade.”
K.A. Letts is the Detroit editor of the New Art Examiner, a working artist (kalettsart.com) and art blogger (rustbeltarts.com). She has shown her paintings and drawing in galleries and museums in Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and New York. She writes frequently about art in the Detroit area.
Ben Grosser, endlessdoomscroller.com, 2020, alternative social media interface, GIF. File courtesy of Ben Grosser.
Ben Grosser, endlessdoomscroller.com, 2020, alternative social media interface, GIF
Sophia Brueckner, Captured by an Algorithm (ongoing series), 2012-present, porcelain plates, Kindle Popular Highlights from popular romance novels, scanned romance novel covers using Adobe Photoshop’s Photomerge algorithm. Photo courtesy of Sophia Brueckner.
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