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.
As a critic, I have 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. While my interests are manifold, much of my published writing has considered the social mediation of art institutions and publications through digital media.
First launched as an art school thesis project and now long offline, my 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. My work has been supported by a Creative Capital|Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.
Since giving birth in 2017, I have been writing about more personal and honestly, more pleasurable subjects including (but not limited to) motherhood — material that I haven't yet decided to publish and may never do.