14 Nov - 05 Dec

I.A. Suzie by McCarthy & Leonard
Image of I.A. Suzie courtesy of artists:
Lauren Lee McCarthy & David Leonard





MANIPULATIONS showcases reflections made by artists and designers that invoke a public discussion around technology’s stake inside the agenda of our society's governing. Particularly, in our time of the reigning digital capitalists and their systems that exploit our experiences for their gain, MANIPULATIONS asks: Who are the tool makers and who are the tool users of our societies? What does a citizen need to participate effectively in the dynamics of today’s systems?

Needless to say the timing of this exhibition is amidst an onslaught of chaos. This exhibition takes place during a worldwide pandemic, the polarized threats of many democracies [admittedly - this text was anxiously written by a voter living abroad just days before the US Election], and an ongoing climate crisis with extreme weather becoming a constant rather than an abnormality. On top of these tumultuous worldly conditions, the connectedness of ubiquitous computing plus the autonomousness of automation and artificial intelligence technologies are extending seemingly beyond control and the reach of public interest. Technology is expanding at a pace faster than yesterday and with the resolve to expand even faster - and more autonomously - tomorrow. Personifying these technologies, as an empathy exercise, spotlights that there are both the evil and the good characters at play within them. Perhaps, just like us. They are made by us, by the way.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism; The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), Shoshana Zuboff exposes the business model beneath our digital world. She explains that there are tools and there are tool users and surveillance capitalists are the profiteers of the ordinary behaviors of the masses. Zuboff describes connected data-driven technologies [and powers that own and perpetuate them] as:

“Imagine you have a hammer. That’s machine learning. It helped you climb a grueling mountain to reach the summit. That’s machine learning’s dominance of online data. On the mountaintop you find a vast pile of nails, cheaper than anything previously imaginable. That’s the new smart sensor tech. An unbroken vista of virgin board stretches before you as far as you can see. That’s the whole dumb world. Then you learn that any time you plant a nail in a board with your machine learning hammer, you can extract value from that formerly dumb plank. That’s data monetization. What do you do? You start hammering like crazy and you never stop, unless somebody makes you stop. But there is nobody up here to make us stop. This is why the “internet of everything” is inevitable.”

Hence, if we are indeed inside the inevitable Zuboff positions this exhibition brings forth the question: where are creatives and makers positioned? Are we the hammer? The nails? Or the one’s hammering?

Furthermore Zuboff postulates that a surveillance capitalist’s mode is not one of just predicting behavior but to modify the behavior at its very source:

“... machine processes are configured to intervene in the state of play in the real world among real people and things. These interventions are designed to enhance certainty by doing things: They nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify behavior in specific directions by executing actions as subtle as inserting a specific phrase into your Facebook news feed, timing the appearance [. . .] on your phone, or shutting down your [.…]”

This bleak picture painted by Zuboff is easy to witness. It is our world. We hold this world in our hands and we let this world predict our thoughts before we have even thought them. How are we to know how to act if we are not in charge of our own thoughts? Worse yet, how can we participate inside our democracies without evaluating where we have been undoubtedly nudged – by both foreign and domestic interests – on our way to our individual ballots? Shouldn’t we be the most free to think our own thoughts then?

The Social Dilemma (2020) is a portrayal of an alarm chiming against the dangers present within social networking technologies. And it is particularly persuasive because of its retrospective reflection from many original makers and so-called “tech experts” who developed said technologies. In it, Tristan Harris, formerly design ethicists at Google –and turned– cofounder of Center of Humane Technologies states that there is a deeper conditioning imposed upon our future: “We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid, we have a digital pacifier for ourselves. That is kind of atrophying our own ability to deal with that.” Harris is framing the very reason why it is conceivable more and more impossible to opt-out of the participation of these media – opting out means we are alone and, perhaps, too individual and, hence void of any confirmation of our very existence. Wait, don’t I exist? Don’t you exist? And shouldn’t we exist beyond the digital?

Then, inside our living rooms, our Netflix queues both train their algorithms and our brains while we binge watch in the comforts of our own home. A pastime, Forbes reported, created a record breaking growth for the company in 2020 [for obvious pandemic reasons]. This, a two-fold demonstration of how these ubiquitous technologies function and manipulate; on one hand they give content, e.g. The Social Dilemma, for us to understand just how much is at stake in this connected world of ours while on the other hand they are nudging us to indulge in participating – and participating all night and all day. Perhaps, we indulgers can comprehend the instant gratification element but who gets the delayed gratification? And then what about the content-providers, how do creatives reach the width of the public provided by this technology without it? Do the arts not need to go where the masses go? And what is the role of the artist in this case; are they the hammer? The nails? Or the ones hammering? Or are they the manipulators of something else?

And likewise, when addressing the public, such as the publics provided by these technology giants, could creatives aim to evoke, social theorist, Michael Warner’s understanding of public and, conceivably, embody his understanding of counterpublics? In Publics and Counterpublics (2002), Warner introduces that: “publics exist only by virtue of their imagining. They are a kind of fiction that has taken on life, and very potent life at that.” To work on imagining is, perhaps, the perfect job description of an artist; a creative; a maker; a human; no?

Furthermore, he argues that there are also formations of counterpublics. Warner theorizes that some publics “are defined by their tension with a larger public.” He goes on to describe that: “[…] against the background of the public sphere,[...] exchanges remain distinct from authority and can have a critical relation to power.” And most importantly, “[…] even as a subaltern counterpublic, this subordinate status does not simply reflect identities formed elsewhere; participation in such a public is one of the ways by which its members’ identities are formed and transformed.” Thus, this idea that being an individual within a public contributes to an identity construction and this is conceivably even more the case in regards to belonging to any version of a counterpublic. It seems valiant and purposeful to participate. Yet, how shall one participate? Shall one make the hammer? Shall one make the nails or shall one make the process of hammering? Or, perhaps, manipulate them all?

The act of manipulating is ambidextrous. It’s intent is a key to unlock its position but never the last word. Manipulation, as a noun, is too, ambidextrous. The exhibition MANIPULATIONS demystifies the magic of ubiquitous, connected and smart systems. It exposes that we are the makers of that world and it is in our hands to create it. As a whole, the artworks grouped in this exhibition provides both contemplation and discussion space for the manipulation of tools used artistically and provides a platform for inventing for humanity’s use.

Lauren Lee McCarthy and David Leonard’s I.A. Suzie (2019) is a piece that exposes the humanness behind artificial technologies caring for our elderly. They ask “will they be able to serve as advocates for the aging population?” And, on top of this and in light of the second and third waves of the threatening pandemic - is there any other way but to rely on digital communication?

Erasing/Enhancing Essentials (2019-ongoing), by Andreas Refsgaard, is a work that unboxes the process of machine learning to “investigate essence in images by letting algorithms identify, enhance and erase areas of images that are of the most visual importance.” This piece utilizes the attention economy, and even comments on the process of how algorithms currently work to modify, nudge and tune. And finally, it leaves us with a reminder that we are now sharing the power of deciding what is interesting or not. Are we equal partners in this decision process?

Artist duo Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson‘s work Your Country Doesn’t Exist (2003-ongoing) is a work manifested as a media campaign that sparked from 2003 protests against the invasion of Iraq. For nearly two decades now, the piece has continued to question “the construction and conception of the nation-state and its histories and representations and comes about as a reminder and an act of repetition.” Conceivably, the ongoing-ness of this piece demonstrates a need to engage inside the collectiveness of our society and the social bubbles these engagements transpire. What are the borders of our experience? How are they closing in on us or not? And for who’s gain?

Inside/Outside (2017), created by Saša Nemec of Gingerheads, leads us to question the roles of the body in our digitalized and connected world, whether that body is worldly or otherworldly. It proposes an aesthetic experience that chases what we cannot see. The work asks how might we see the immaterial; the emotions; the souls; and/or the consciousness of ourselves inside “a world where the informational pattern is privileged over a material embodiment”?

In the speculative performance piece, Data Uncertainty 2053 (2019 - ongoing) Danielle Heath conjects a future in the aftermath of a digitally induced financial crisis. The work aims to curiously discover the “way power and bureaucracy affects the way we live our lives within familiar systems. Systems that may inevitably fail.” And brings into question the level of trust and the rights to check-in on the systems that administer our societies. Heath is also MANIPULATIONS local artist and, hence, the corporeal blender of the physical-digital space of E.A.T. Spatial.

Then, alongside the group exhibition there is an accompanying extended program that includes public artist talks and programming with collaborating partner project, AI.Design.01 Masterclass held at the Academy of Art and Design, University of Gothenburg.

In this extended program, Stine Marie Jacobsen will present Law Shifters (2016-ongoing) and will promote the upcoming book release written to accompany this on-going work. Jacobsen’s Law Shifters is a multi-level collaborative project creating a space for participants to engage with case law. The work manifests itself in workshop and exhibition formats and the soon-to-be-released book format will broaden exposure of the developed methodologies created within the project. Law Shifters reminds us all to pay attention to how justice is defined and, even, facilitates experiences where one positions oneself as the definer of justice. Furthermore, Jacobsen’s work brings to question how the public is educated to take action [or not educated] while society processes, defines, and defends justice.

AI.Design.O1 Masterclass is a masterclass series to explore the overlaps between Artificial Intelligence and Design. It has been created to introduce artists, designers and programmers to the field of AI and tools to get started on their own projects and to demystify machine learning. The series collaborates with MANIPULATIONS via the public artist talks of Andreas Refsgaard and guest lecturer Maya Man.

And finally, the container of the exhibition itself. E.A.T, which is a collaboration between the Institute for Contemporary Ideas and Art (ICIA) and Studio Alight and borrowing its name from the Experiments in Art and Technology movement founded by the engineer Billy Klüver in the 1960s (for more info on the E.A.T project visit). E.A.T. Spatial and it’s debut exhibition, MANIPULATIONS, both work to feature the strengths and weaknesses of being connected via the world wide web. E.A.T. at its core intends to alight the discussion collocating the arts with technology and in particular calling attention “the inter-connectivity and interactivity of the internet, as well as the fight between corporate interests, governmental interests, and public interests that gave birth to the web today...” E.A.T Spatial and MANIPULATIONS programming alike aim to embody and reflect upon our connected world is the training ground for data driven capitalism and the place for both information and misinformation alike. Even so, it is the space to share openly to a broader audience and participate in its own way towards open source culture.

Imaginably, this is our utopic plea for ensuring the manipulations can be motivated towards making a better world.

What do you think? Is it the hammers, the nails or the hammering?

Written by Samantha Hookway, Curator / Studio Alight, November 1, 2020.