All I Know is What’s On The Internet is a radical new exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, curated by Katrina Sluis. Featuring works from 11 contemporary artists and groups, the show takes a diverse and critical look at image culture in the highly technological 21st century.
Its title – taken from a Donald Trump quote – is a fitting precursor for what follows, reflecting the Internet’s status as the predominant distributor and appropriator of knowledge. The exhibition explores the consequences of this development, drawing on new forms of digital labour and infrastructure, the Internet’s appropriation of our personal information, issues surrounding unequal access and censorship, and the blurred relationship between human and machine. Aptly critical of Silicon Valley’s technological utopianism, All I Know… raises important questions about our visual and digital futures in a world where millions of images compete for our attention each day.
Several works critique the internet’s function of capturing information about us – its users. Kneissl and Lackner’s Stop The Algorithm project creates machines that scroll through social media feeds – liking and following at random – to boycott the algorithmic process of data generation. These highlight the hierarchy of content created by algorithms and how this distorts our perceptions of what’s valuable, relevant and important. By parodying the work of ‘click farms’ and ‘ranking manipulation employees,’ the artists subtly resist this process.
A similar line of resistance runs through Constant Dullart’s work, where a catalogue of SIM cards – used solely for creating fake social media accounts – helps us visualize the physical scale of active attempts to manipulate algorithms. Mari Bastashevski’s wallpaper project Nothing Personal investigates the surveillance industry, which has sprung up to meet governments’ demands for security against a faceless global ‘enemy’ of hackers and terrorists. Bastashevski’s montage – featuring email clippings, corporate tech jargon, bland clip art and photos of digital machines – finds a cold, impersonal core to the industry that seems to run against our expectations of it.
An impressive but initially perplexing work, Lorusso and Schmieg’s Five Years of Captured Captcha’s collates half a decade’s worth of solved captcha’s – the number-letter combinations we decode to prove our humanity online. Viewing these individually-displayed captchas collectively gives the work an eerie poetry. These small allusions to mathematics and language are a quiet testimony to human ingenuity, creativity and problem solving. But introduce Google’s ‘capturing’ of millions of captchas to profitably digitize knowledge and inform artificial intelligence, and this humble ingenuity quickly feels exploited, violated.
As Silicon Valley advances its vision of a (profitably) connected online world and an increasingly human digital intelligence, the exhibition suggests that we should consider this ceaseless trajectory. Degoutin and Wagon’s World Brain highlights, at one point, the aspirations of software developers to provide a psychologically immersive internet experience. This reveals how advanced neuroscience is (alarmingly) making sensations, experiences, dreams and memories into potential subjects for submission onto the Internet. On another level, the exhibition confronts the human labour involved in the digital industry, making visible a much-neglected area in the current Internet debate
Eva and Franco Mattes’ projects, for example, bring to light the hard-hitting reality of working in content moderation, which requires workers to sift through disturbing, potentially traumatizing images. Such work valuably keeps social media platforms insulated and safe for users, but the compensation is slim: tech giants do not have to reveal themselves to these workers who, in being outsourced from poorer countries, are likely to be paid very little. It is testament to the dignity of these workers to hear their accounts, but – spoken as they are through anonymized automated voices and avatars – a necessarily eerie and impersonal one.
Andrew Norman Wilson’s Scan Ops provides a strangely beautiful look at another area of digital labour. The images are failed scans from the Google Books program to digitize the world’s libraries, where traces of human operators – a hand, a finger – snuck into the frame. They are scratchy, off-centre compositions, but unwittingly suggestive of beauty in the human form and, in contrary to the technological ideal, imperfection.
The exhibition also considers the problem of unequal access to the ‘democratic’ Internet, with a focus on censorship-heavy China. Miao Ying and Winnie Soon present separate screenshot-based works that journal their fruitless internet searches within the country. The works present contrasting angles: one illustrates the aspiration and curiosity, the other the frustration and alienation, of being denied access to the global online community.
Radical and transformative, All I Know… is a departure for The Photographers’ Gallery into conceptual art, but a welcome and wholly relevant one. This is anything but a conventional photography exhibition, pushing our critical eye as it is challenged by the rapidly-evolving digital landscape. Dynamic and diverse, the works the exhibition presents are as reflective of today’s expanding technological visual culture as they are critical of it.