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LONDON — The introductory wall text to the exhibition End User at Hayward Gallery concludes on a somber note: “The web can no longer be said to be ‘open,’ or free.” Inventing lost innocence is easy. So is forgetting that the internet in art originated in the military-industrial complex with the development of ARPANET: a packet switching network funded by the post–Cold War US military in an effort to insure information against nuclear attack. (For a fascinating read that touches on the topic, check out Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Control and Freedom.)
It’s undeniable that the internet has become increasingly privatized, and that much of the web has been rendered a contentious factory for affective labor. But the story of the internet has always been more complicated than a fable of innocence corrupted.
Fortunately, the majority of the pieces in End User transcend the simplistic framework implied by this small slice of gallery text. The best works on view in this seven-artist selection are “post-internet” experiments (sorry) that probe the ways in which the internet has reconfigured, and continues to reconfigure, such charged arenas as identity, surveillance, and labor.
To the left of the wall text is a video of a 20-something woman blinking exhaustedly into a webcam, with changing backdrops that are mostly set in bedrooms. This is Erica Scourti’s “Life in AdWords” (2012–13), arguably the exhibition’s strongest piece concerning the performative and dialogic aspects of identity on and with the web. In the 70-minute video, Scourti recites strings of words. “How to trust again,” she intones monotonously. “Best wine glasses wine glasses.” Her language is algorithmic, having been sourced from the targeted ads that appeared when she regularly emailed her diary entries to herself. Between the words selected by Google AdWords and the footage onscreen, the viewer patches together her own narrative.
Stressed, anxious, and mildly hypochondrical, Scourti is a UK-based artist in Greece who might drink a little too much. Her confessional identity and the Google ads that it generates become confused and conflated. Where does her diary end and Google’s consumerist language start — and what of the webcam meditation between the two? Are the Google Ads that much more artificial than the prescriptive confessional forms of the diary and the webcam? In an interview with Daniel Rourke for Rhizome, Scourti provocatively asks: “Maybe the algorithm and social media soul is now so intertwined and interdependent that it makes little sense to even separate the two?”
In lieu of focusing on the corporate online surveillance that feeds the voracious advertising machine, Liz Sterry’s “Kay’s Blog” (2011) makes surveillance thoroughly personal. For seven months, the UK-based Sterry paid close attention to the blog and social media presence of Canadian blogger — and total stranger — Kay. The information that Kay willingly posted online was ample enough for Sterry to produce an installation that exactly replicates Kay’s bedroom, from the patterned green curtains and chartreuse throw to the bottle of Jack Daniels bookending the outmoded television. Post-its and printed photographs papering the outside walls of the “room” provide additional information, going as far as to note Kay’s shoe size and struggles with social anxiety, while a notebook in the bedroom details Kay’s daily movements.
Kay is not an outlier in the amount of information she makes publicly available on the web. Lock your bedroom door all you’d like, the work seems to say, but if you leave the Windows open, someone will get in. The feeling of invasiveness and voyeurism on the part of the viewer is convoluted by Kay’s voluntary — eager, even — role in her explicitly and reflexively public postings. While the work itself does not seem to intend malice, “Kay’s Blog” calls to mind the harmful cyberbullying practice of doxxing with its murky legality. With regards to the information that end-users knowingly or unknowingly provide on the private-public space of the web, where does the onus lie?
Finally, Tyler Coburn’s “The Warp” (2013–14) considers the blurring of the distinction between human and automaton in and prior to the internet age. In “The Warp” (a version is available here), 18th- and 19th-century passages on the automaton are engraved on glass sheets. The glass panels at once evoke screens and render the faint text, while not totally illegible, arduous to read. The panels are accompanied by a handful of spindly drawings on paper: pictures in ink of man-robot hybrids, mechanical spiders, and the groundbreaking automatic loom of 1747.
The drawings were not made by Coburn, but by A4H1NYJVE7C53, among others. Coburn commissioned the pieces on Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s platform for outsourcing some of the simple, repetitive tasks that computers aren’t able to do yet. Coburn’s multifaceted piece draws attention to the people behind the screens who constitute an invisible and potentially exploited work force in today’s labor economy. Simultaneously, it points out that the automaton is not a concept — or a fear — unique to the digital age. Curiosity and confusion over that ambiguous space where human supposedly ends and cyborg starts is longstanding.
For a small exhibition, End User covers a lot of ground. What its range of clever and complex works do best, ironically enough, is trouble the traditional notion of an “end user” at all. Pointing to the fallacy of digital dualism, they suggest that there is no point where the internet “ends.” We are not tangled in the web, innocents at the mercy of its sticky trap; we are endlessly remade in conversation with it.
End User continues at Hayward Gallery Project Space (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London) through February 8.
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