Finally, a Photography Exhibition that Deals with Our Relationship to Data
Photography is embedded in the core of our interactions, our self-description and our systems of security and commerce. From individually-tailored banner-ads to instant feedback of photo apps, and from retina-tracking software to sex-at-the-tip-of-a-right-swiping-finger, the photographic medium is in fluid, decentralized and almost omni-present use.
Ever since its invention, photography has accelerated at exponential pace toward barely imaginable futures and technical employ — self-driving cars, cameras that feed behavior prediction software, images of Pluto, from Pluto. So advanced are our capabilities to make, manipulate and process images that “Photography” is no longer an adequate term to describe the (digital) visual culture in which we operate. Perhaps, technical images and technical image-making might be better terms? Maybe, in the future, those terms will be swapped out for robotic image-making, or AI image-manufacture?
Not only are more-and-more cameras wrested from human hands, photography is increasingly initiated beyond human consciousness. We’ve been in the age of image automation for a long time. It’s overdue we accept the fact.
Forcefully embracing the fact of image automation is DATA RUSH, the 2015 Noorderlicht Photofestival centerpiece exhibition, and a stunning work of disruption and curation.
DATA RUSH helps us orient ourselves to images that are code, no longer chemicals. In fact, the exhibition presses and skewers the dominance of machine-made images. Not only are the stark facts of surveillance, encroachment and modified human perception brought to the fore, but DATA RUSH double-backs to gather artists’ responses to these inconvenient 21st century truths.
How do we make sense of a world in which machines outstrip humans’ ability to create, codify and index imagery by orders of magnitude. In content and in scale, DATA RUSH is deeply unsettling. In total, 45 artists are represented. This is a larger than usual number for a photography gathering and yet these several dozen portfolios are but a drop in the ocean compared to the vast reservoirs of zeros and ones stored globally on servers, networks and clouds.
Some of the usual suspects crop up in DATA RUSH — Hasan Elahi is still self-surveilling so the FBI needn’t bother; Nate Larson & Marni Shindelman continue to prove that good photographers can make good images anywhere by revisiting the locations of strangers’ tweets; Mari Bastashevski’s investigations into the private big-data surveillance industry remains as bold and labyrinthine as ever; Josh Begley’s data visualization of state power (in this case New York Police Department monitoring of Muslim-owned businesses) is as direct and unapologetic as ever; and Doug Rickard is still screen-grabbing.
Lisa Barnard’s look at U.S.-stationed drone pilots’ “whiplash transition” between killing people half-a-world away and sitting down for a family meal in the same day remains potent; and finally, why the heckers has Cristina DeMiddel’s Poly-Spam, from 2009, still got legs? Well, probably because it is cheeky, puts a “face” to scam emails and because spam still hasn’t gone away.
James Bridle is another familiar name, but his recent project Seamless Transitions perhaps less so. It is fantastic. Continuing his interest in the infrastructures and systems of state power, Bridle used standard architectural forms and eye witness testimony to plan and scale airport terminals and dentition centers used by immigration authorities in the UK. A partner architectural from then rendered these plans into 3D virtual reality models through which gallery-goers can “move.” The project demonstrates not only what we don’t see but the extent of expertise upon which we must draw in order to “see.”
Venturing down the DATA RUSH roster is one long assault on everything we thought was natural order. The amount of deeply-researched and conceptually rigorous projects stands out. By design or not, curators Wim Melis and Hester Keijser have created something nothing short of terrifying. We’re sleepwalking through the new digital era.
“We let ourselves drift on the Internet, and take little notice of how inextricably our online and offline lives have become intertwined,” writes Keijser in the the exhibition catalogue. “The digital realm has come to feel as natural as the air we breathe, likewise consumed with a peculiar forgetfulness of its presence and source.”
The only respite we have from the anxiety-ridden territory DATA RUSH maps are “playful” projects such as Kurt Caviezel’s Animals, a series of webcam grabs of insects and birds interrupting the feed; or Max Colson’s Friendly Proposals for Highly Controlling Environments, a push for less-threatening surveillance apparatus; and David Howe & Anita Cruz-Eberhard’s Security Blankets, large fleece wraps printed with the images returned by a web search for “security.”
Don’t get comfy though, Fernando Moleres’ straight documentary of Internet gaming addicts in China is devastating. China has 600 million Internet users, more than any other nation on earth. Gamers isolate themselves in rooms or Internet cafés, sometimes playing online for days on end. Some gamers have died from exhaustion and lack of movement in front of their computers.
Moleres followed addicts trying to kick their habit with the help of a psychiatrist who adapts military training techniques into his clinic’s regime in order to exorcise clients’ addictive tendencies. Similarly, Wendy McMurdo investigates the phenomena of young gamers reenacting, during sleep, the activities of Minecraft characters they control during waking hours.
As much as photography has been beholden to us, we are now beholden to it. Photography and image making have always been used for positive and for malevolent ends, but once-upon-a-time, a camera operator could feasibly be identified. We could celebrate the humanitarians (Roy DeCarava, Wendy Ewald, Don McCullin) as much as we could vilify those who used photography for destructive ideology (Khymr Rouge, Third Reich, Argentina’s military Junta during the Dirty War).
In the past, the reliance of image-making on human labour maintained, at least by defacto, some limit on the amount of data that could be produced. This fact was made physical by the rolls we processed, the prints we held and the buildings we constructed for archives. Now, if we want to “see” our image files, we have to go to server farms, transcontinental fibre-optic cable hubs and … and .. where the hell is the cloud?
DATA RUSH has a volley of artists — Arantxa Gonlag, Ivar Veermäe, Henrik Spohler and Heinrich Holtgreve — who are preoccupied with the physical locations of Internet infrastructure. One could stand in for the other. If I was required to select one I’d go for Holtgreve’s The Internet As A Place.
On the topic of small holes in this conceptually-robust behemoth of a show, I’d like to point out that the more literal descriptions of human behaviors — Dina Litovsky’s subjects playing to the camera in Untag This Photo, Catherine Balet’s iPhone-wielding friends and family in Strangers In The Light, and Bas Losekoot’s engrossed face-to-screen pedestrians — appear anemic and the effect of the works is diluted. Losekoot’s work, in particular, seems to be a fine art equivalent of the single-gag Instagram account We Have To Stop.
Here’s an exhibition that needles the veiled underpinnings of the digital age and, in most cases, does so with computer-generated imagery, or imagery of machinery itself. Litovsky and Balet’s work doesn’t quite fit, which is a shame because, ultimately, they depict behaviour typical of early-onset dependency on devices; precisely the behaviours we want to avoid if we’re to assert some sort of autonomy from the networked world.
Ultimately, criticism over works’ inclusion rests with the curators and not the artists. And to be fair to Melis and Keijser, there’s a couple of projects that go straight over my head so it’s not as if I’ve a command on the show to make a commanding statement. Somehow, the elusiveness of Mark Curran’s films and installations about the financial markets is fitting. Planets in outer space are less alien to me than the financial system (I can see the surface of Pluto, now).
There are some true moments of revelation in DATA RUSH. Sterling Crispin who, in his series Data Masks, has used off-the-shelf facial recognition software and applied it to the visages of famous people, including President Obama and Edward Snowden, shows us how easily this up-to-now SciFi technology is at consumers’ disposal. And we don’t even need to negotiate access with the U.S. Secret Service!
The human brain is wired to respond to faces so the fact that these ghost-like masks are fully legible to the recognition computer software is that bit more disconcerting.
Likewise, Waltraut Tänzler series Eyes On Border is a horrifying discovery. Tänzler makes screen grabs of the TBSC BlueServoSM Virtual Community WatchSM, the world’s first public online surveillance program which monitors the Texas border with Mexico and was launched in 2007. Internet users around the world could register as Virtual Texas DeputiesSM to participate in border control via the network of cameras and sensors. The system is no longer active.
“If these virtual assistant sheriffs see something suspicious, they simply send an email to the local authorities,” says the DATA RUSH catalogue.
Tänzler is protesting against this dubious tactic of border security by making it, perversely, more visible. What else can artists do? And who knew that such a bilious form of control had existed in the hands of the Internet “community”?
Giorgio di Noto photos of drugs, then printed with UV ink is a comic turn I enjoyed. Similarly, the way Daniel Mayrit gives 100 of the most powerful people in UK financial policy and industry the same public witch-hunt exposure as youths in the wake of riots in Britain. You Have Not Seen Their Faces is a humorous way to underscore the depressing fact that no-one responsible for robbing hundreds of thousands of pensions has yet been prosecuted. There’s something comforting about seeing David Cameron’s mug and those of bank directors in a rogues gallery of CCTV grabs.
Is all of this making sense? How fast are you moving? I’m penning this review after the exhibition has come down; it’s taken me weeks to process this stuff and I still feel I’m barely scratching the surface. I’d argue that this exhibition could be called ‘DATA FLOOD’ as easily as it is DATA RUSH, except for the fact that I think Melis and Keijser want to leave us with an empowered sense of knowing. They don’t want us to drown or feel overwhelmed by the ever-growing swell. They want us to see the set on the horizon and ready ourselves for the waves. We can ride the rush.
These works are excuses to pin-point the right questions. How secure is your data? Who owns your likeness? Who has the power to index the information coursing through the optic cables, satellite signals and encrypted comms? What’s your digital footprint and does someone else have better access to it? How is the dark web?
Simon Høgsberg set up a camera outside his local shop for months and photographed individuals in his community. He then graphed them all. He could only do this because facial recognition was better than he at connecting the likenesses and timestamps of people’s features.
Høgsberg’s diagram of the relationships between people is crude by comparison to computer indexing systems but it provides a visual redolent of the constant organizing and disciplining of both our data and our identities.
The greatest worry of all of this and perhaps why DATA RUSH leaves me wracked with anxiety is that we’re all complicit. Glenn Greenwald recently described our use of the Internet and technology as being a more perfected version of George Orwell’s 1984. We feed the surveillance voluntarily, and granted almost inescapably, with our “check-ins”, geo-tags, credit card purchases, IP addresses and so on and so forth. The wonderful quick-read The Inspection House covers prison industries, Occupy camp surveillance, Guantanamo, and the secured perimeter of the London Olympics before ending with a chapter on iPhones.
The main nodes to surveillance are in our pockets.
In our pockets.
Artist Joyce Overheul followed 17-year-old Rogier Hogervorst on Twitter and Instagram for a period of 3-months to demonstrate the point. From 5638 tweets and 137 photos, Overheul wrote a novel based on Hogervorst who had no knowledge of the project until the book was released. All the information Overheul used had been made public by Rogier himself. Overheul wanted to shock her young subject and us too about the level of knowledge anyone can gain from your social media activities. Interestingly, Hogervorst didn’t think his privacy had been breached, and he was even proud that he had been chosen.
So what to do? It’s nigh on impossible to disconnect entirely, so informed choice is all that there’s left. DATA RUSH might get you there. For me, I’m going to harness the spirit go Rutger Prins’ work Discord in which he exorcised the memory of a younger self by destroying a laptop he carried — almost as an appendage to his body — when he was a teenager.
Prins’ constructed explosion of the laptop is cathartic to say the least; it would be seen as a maneouver of teenage angst if it weren’t so meticulously executed.
It took Prins nine months to simulate the explosion. We’ve plenty of time to reflect upon our relationships to screens, images and data. Hell, we’ve got a lifetime; our data is stored somewhere and it’ll outlast us.
As with many of the boldest curation, DATA RUSH seeks to make something tangible of the invisible, to “coax something as ethereal as the internet out of its hiding place” as Keijser has said.
For photography, a comparatively conservative medium, DATA RUSH is light years ahead of most presentations. It’s precisely where our discussions about photography need to be if it we’re to comprehend the ways in which we are subject to images and image indexing.