The Brexit vote and the last US presidential election attracted mass media attention in the last few months. The lack of attempts of contextualising social media’s marketing-driven algorithms within behavioural mechanisms taking place way before dot-coms pushed me to seek more information about the topic. Blinding Pleasures (arebyte gallery, London, 2017) is an exhibition stemming from this need of knowledge. I worked with Angela Washko, Ben Grosser and Man Bartlett, artists whose works expanded the first aims of the project. Angela Washko’s Survival Rates In Captivity (Free Will Mode #5) (2017) is a video in which she uses The Sims to place human artificial intelligence into restrictive architectural situations. Go Rando (2017) by Ben Grosser is a browser extension that obfuscates feelings on Facebook disrupting the collection of data by algorithms. Browsing the Blues (2017) by Man Bartlett is an installation created in part from the electromagnet output of his iPhone recorded while browsing his social media feeds.

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Angela Washko, Installation view of Survival Rates In Captivity (Free Will Mode #5) (2017), Photo by Graham Martin

Filippo Lorenzin: Survival Rates In Captivity (Free Will Mode #5) is a work about rules and the ability to recognise them. Is freedom defined by rules?

Angela Washko: This work is about imposed rules – but largely in relationship to domesticity and capitalism. The suggestions for designing space within The Sims are limited to domestic life. Your Sims are supposed to go to work while you maintain their home and when they come home the extent of what the game encourages you to do is to use their earnings to buy better objects for their houses and then more expensive houses. Within this context, I am trying to introduce alternative ways of using these tools which expose the developers’ failure to build creativity into the AI of these simulated humans. They fail when taken out of this hyper-dull-capitalistic model. We aren’t even imagining alternatives when we make games about these systems. When we are so bogged down by the everyday oppressions of capitalism that we can’t even imagine an alternative – even in the spaces we create to escape, how can we address the changes we need to see? It’s sad to see how one-dimensional, not resourceful and capitalistic these simulated humans were. I would like to see an alternative-to-capitalism simulator or surviving-as-an-artist-living-in-a-commune-in-a-barter-economy simulator or a post-anthropocentric-universal-basic-income-equality simulator or something which could allow us to play out different possibilities for governance and freedom to experience them in a way that might make them seem feasible.

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Angela Washko, Installation view of Survival Rates In Captivity (Free Will Mode #5) (2017), Photo by Graham Martin

FL: The introjection of rules means you don’t see options not planned by who designed the system. Is it possible to look behind this “veil of Maya”?

AW: It’s important to remember these game environments reflect the values and lived experiences of those who develop and write them and also the anticipated audience – which for a long time meant young, straight, white men. Games are tricky because they are often rooted in fantasy and don’t have to acknowledge the subjectivities of their makers because they are fictional. It’s important with games to remember that who is being represented, who is being villainized, what is being done are not neutral. The stories and mechanics in games reinforce worldviews that are inherited by their players. So it’s important to look at the content of games and consider the intentions of the “invisible hand”. The Sims creates a world that reinforces the importance of participating in capitalism by working, buying and moving up the ladder in closed and simplified but reassuring system that affirms the idea that as long as you keep at it, you will be rewarded for your buying and toil.

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Ben Grosser, Installation view of Go Rando (2017), Photo by Graham Martin

FL: Go Rando relies on the concept of disrupting a system by accelerating its mechanics until they are pointless. Can a system be disrupted only by making it implode?

Ben Grosser: I often focus on feeding software systems disruptive data because we’re told so little about how they work on the inside. Companies like Facebook suggest they show us what we want to see, but without more information, we’re leaving power in their hands. So this creates an imperative to investigate, but how? I use messy data to probe these insides via the available inputs and outputs because nothing starts to reveal how something works faster than when you treat it “incorrectly.” While such practices aren’t the only path, they can be effective. I don’t automate these processes. Instead, I put the tools that generate such data into the hands of users themselves. The purpose here is to encourage individual considerations of the data they produce; why do they create it, where does it go, whom does it serve?

FL: You put in crisis the system relying on the values imposed by it. Is this a kind of strategy that can be adopted also for “offline” disrupting acts?

BG: This strategy is more subversive and effective. I could write an extension that hides all “reactions”. But such a system ignores that people are using Facebook for a reason and thus we’re unlikely to stop using it. The same principle can apply for offline activities. For example, in the US, you are regularly asked for sensitive private information such as your birthdate or social security number. While there are a few entities that do need this info, most do not. You could refuse to give out the requested information, but doing so leads to either not getting what you wanted or raising suspicion. An alternative is to make a small error or even an obvious one. This way the system gets what it “wants”, but you aren’t made vulnerable by it.

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Ben Grosser, Installation view of Go Rando (2017), Photo by Graham Martin

FL: Are you critical towards the algorithmic making of social bubbles or the aggregation of people sharing a view that doesn’t go beyond the choice of a standardised reaction?

BG: What I’m most critical of is that users are given no information about how the algorithm works. Facebook’s primary motivation is not satisfying users, it’s with satisfying shareholders. One way they do this is to use data to show us the content that keeps us engaged. But we’re always going to seek out like-minded people to be with; to do the opposite would be an uncomfortable existence. What if we only read one author? Not only does that limit our perspective, but it places tremendous power in the hands of that author. We need to see what else is out there, to know when our ideas are running up against others. Such information helps us know what the world looks like. We need to be aware of such effects and do what we can to disrupt them.

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Man Bartlett, Installation view of Browsing the Blues (2017), Photo by Graham Martin

FL:  Browsing the Blues is about the need of alienation we all share. Are there any reasonable motives that could lead a person to isolate herself?

Man Bartlett: I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my own experience it’s rare that my personal isolationism is reasonable: it’s fear of feeling almost anything or it’s a denial or deferment of social obligations. On some occasions, I justify my alienation by telling myself I’m enriching some part of my knowledge of the world, through the lens of opinions of people I respect on Twitter, or newsletters from publications with something to add. 9/10 this is a dubious justification. There is not that much “risk” besides a general detachment from reality and an overall inability to communicate or make actual two-way friendships. Sad things, which I’m working on, but nothing like risking your life. Technology and internet access is still very much a privilege.

FL: The relation between users and their personal devices is influenced by the need of the former to behave in an environment customised after their opinions and tastes. Does the need of isolation spring from the same use of machines or it’s something they would need anyway?

MB: The issue is one of desire, and the compulsion to consume that is created by unfulfilled desires. If our desires are in order, or if we recognise that desire is suffering and therefore we strive to desire nothing, we become free. If our desires are chaotic, we will forever live in bondage to ourselves. This is true no matter what.

FL: The audio track seems menacing and relaxing at the same time, suggesting that Browsing the Blues doesn’t take a position in relation to the perception of technology. What do you think?

MB: Provided we are not living in a simulation of reality, we are at a tipping point with regards to the impact of technology on our lives. What’s more alarming is that we seem on the brink of losing control of the technology we’ve developed. It’s why people like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel are developing OpenAI which aims to build “safe” AI. It’s not unreasonable to foresee a bleak future in which humans are collateral damage in a war of competing AIs. On the other hand, we have a real opportunity to develop ways to evolve and port our consciousness into future technological systems. We will not be able to do this, however, unless we understand the systems within we are operating. In a small way, by amplifying the electromagnetic output of my phone I am making audible the invisible. Do I wish I was travelling somewhere other than my social feeds? Sure. But that’s to come.

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Man Bartlett, Installation view of Browsing the Blues (2017), Photo by Graham Martin

Filippo Lorenzin

Filippo Lorenzin is a London-based independent curator and critical theorist. He has worked on many exhibitions and projects focusing on the relation between socio-technological changes and art, based on a material historicism-driven point of view. He collaborated in various ways with – among others – The Victoria & Albert Museum, Saatchi Gallery, Paris College of Art, La Biennale di Venezia, Goethe Institut and François Pinault Foundation.


Featured image: Ben Grosser, Installation view of Go Rando (2017), Photo by Graham Martin


One thought on “Comfortably Numb: An interview with Angela Washko, Ben Grosser and Man Bartlett

  1. Pingback: School of Art | Carnegie Mellon University Professor Angela Washko Gets ‘Confortably Numb’ in Curating the Contemporary Interview

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