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LOS ANGELES — Type “Frieze Los Angeles” into a Google search bar and you’ll be directed to the website for the much-anticipated art fair making its Los Angeles debut later this week, as well as several related news stories. Do an image search for the same phrase, and the results are quite different. Instead of photos of endless aisles of gallery booths or blue-chip artworks, Google will return many images of impressionistic, figurative paintings hung on white walls above a speckled gray carpet. This is all the work of artist Gretchen Andrew, who created the paintings as well as what she calls “search engine art,” harnessing Google’s search algorithm as a collaborator in her own net artwork.
Andrew studied Information Systems in college and worked in tech in San Francisco, before turning to art, learning how to paint by watching YouTube videos. She then moved to London, where she apprenticed with Billy Childish, the British musician, poet, and painter, who first came to prominence as the frontman for ’90s garage rockers Thee Headcoats, but is also an established figurative painter. The idea for her search engine projects began when she would copy Childish’s paintings as practice after hours, uploading them with the label “After Billy Childish.” Since internet technology was unable to grasp the nuance between original and facsimile, her versions popped up first when she searched for his paintings online.
Her first forays into what she has dubbed “internet imperialism” focused on how power and the female body are represented online. One dealt with a form of cancer that her mother was afflicted with. “Instead of sterile medical diagrams, you would get paintings of my experience, humanizing the technology,” Andrew told Hyperallergic.
“Information systems is all about how companies use technology for competitive advantage,” she said. “Translated into art, I’m asking how I can use information to create meaning.”
For her “Frieze Los Angeles” project, Andrew painted oil on cardboard portraits that represent individuals she hopes to share an ideal future with. She photographs these and inserts them into a virtual gallery, on the floor of which sits a gray carpet with a pattern named “Frieze.” This is just one of the many steps Andrew has taken toward Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, a process which ensures that her images will top the Google image search results for “Frieze Los Angeles.” The images live on her website Frieze-los-angeles.com, as well as on about 30 other sites, including her SoundCloud, Live Journal, and even Myspace. Each site is peppered with file names, metadata, and a stream of nonsensical text, all “structured to be understood more by machines than people,” as the text itself notes. Her subversive SEO works so well because “the internet can’t tell the difference between what is and what’s hoped for,” she said.
Andrew is quick to point out that she is not simply critiquing the behemoth art fair, but inserting herself into its online presence in an aspirational way. “This is an infiltration into art world power and dynamics,” she said. “I’m sort of punking Frieze, but also saying, ‘I like the way you bring art to people.’ I’m not disdainful of it. It’s an important part of how culture operates.”
As for Frieze’s official take on it, she hasn’t reached out to them, but isn’t concerned about pushback. “The worst case scenario is a cease and desist,” she said, secure in the belief that her use of the name “Frieze” and their logo is legal since it could be construed as parody. Her inclusion of the “frieze” style carpet is also intended to give her use of the word some legitimacy.
In addition to the websites, Andrew will be passing out an analog newspaper version at the fair’s opening. “My intention isn’t to be disruptive,” she noted. “This is about nuance, technology, and art, not disruption.”
What if Frieze gets wind of her project and fights back? Andrew believes that her SEO work is so ingrained in the web’s fabric that it would take months for them to overtake her in the Google results. In the end, however, they will make it happen if they want to.
“They have actual power, not subversive power,” she said. “It’s pretty hard to compete with that, especially when money is involved.”