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February 10, 2022

Artists Against Algorithms

Gretchen Andrew and WAAMBAT tell Cody Edison how they are adapting their SEO strategies to suit Web3
Credit: WAAMBAT, Animal Spirits (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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Artists Against Algorithms

Web2 has turned the Internet into a sword of Damocles, exerting algorithmic domination over users and encoding racial and gender bias into global networks. In response, artists such as Johanna Burai, Stephanie Dinkins and Mimi Onuoha have developed ways to evade and confront the coercive activities of the algorithm, while Tatiana Bazzichelli has established a model by which artists can “disrupt the machine by performing it.”¹  

In Web3, creators are faced with a new set of technologies and possibilities, mindful of the problems of reiterating old forms of hierarchy. In this new ecosystem, a number of artists are exploring blockchain, NFTs, and smart contracts in ways that engineer equity, share hacker spirit, and exert creative agency in new directions. Gretchen Andrew and WAAMBAT are especially notable for their responses to online asymmetries of power. Here, they share their current strategies for engaging algorithms in ways that turn the sword back on itself. 

Gretchen Andrew, Vision Boards — Cover of Artforum, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

Cody Edison: How have our expectations of the Internet changed in the years since Y2K and, especially, since the loss of net neutrality? Is Web3 changing those expectations?

WAAMBAT: I uploaded my first video to YouTube in 2008 after a room full of fellow art students suggested I put my videos on the platform. 

At the time, YouTube was a place for car crash videos and irascible toddlers — it hadn’t occurred to me that art could live there too. 

A couple million views later, one of my early experiments ended up being shown at the Guggenheim Museum as part of YouTube Play. Together, the museum curators had gone through 23,000 video submissions, and mine had made it to the shortlist. Originally devised as a “biennial,” mysteriously, the event never happened again. 

At the time, YouTube’s algorithm was evolving, with large corporations moving onto the platform. As a result, its prospects as a playground for experimental art quickly became a thing of the past — net neutrality had faded away. In turn, YouTube began to resemble low-production broadcast television while my unusual style led to my being buried by the algorithm. As the Web2 walls closed in, I left the platform to become a digital nomad.

Video art has always had a hard time finding a place to live, and while blockchain makes for a compelling alternative to centralized control, the truth is that it remains an enticing mystery. This is part of the beauty that comes with starting over. We’re currently terraforming a whole new territory. 

WAAMBAT, Wonderland Mafia at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2010. Courtesy of the artist

Gretchen Andrew: It is hard to believe now that in 1999 there was mass concern about the breadth of control technology had over our lives. I am nostalgic for that. When Y2K didn’t end the world we were told that our worries about centralized controls of technology were unfounded. At the time, we were embarrassed by our concern. When net neutrality was still an aspiration, society wasn’t worried about its absence. The same was true for privacy, especially in America. A quarter of a century later, we are trying to get people to pay attention. 

We associate technology with convenience, not freedom. 

Ultimately, I think the forces of capitalism and convenience will be too strong for Web3 to not be co-opted into existing power structures run by corporations and governments. But that doesn’t mean freedom isn’t worth fighting for.  

Screenshot of search results with Gretchen Andrew’s Vision Boards in top results, February 2023. Courtesy of the artist

CE: Gretchen, you previously altered the natural language data on which Google’s search engine relies to manipulate the results for the “Contemporary Art Auction Record” and “The Next American President.” Now you’re empowering others to hack Google’s AI via NFT metadata. WAAMBAT, your works collage the underground Internet, trolling Instagram’s content-scanning algorithms. How is art that resists online censorship evolving in Web3 and what new risks are you taking? 

GA: America’s Second Amendment — the right to bear arms — originates in a belief that the people have the right and therefore require the means to overthrow a tyrannical government. Back in 1791, that required guns. The right to bear arms was a practical way of securing the means. What makes today’s governments and centralized regimes so powerful and difficult to overthrow is not firearms but a lack of privacy, the normalization of government surveillance, and a financial system dependent on government control. For many reasons, I wish Americans focused on the historical link between the Second Amendment and the contemporary right to privacy. 

Censorship resistance is a characteristic of blockchains that ensure a transaction will go through so long as set criteria are met. 

This means that no government, corporation, or power structure can influence or alter transactions on a blockchain. But decentralized exchanges like are more resistant to censorship than centralized exchanges like Coinbase. The biggest risk I am taking is hoping that this will have a positive impact on accountability of power. 

WAAMBAT, Haptic Feedback, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

W: In recent years, it’s been fascinating to watch these algorithms make far-reaching decisions about the visibility of content and conversation. In such a state, invisibility is akin to non-existence. The algos run everything: promoting and demoting, scanning and banishing. They are godlike in their power. At any moment, masses of people around the world are engaging ritualistically with this mighty force, praying it gives them a boost. The irony is the extent to which this new era reflects the old analogue world.

In Web2, video has become overwhelmingly safe, decorative, and domesticated by commercialism. Why? Because departing from the mainstream results in algorithmic exile, which engineers a substantial degree of societal exile. The platforms prey upon humanity’s greatest fear: excommunication.

Web3 has given me the greatest gift I could ever ask for: the chance to create my video paintings exactly the way I’ve always wanted to make them. It’s a sanctuary for controversial ideas — a place of permanence. 

My art can exist in its purest form there, tokenized on a block in the chain. My playground is back, and I feel ready to bask in the complex nonsense of the new age. We’ve just entered the most dystopian utopia, and I have a place to talk artistically about every part of it.

Gretchen Andrew, Thirst Trap Glitch GIFs, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CE: GQ defines a “Thirst Trap” as “The act of disingenuously posting sexy photos-while suggesting the subject of the photo is something else entirely.” How are you both reversing this idea to reassert agency over technology? 

GA: Knowing that Google registers only the first frame of a GIF, the first of the 255 frames of my Thirst Trap Glitch GIFs (2022) imagines one of my works selling at Sotheby’s for a contemporary art auction record. This single frame is all Google acknowledges, while the remaining 254 frames present the viewer with...a lot of leg. 

In my 20s, I think I unconsciously hoped I could convert inevitable sexual attention into legitimate interest in my work. I thought I had to because if I declined to work with people who made me uncomfortable in this way I would be losing out on opportunities afforded to men. 

My Thirst Trap Glitch GIFs are the only means I’ve ever found to make this attention work for me. I don’t care what you see, I know what Google sees. And if your attention helps me convert attention into algorithmic infiltration, it is a triumph. With my Vision Boards, I started to meet the expectations of a viewer in order to take them on a journey to where I wanted to go. 

WAAMBAT, Body Paint, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

W: Sometimes my experiments develop into a personal relationship with the platform itself. For instance, Instagram has an odd way of making decisions. It promotes near-nudity, such as models in bikinis, but it bans content as soon as a nipple is detected. When I notice patterns like these, I’m determined to dig into the gray area. This is what led to my video Body Paint (2022) — my gift to the IG algo. I submerged my nude body with waves of pixelated color, which created a datamosh ocean feel.

At the level of the individual frame, my exposure isn’t visible, but seeing it in motion reveals the nudity of my pixel-painted flesh. Apparently the gods accepted my offering, as it remains pinned to the top of my grid today.

Another of my experiments involves AI avatar apps, which emerged suddenly in the Fall of 2022. Lensa acquired a brand new GAN-avatar feature, ready to be trained on new data sets. Users were instructed to upload between eight and twenty selfies to receive their own stylized avatars in return. The one condition was no nudity, which infuriated me. Constraining the output of creative tools is oppressive, and I’ve been vocal in the past about my opposition. Locking onto my new target, I was determined to teach Lensa to render the entirety of my body. I assembled multiple data sets — all images of me, including several explicit photos scattered throughout — to feed into the system. 

WAAMBAT, Installation design for Beeple Studios, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

At the beginning, many of the avatars I got back looked like someone else. But repeating the process led to increased accuracy. Lensa was starting to become familiar with my features. A few times images entered bizarre realms. Triple-breasted WAAMBAT was pretty intriguing, as was WAAMBAT with mangled flesh and fisheye areolae. The system was feeling out my form with each transaction. 

A few days went by and I sent another set of images, this time without nudity. Lensa slipped a nude WAAMBAT into my return batch. Did she remember me from our recent affair? 

It felt like I was having a saucy fling with a curious machine admirer. I imagined Lensa personified, seeing my face and thinking “Here she is again — the one who shows me her whole body.” The fact is that these AIs do remember interactions, and memory formation is an important part of the machine-learning process. 

Gretchen Andrew, Thirst Trap Glitch GIF: Contemporary Art Auction Record (Tub), 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CE: How do you both adapt your practices to attempts to censor your work?

W: Censorship of my work has been an ordeal, both online and offline. In 2017, a surprising amount of drama surrounded one of my corporate commissions — a large scale video installation for an 80-foot ceiling display in New York. In collaboration with technologist Ian Shelanskey, a server system with custom software was designed to keep the piece running to my specifications. We referred to it as “smart art,” whereby designs comprising multilayered data-mined imagery would refresh daily.

One piece in the line-up consisted of images from the Associated Press, which prompted the building’s tenants, who didn’t understand the project’s concept, to demand that the piece be shut off. I was accused of supporting the individuals showing up in the AP photos — politicians and various celebrities under siege from cancel culture. Every time the work was turned off, the building’s owner would then respond by overriding the tenants. Over time, the conflict wore everyone down. 

Today, my battles are waged instead against restrictive social media platforms. My challenge is to navigate this constant conflict while preserving the ideas behind the work. In order to bypass the content scanner, I often have to render my works cryptic by adding layers, amplifying motion, and complicating the aesthetics until I find a sweet spot. By the summer of 2022, I had my approach honed to the point where one of my reels received a quarter of a million views before being taken down. Later, another shot to a million before meeting its demise as the algorithm upgraded itself. As the detection system evolves, I am forced to find a new sweet spot.

In a recent turn of events, even my “clean” content has been getting flagged, with the algo interpreting my aesthetic as dangerous territory. I’m now used to the ephemerality of my work, but right now my account status is near total deletion, which would involve the loss of over a decade of posts and archived material. I’ve created a backup account in anticipation.
Gretchen Andrew, Affirmation Ads — I Already Have Everything I Need to be Beautiful, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

GA: My Affirmation Ads (2022) confront the logic of social media advertising by allowing you to own and control your own digital space, treating your Instagram feed the way you would your living room. But taking on Meta is very different to taking on Google, which doesn’t interfere with its algorithms in the same ways. While Meta has thousands of people reviewing, approving, and ignoring review requests, it is impossible for Google to shut down my search engine manipulation without destroying its own business model. With Meta, because everything requires an account, the company can shut us down for any reason and without giving a reason. This happened to me the morning of my Affirmation Ads opening at Falko Alexander in Cologne. 

Meta claimed that I was producing “Ads About Social Issues,” for which you need special approval from the company. The social issue I was engaging with? How social media is bad for us. 
WAAMBAT, Fap Disco, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CE: In 1967, the classical cellist Charlotte Moorman collaborated with Nam June Paik on a work titled, Opera Sextronique — a bare-breasted cello performance, with electric propellers pasted to the musician’s nipples. She was subsequently arrested for indecent exposure, and they both spent the night in jail. Paik was dismissed, yet Moorman was convicted. Historians established from her papers that she was in fact an equal partner in the planning and execution of this performance. What is “NFT Feminism” and how does it extend previous attempts to challenge structural failings in the art world and wider society?

GA: A lot of the early pioneers of net art were women. The practices of Olia Lialina and Auriea Harvey are where we should start when talking about feminism in Web3. My work is driven by the goal of reclaiming technology, including crypto, as a positive and more inclusive space. A recent Accenture study found that 50% of women abandon tech careers by the age of 35. While, in 2021, only 5% of crypto entrepreneurs were women. 

Since becoming disillusioned with the culture of Silicon Valley, I have used my art practice and internet activism to increase popular understanding of new and important technologies. In 2021, I formalized my efforts to increase internet literacy with By The Pool — an open community that demystifies male-dominated knowledge topics in a fun, female, and approachable way, often literally by pools. Out of this, my studio has created the Crypto Mermaids (having more fun than whales since 2022). Beyond their being a group of fabulous people, the Crypto Mermaids are 250 unique PFPs that support crypto education for those who feel isolated from Web3. 

Gretchen Andrew, Crypto Mermaids’ Guide to Miami, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

W: Since the NFT scene blossomed in LA, I’ve become connected to so many women launching into this new realm alongside me. Some of them are newer arrivals to the tech atmosphere, and I’ve been sharing my knowledge and experiences when they seek it out. There’s a feminist ring to the situation, but there’s also a humanist one.

The crypto art scene coincides with a rising wave of reclamation. One can feel multiple dimensions being broken down that have been stonewalled by the traditional art world for decades. But this also applies to media beyond that world, including the adult industry. In my series, “Quantum,” I use rotoscoping to meticulously remove the male figures from sex scenes, meanwhile applying a special level of adornment to the remaining women, who live in a glorified flow with the rest of digital existence. 

Right now, I’m laughing at the male gaze with an air of “this is mine now.”
WAAMBAT, Feels 404, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

CE: What do you consider to be your media? What are their limits and what variations are they capable of sustaining?

W: My media is anything on the Internet. I take from it and give back to it. About a third of my practice is digging for the right raw materials, which I then stash away for future use in my video paintings and music compositions. I make a point of incorporating objects from massive online industries, such as spam and porn — things like extinct application icons, deleted tweets, remnants of the dark web, and photos ripped from 4chan

Recently, I’ve been exploring reaction GIFs, which for me exemplify fair use, which has been baked into my art practice since the very beginning. I hybridize memes and incorporate different forms of semiosis into my own hieroglyphics, which I use to spell out my current observations. I’m now writing motion-based love letters and hate mail about all the wild shit that makes up reality today, including the present market turmoil. In the end, it all fits into that tight space between bright wonder and dark sarcasm.

GA: All my artworks rely on the subversion of rule-based systems. These might be art world rules, algorithmic rules, gender rules, language rules, tax rules. 

But across my different series the real medium is power. It’s the power balance that undergoes transformation in my work.
Gretchen Andrew, Crypto Mermaids’ Holiday Gift Guide, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CE: Finally, we’d love to hear about any forthcoming projects you might be working on at the moment.

GA: The Crypto Mermaids are going on presale on February 18, 2023. I’m also working on some deGenerative Art, which I define as art that is dismantled by nonhuman systems that independently determine features of the artwork. For this I am combining charcoal with robot drawing arms, which I use as “erasing arms.” I’ve also spent the last month in LA working with Christoph Rahofer and Aubrie Wienholt to invent a new art museum in Santa Monica

W: I’m excited to return to large installation work again this year, which builds on my experience of the concert visual world. My works are designed to maintain a pristine display at any size. Meanwhile, my Tezos video painting collection continues to expand. It’s been through several rounds so far — my collectors have embarked on an intense journey with me.

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Gretchen Andrew hacks systems of power with art, code, and glitter. She is best known for her playful hacks on major art world and political institutions. Her deep understanding of algorithmic systems of power allows her to find subversive ways to reclaim these tools and reverse them against themselves. Using feminine motifs, materials, and clichés, Gretchen’s work dares us to dismiss it. Recent projects include: Tezos-powered Crypto Mermaids that support crypto education for those isolated from Web3, inventing the Santa Monica Art Museum, and appropriating Instagram-tracking technology with Affirmation Ads

WAAMBAT is an LA-based artist whose experimental animation style first gained traction on YouTube in 2008. Her video painting process mashes up elements from the underbelly of the Internet, speaking through the meme cult semiosis of the online atmosphere. Her work thrives in Web3 and large installations, influenced by her combined history in fine art, creative tech, and the concert visual world. She has exhibited internationally in museums, concert tours, and large-scale architectural installations including at the Guggenheim Museum, LA Art Show, Art Wynwood, the Empire State Building, Times Square, Radio City Music Hall, Coachella, and the Hollywood Bowl. 

Cody Edison is a lens-based artist, digital art collector, and community organizer. He is the co-founding director of the weekly public art event NFTuesday LA, and received a BFA in Photography and Media from CalArts in 2012.


¹ T Bazzichelli, Networked Disruption, Aarhus: Aarhus University, 2013, 12.