© Thiemo Kloss, from the series ‘Dark Blue’ (2012–2015). Kloss visualises transformations and changes that shape society. His images offer a personal point of view in which the collective consciousness, data, online behaviour, and computer usage are contemplated against the backdrop of transparency, anonymity and disintegration. Each image is constructed out of numerous cut out vertical lines, derived from photographs of one and the same person in different positions. By first painstakingly arranging the lines per shot, Kloss creates a set of more or less transparent images, which are subsequently slid into each other.

Finally, a Photography Exhibition that Deals with Our Relationship to Data

The curatorial concepts in the show DATA RUSH are pioneering which makes for a nerve-wracking viewing experience. DATA RUSH sees you, sees our ties to constantly streaming images and information, and all we can conclude is that the future is now.


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.

© Hannes Hepp, from the series ‘Not So Alone — Lost in Chat Room ‘(2012–2015). Hannes Hepp’s photomontages portray the invisible, global, digital espionage activities of the NSA and other security forces, but also the continuous alienation and isolation of ordinary citizens in the virtual world. The portraits in the series come from public chat rooms, where the persons depicted tempt visitors with the prospect of more explicit sexual images so as to entice them to pay for ‘private time’. The viewer is therefore simultaneously a voyeur and an object of voyeurism. Just as the photographer may have been spied on by security forces whilst making the photomontages in his studio.
© Heinrich Holtgreve, from the series ‘The Internet As A Place’ (2013–2015). In 1969, the archetype of the Internet was developed for the American Ministry of Defence. In the almost half a century that has since passed, the application of the network has been extended from military purposes to all kinds of conceivable forms of interaction between billions of people around the world. But what exactly is this network of networks? Is it a physical place that you can visit? Over the past two years, Heinrich Holtgreve has been taking photographs of the Internet. His search for the Internet’s core has brought him to the North German coast, Egypt and Frankfurt.

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.

© Cristina de Middel, from the series ‘Poly-spam’ (2009). An old woman looking for someone to share out her immense fortune among charities, a girl who wants to marry you in order to fulfil the requirements to collect the large sum of money her father left her, or just the message that you’ve won a new car — everyone with an email account receives these kinds of appeals and other messages that are too good to be true. Under the guise of mercy, they appeal to our greed. In ‘Poly-spam’, Cristina de Middel creates portraits of the senders, in which she translates every detail from the emails into dramatic images of the moment in which they were sent.

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.

© Fernando Moleres, from the series ‘Internet Gaming Addicts’ (2014). In no other country, are there as many Internet users as in China — 600 million. This prosperity, however, has a dark side. Thousands of Chinese, particularly youths, are addicted to Internet gaming. They isolate themselves in their rooms or in Internet cafés, where they can sometimes play online games for days on end, with disastrous consequences for their social and family life. Moleres followed addicted youths who are trying to kick the habit at a clinic run by psychiatrist Tao Ran, who also a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army. Ran combines psychological and medical therapy with a strict military training, which also involves immediate family members. Many parents even allow themselves to be admitted into the clinic together with their child.

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?

© Julian Röder. Situation room of the FRONTEX Headquarter in Warsaw, Poland, June, 2014, from the series ‘Mission and Task’ (2012–2013). Direct contact between the border police and migrants in the EU will continue to decrease in the future. Not because the flow of migrants will run dry, but because advancing technology ensures that the surveillance of the EU’s external borders is becoming increasingly abstract. The new border surveillance system EUROSUR, which became operational in 2013, analyses data forwarded by satellites, radar stations, airplanes and drones. The information from participating countries is automatically and immediately exchanged with everyone through the network. Planned border crossings can thus be detected long before the border is in sight. People are thereby reduced to data, streams, points of light, and signals, and are no longer seen as individuals. Through surveillance, an infrastructure is fabricated that places the maintenance of Europe’s prosperity over a responsible way of dealing with ‘the other’.

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.

© Dina Litovsky, from the series ‘Untag This Photo’ (2010–2012). Since she started to take photographs a few years ago of the New York nightlife in all its different manifestations, Litovsky has seen a change in clubbers: the focus has shifted from partying to taking photos of the parties. She became fascinated by the often exhibitionist behaviour of women who rather remarkably use their personal control over their image formation simply to confirm stereotypes. Litovsky examines how public behaviour is influenced through the embracement of digital cameras, smartphones and online social networks in domains that were once private.
© Max Colson, from the series ‘Friendly Proposals for Highly Controlling Environments’ (2014–2015). Many public places in Great Britain are being privatised, in the course of which surveillance is put in place as a means of control. The latest hi-tech equipment is able to respond ‘smartly’ to events in the vicinity — lampposts can record sound and switch on whenever they ‘hear’ upheaval, dustbins can follow passing smartphones and register movements in a marked out area. The surveillance systems, however, are designed to be inconspicuous and continually contribute to a sense of false insinuation. Colson shows the potential of a more playful and therefore less threatening manner of surveillance.

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).

© Lori Hepner, from the series ‘Status Symbols: A Study in Tweets’ (2009–2012). Textual updates on sites like Twitter and Facebook make it possible to create virtual personas that differ greatly from the physical reality. Hepner makes portraits based on updates on social media, using rotating LEDs. With the aid of specially developed soft- and hardware, the words are translated into flashes of light — the on and off of the binary code that forms the basis of digital communication. Each portrait represents a fleeting moment of identity, until the next update becomes a fact.

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.

Read more about Sterling Crispin’s “Data Masks” on Matter: This Is What Your Face Looks Like To Facebook.

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.

A screengrab of screengrabs from Waltraut Tänzler’s series ‘Eyes On Border.’

“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”?

© Andrew Hammerand, from the series ‘The New Town’ (2013). In order to portray the construction of a new community, the project developer installed a camera on top of an antenna for mobile phones; the images of which were made public. It is just one example of the many non-secured devices which actively and haphazardly pump information onto the Internet. Hammerand had full access to non-secured controls, he could point the camera himself, zoom in with it and focus. The result is a voyeuristic gaze on the village, a play with the visual language of surveillance, amateur footage and insinuation.
© Arnold Koroshegyi, from the series ‘Electroscapes’ (2011–2012). In Koroshegyi’s electroscopes, landscapes and data merge. He falls back on the practice of nineteenth-century geology investigations, where photography and scientific expeditions went hand in hand to discover the topography of the world. By integrating surveillance software in a layered photographic process, Koroshegyi was able to make a visual interpretation of the electromagnetic data in the atmosphere surrounding geographic formations.

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.

Detail from Daniel Mayrit’s series “You Haven’t Seen Their Faces’

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?

© Mintio. ‘T.H.O.H.Y aka The Hall of Hyperdelic Youths’ (2010). The virtual world of gamers has infinite possibilities. As though in a trance, gamers detach themselves from their vulnerable bodies and enter into a world with barely any rules. Mintio combines this virtual world with images of those who move through it. Using only the light emitting from the screens behind which the gamers take cover, Mintio captured the teenagers’ limited movements — or even the complete lack of them, because in the three to ten minutes of the shoot, they barely moved. Turned 180 degrees, through the eyes of the gamer, she subsequently captured different layers of the endless matrix of the game.
© Henrik Spohler, from the series ‘0/1 Dataflow’ (2000–2001). The places where the real heart of our information society beats are in fact the opposite of it in terms of appearance, Spohler says. In the uniform, light grey spaces even the colour of the Ethernet cables offers no indication as to which direction the processed data comes from, let alone where it is going. The processes at play here are just as invisible as in the synapses of the human brain. This abstraction makes the photographs an allegory of the interplay and equivalence of data in the digital era.

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.

© Nate Larson & Marni Shindelman, from the series ‘Geolocation’ (2009-present). With their collaborative projects, Nate Larson (United States, 1978) and Marni Shindelman (United States, 1977) examine the data that we generate on online communication networks. Larson and Shindelman used publicly accessible GPS information in Twitter messages in order to track the physical location of the tweet. Each photograph was taken in the exact same spot where the message was sent into the world, quoting the text of the message. The photographs anchor and commemorate the fleeting online data in the real world. At the same time, they also question the expected privacy of these 85 online networks.
© Catherine Balet, from the series ‘Strangers in the Light’ (2009). Balet examines the complicated relationship between humans and their technology. Her photographs show the new posture of the ever-reachable, contemporary human, absorbed in the white, digital light of his device. The individuals she has photographed are solely illuminated by the light on their smartphone, laptop or tablet, thus creating a 21st century chiaroscuro effect which seems to refer to classical paintings and the old masters. At the same time, it refers to the historical break with the past, brought about by modern means of communication.

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.

© Rutger Prins, from the series ‘Discord’ (2015). Ever since Prins captured his mother’s final breath, he has been obsessed by death. We ascribe special qualities to things we hold dear. Prins sees the laptop he carried everywhere with him as a teenager as an object which, thanks to the optional internet connection, has greatly shaped him as a person. His series Personal Effects, from which ‘Discord’ is a part, is dedicated to objects which have had a big impact on his life. By completely destroying the out-dated and unneeded objects, like his old laptop, he says goodbye in a manner both violent and appropriate — just like us, the objects that define us are fleeting. Is this an escape from the digital predestination?

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.


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