Featuring: Anvar Musrepov (KZ), Ben Grosser (US), Mohsen HZ (IR), Han Do Thi Doc (GER/VIET), Jim Munroe (CAN), Martin Le Chevallier (FRA), Patrick Lichty (US/UAE), Shalala Samamzadeh (AZ), The Institute for New Feeling (Scott Andrew, Agnes Bolt, and Nina Sarnelle; US)
Echoing the famous call-to-arms of the ‘68 protest movements, this NEoN online exhibition explores how art continues to inspire change ‘IRL’ (in real life) from the immaterial spheres of digital media and the web. The works included in the exhibition engage the digital critically and create feedback loops linking right back to wide-ranging political conflicts, social injustices, privacy politics, environmental crises, and other issues of the offline ‘meatspace.’
The title of the exhibition is adapted from the activist slogan “Sous les pavés, la plage!,” widely used in the May 1968 protests in France. Literally, this means: “Underneath the paving stones, there is a beach!” At the time, protesters often pulled up pavement stones to build barricades and create obstacles for the authorities. The slogan thus invoked both an activist call to arms (“Tear up the streets…”) and a utopian note (“…there’s a whole new world underneath!”). The phrase also brings to mind resistance tactics of the Situationists, a French avant-garde group that participated in many of the protests – in particularly that of détournement, referring to the reorganising of pop cultural signifiers to create new meanings, or, likewise, the literal reorganising of public space in order to upend a political order.
Adapted for the online exhibition as “Underneath the web, there’s a beach!,” the old protest slogan invokes the festival theme, Re@ct, and implies that through a détournement or critical engagement with the infrastructures of the web and its underlying technologies, digital art has the power to incite change that reaches beyond the digital and into the material world.
Of the six projects featured in the show, some are more overtly activist and critical in nature, while others invite viewers to develop their own critical position in relation to a variety of pressing subjects. Featuring artists from Azerbaijan, Canada, France, Germany, Iran, Kazakhstan and the US, “Sous le web, la plage!” covers a wide range of topics from surveillance and privacy issues to online media manipulation, from freedom of expression to the violence imposed by virtual worlds. What ties all the works together is an interest in expanding, subverting, or repurposing the aesthetics of digital art in order to foreground critical concerns.
[“Me and My Facebook Data”] (2017) by the German-Vietnamese artist Hang Do Thi Duc exemplifies this well. Created as part of a web art residency hosted by ZKM (Centre for Media Art) and Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany, the piece draws on the unadorned, matter-of-fact aesthetic of data visualisation and statistical analysis to interrogate the data collection practices of Facebook. As such, the project might appear as a tool rather than an artwork – a characteristic that it shares with several other works in the exhibition, and which resonates through a lot of contemporary digital art. Today, the ‘mining’ and monetisation of user data by corporations such as Facebook has become a major concern for many informed social media users; many social platforms have been responding to this using confusing and complicated solutions that are likely to obfuscate, rather than clarify, controversial privacy issues (A great example is found in Mark Zuckerberg’s evasive responses whenever he faces questioning by government officials and policymakers). By offering an easily accessible tool for downloading and then visualising information regarding this collected data, “Me and My Facebook Data” provides users with disturbing insights into their own patterns of web use, as well as the digital traces they leave. It constitutes a pressing invitation to critically rethink our often careless behaviours around sensitive private data.
Similarly, “Twitter Demetricator” (2018) by Ben Grosser (USA) is simultaneously an artwork, a web tool, and a critical intervention with powerful activist thrust. The piece is a web browser extension (i.e., a plug-in that can easily be added to expand the functionality of the browser), and once activated, it will remove all the metrics from the Twitter website interface, such as number of retweets, number of likes, number of followers, etc. What might initially appear as a very minimal adjustment actually has a strong effect on how Twitter is experienced. Removing social media metrics offers users a playfully ‘purified’ interaction, in which much of the nudging, teasing, and prodding of the platform falls away: without metric-based prompts, a user will likely be left with a feeling of calm empowerment and the freedom to peruse (or ignore) Tweets based on the actual merit of their content. It now becomes clear that Twitter’s metric-based ‘curation’ of information manipulates empathy, controls and channels emotional triggers, and entraps users in a problematic economy of affect. Notably, the artist’s demetricator designs (he has completed several of them for other platforms as well, all available on his website) appear to have drawn the attention of the social media giants. Several of them are now rethinking how metrics control user reactions and user behaviour, and are considering removing metrics-based features from their platforms.
If “Me and My Facebook Data” and “Twitter Demetricator” are tools, then “The Redirectory” (2016), a web project by the collective The Institute for New Feeling (Scott Andrew, Agnes Bolt, and Nina Sarnelle; US), is more of an online information resource. Described by its creators as “an inventory of web manipulation tactics,” this project is the underground handbook that advertising agencies and web designer never wanted you to see. Online, it appears as a loose collection of entries, ingeniously presented as a digital scrapbook with no discernible structure. But hidden underneath the surface jumble of pop-up windows, the project covers topics ranging from the cute-sounding (‘cookiestuffing’) to the comical (‘spambaiting’), and from the informative (‘churnalism’) to the disturbing (‘the Streisand Effect’). Overall, “The Redirectory” constitutes an excellent primer on the various manipulative strategies – some obvious, most clandestine – that are often used to channel a user’s attention and direct their browsing behaviour.
“My Trip to Liberty City” (2005), by Jim Munroe (CAN), veers away from the tool-based critiques offered in the works presented so far, and follows a more traditionally narrative approach. The video piece belongs to the category of machinima – a video created from videogame footage – and was recorded in the blockbuster videogame Grand Theft Auto 3, which is notorious for how it prescribes violent behaviours and interactions for players. Rather than critiquing the violent tendencies of the game directly, Munroe frames his piece in a comical way, and narrates the video from the perspective of a stereotypically nice Canadian tourist visiting Liberty City, the violent and wicked main stage of GTA3. As the tourist takes in the sights and gets in some trouble for a harmless street-busking act, viewers will begin to appreciate that the violence enacted in the game isn’t of a narrative nature at all – despite the Canadian visitors best efforts, this violence persists on an algorithmic level, and in its systemic nature it invokes debates surrounding the underlying structural causes for violent crime in many of today’s real-world metropoles.
“Vigilance 1.0” (2001) by Martin Le Chevallier (FRA) also draws on the cultural logic of videogames for the critique that it leverages. Posing as a point-and-click game in which the player inhabits the role of a surveillance operator, the artwork problematises the meaning of seamless surveillance in urban spaces. What first appears as a game of close attention and skill will soon reveal itself as an exercise in arbitrariness and random accusations. Like much real-world surveillance, this is a game with no end and no winners, and the player – stuck in a never-ending feedback loop of surveillance footage that reveals its own meaninglessness more and more as time passes – is just as lost as the rightly (or wrongly!) accused perpetrator-victims in this isometric panopticon.
The final project included in this online exhibition is a digital exhibition portal in its own right. “Activatar.org”, an ongoing project co-facilitated by the Moving Image collective and Christopher Manzione, is a media art platform that hosts monthly media art exhibitions programmed by a rotating cast of curators. For the NEoN iteration, the UAE-based American artist and curator Patrick Lichty has curated a collection entitled “The Wanted Pavilion,” which includes work by Mohsen HZ (IR), Anvar Musrepov (KZ), and Shalala Samamzadeh (AZ). The collection makes reference to (amongst other issues) the controversy, loss of support, and ultimately cancellation of Kazakhstan’s inaugural participation at the Venice Biennale contemporary art fair (more information is available here). Showcased at NEoN, the Activatar platform becomes a gateway to some of the more far-flung regions of digital art, and highlights that in a world of ubiquitous computing and constant connectivity, digital divides nevertheless continue to exist, manifest in lack of funding, lack of institutional support, or even censorship. As ‘The Wanted Pavilion’ implies, such issues may be overcome through the active and determinedly social layering of connections among artists, curators, and their online and offline communities.
The works included in “Sous le web, la plage!” develop a wide range of perspectives on a diverse set of topics; together, they conspire to highlight how the malleability and adaptability of digital technologies ultimately constitutes their fundamental importance at the intersections between the aesthetic and the critical. From the manipulation of user behaviour to the exposure of privacy issues, from the use of exhibition platforms for crossing digital divides to the design of anti-surveillance games, the point, in the end, is that any medium – including the digital – is only as critical, interesting, radical, or subversive as the ways in which we choose to use it.