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Days before it closes this week, the New Museum retrospective of Hans Haacke has been hacked. A digitized visitor poll on the exhibition’s fifth floor has been interfered with to show altered, satirical results. The prank was pulled by two New York-based activists to critique the museum’s “complacency in capitalism.”
Visitors polls have been standard practice in Haacke’s work. For over 50 years, the pioneering conceptual artist has surveyed his audience about their views on burning political and social issues. This practice continues with “New Museum Visitors Poll” (2019), created for his current exhibition All Connected at the New Museum in New York.
But visitors happening upon the survey artwork today are bound to see some curious results, particularly in response to a certain question about income inequality.
A question in the poll asks visitors to respond to the 2013 Credit Suisse global wealth report, according to which “the lower half of the global population collectively owns less than 1% of global wealth, while the richest 10% of adults own 87% of all wealth, and the top 1% account for almost half of all assets in the world.”
The hack inflated the response “Accumulation of wealth should not be interfered with” from 8% to 85%. The response “such inequality needs to be corrected” now stands at 13%, and “I don’t know” stands at 2%.
The hackers wrote in an email announcement that the altered response “better expresses the political position of American museums like the New Museum,” citing the museum’s response to staff unionization efforts and referencing the activism that drove tear gas manufacturer William B. Kanders to resign from the board of the Whitney Museum.
The New Museum confirmed the hacking in an emailed statement that said: “We are aware that an external server hosting Hans Haacke’s New Museum Visitors Poll was hacked over the weekend, creating ongoing irregularities in the reporting of poll results. We are currently working to correct and resolve the issue.”
In an email to Hyperallergic, Grayson Earle, an artist and adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design in New York, and his collaborator “M,” a graduate student at the New School for Social Research who wishes to remain anonymous, identified themselves as the hackers. Neither Earle or “M” have any professional affiliation with the New Museum.
“We hacked the survey results as a means of questioning the efficacy of sanctioned institutional critique,” Earle told Hyperallergic. “But more importantly to mount further pressure on museums like the New Museum to recognize and redress their continuing complacency in capitalism.”
The two hackers randomized the results to most of the questions in the poll, but in the case of the question about wealth inequality, they have hiked up the number of responses from about 14,000 to over 70,000 to significantly alter the response.
Following Hyperallergic’s inquiry, the New Museum has adjusted the poll back to its original results by removing the inflated responses, but this solution is temporary. According to the hackers, their intervention will keep producing survey answers at about 150 per minute and shifting the results, “unless they drastically change up their security, which would involve rewriting their survey app.”
Prior to their intervention, the audience’s opinion on wealth inequality was consistent with Haacke’s early polls on the issue (81% supported closing the wealth gap).
“If the museum wanted to prove the efficacy of institutional critique, they may have taken the will of its audience seriously with regards to this question,” the pair says. “They may have agreed to meet workers at the bargaining table, committed to reducing the income disparity between executive and low level staff, and ensured their annual budgeting fell in line with the sorts of progressive values they are trading off.”
Earle and “M” do not believe that their action defaces Haacke’s work. “We believe consent here is implied by both Haacke and by extension the museum itself,” they wrote. “We see our work as extending and conversing with Haacke’s, an artist and thinker who has been a source of inspiration to us both.”
“Our action might be seen as unethical, but don’t think this applies only to us,” the two activists continue. They ask, “By ceasing [sic] on the technological loopholes of someone else’s work and ‘fixing’ the answers, are we being any less unethical than the institutions are in trying to validate this work whilst continuing business-as-usual?”