Sarah Hromack / Writing / Safety in Numbers
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Safety in Numbers

I and others including Laura Poitras, Trevor Paglan, Jordan Ellenberg, Martha Rosler, Mercedes Bunz, and Shoshana Zuboff responded to a question posed by editor Jörg Heiser: “Algorithms, Big Data and surveillance: what’s the response, and responsibility, of art?”

Algorithms, Big Data and surveillance: what’s the response, and responsibility, of art? Jörg Heiser asked seven artists, writers and academics to reflect.

SARAH HROMACK One of art’s most timeless functions lies in its ability to reflect the social and political conditions of its production in a way that renders those conditions newly intelligible. In the 1960s, conceptualism sanctioned quantification as a viable means of defining the form of art: measuring the parameters of an experience or a subject in stark, numerical terms was a seemingly agnostic way of making it known.

Today, the practice of quantification governs the everyday lives of everyday citizens. We are defined by data – or, to put it more accurately, we allow ourselves to be defined this way by willingly tracking and disclosing our own personal information through various digital channels. Now more than ever, data is used as a tool of power and control, a fact proven through the recent actions of Edward Snowden, Private Chelsea Manning, WikiLeaks, Anonymous and other individuals and organizations whose collective efforts have ushered in a new order within the public sphere.

In this context, does art made in or for the digital environment bear a given responsibility? I would argue that it does. Net art evolved in the 1990s through the advent and rise of social media to the present ‘post-internet’ moment, which describes digital practices in a much broader set of ‘real life’ terms. You no longer need to be able to write code in order to make art on (or, rather, for) the internet: the slickly designed, insidiously simple interfaces that mediate our workaday interactions invite every user to become a ‘maker’. The most compelling digital gestures aren’t those that merely document or represent this practical shift in images or words – my eyes have grown tired of the Tumblr or Instagram account-as-art-form – but those that suggest or even force an active form of personal engagement.

One example that I keep returning to when thinking about ‘active’ versus ‘passive’ digital engagement is occupyhere.org, designed and maintained by developer and artist Dan Phiffer since October 2011. Initially built to support public conversations happening at the time in New York’s Zuccotti Park, the project has now morphed into a distributed network of wi-fi locations built to serve those in its immediate vicinity, who may exchange messages on its locally hosted website. Transient by design (and therefore inherently resistant to sur­veillance), occupyhere.org takes a refreshingly clear position for internet autonomy – one that only becomes more relevant as time passes.

Updated on November 23, 2016

As a cultural critic, Sarah has written for publications including Frieze, Artforum, Art in America, Red Hook Journal (Bard College), Mousse, Print, Paper Monument, and Rhizome, amongst other websites, blogs, and print publications. First launched as an art school thesis project and now long offline, her blog, Forward Retreat (2000-2008), was part of the early cohort of American art blogs that bore initial influence on then-emerging digital publishing practices in the arts. Sarah's recent work is supported by a 2016 Creative Capital|Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

In Progress: 2018

— A series of essays on the visual culture of motherhood.
— "@Artist: Performing the Digital Self " is an ongoing project awarded support by the 2016 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

Recent Essays

An Idea for Interview


2018 Frieze
A memorial op-ed on Interview Magazine (1969-2018), "an enduring symbol of downtown cool, even as downtown became Disney"

Narcissism in the Digital Age


2017 Frieze
A review of Kristen Dombek's "The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism"

Sign on the Dotted Line


2016 Frieze
An op-ed in support of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy)'s efforts at New York's New Museum

It’s Complicated: The Institution as Publisher


2016 Superscript Reader, Walker Art Center
An op-ed on the politics that govern institutional publishing, written by invitation on the occasion of "Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age" at the Walker Art Center

What is Metahaven?


2015 Frieze
A feature on the Dutch design studio Metahaven

Another ‘C’ Word: On Content and the (Techno) Curatorial


2015 Red Hook Journal, Bard College
An essay on digital, linguistic, and curatorial intersectionality that begins with Raymond Williams's "Keywords" and ends at the NSA's XKEYSCORE

The Real Power of Open Innovation


2014 Mousse
A conversation with New York-based artists João Enxuto & Erica Love

The Museum Interface


2014 Art in America
A conversation with Rob Giampetro, Creative Lead, Google

Safety in Numbers


2014 Frieze
I and others including Laura Poitras, Trevor Paglan, Jordan Ellenberg, Martha Rosler, Mercedes Bunz, and Shoshana Zuboff responded to a question posed by editor Jörg Heiser: “Algorithms, Big Data and surveillance: what’s the response, and responsibility, of art?”

Douglas Davis (1933–2014)


2014 Artforum
In kind memory of artist Douglas Davis (1933-2014)

Beyond the Scene and Herd Effect


2013 Artpapers
A consideration of the social web's impact on art magazines' websites and editorial strategies over the course of time

Off the Page


2011 Frieze
A profile of Paul Chan’s new publishing venture, Badlands Unlimited

A Thing Remade: A Conversation with Paul Chan


2011 Rhizome
A conversation with artist Paul Chan