Web2 is defined by the centralized control of a few tech companies and a shadow economy in which data is captured and sold with the user rarely in the loop. Artists experimenting with algorithms have often faced skepticism, ridicule, and marginality with their work dismissed as either tech fetish or gimmick. Amid this stifling air of conformity, which mirrors the art world’s own entrenched hierarchy, artists including Gretchen Andrew, Sougwen Chung (愫君), Stephanie Dinkins, Lauren Lee McCarthy, Mimi Onuoha, and Hito Steyerl have all held a mirror up to the corrupt operations of tech systems that are hardwired to reiterate old biases and bad behaviors.
These artists are the sentinels of cultural evolution, deftly revealing the implications of our choices and the impact of technology on our lives.
By scrutinizing the data used to train algorithms as well as the “optimization” of search engines, they challenge the underlying assumptions that underpin these systems, raising awareness and provoking conversation about the ethical, social, and political consequences of our ongoing digital dependency.
As Tatiana Bazzichelli and Geoff Cox asserted in their book Disrupting Business: Art & Activism in Times of Financial Crisis (2016), artists play a crucial role in exposing the hidden structures that shape our understanding of the world. These writers celebrate successful strategies that exploit loopholes in order to subvert digital systems. They argue that creative interventions by artists and activists can expose the systemic flaws and biases inherent in contemporary society, prompting a critical re-evaluation of the status quo in order to bring about systemic change. Disrupting Business champions the transformative power of art, encouraging resistance and resilience in the face of adversity. The book extends Bazzichelli’s own model, developed in her earlier work, Networked Disruption (2013), of the artist as a virus capable of challenging established systems of power by disrupting its networks of distribution.
More recently, Max Haiven identified an alternative approach of “tactical parasitics” whereby artists gain access to dominant systems via monetary flows in order to subvert them from within.¹ By adopting such tactics, artists working with technology are able to deconstruct the (algorithmic) processes that perpetuate discrimination. This approach confronts the capitalist logic of “algorithmic identity,” whereby our digital (and therefore real) selves are actively reconstructed according to a series of “measurable types” — and therefore assimilated within appropriate customer segments.²
As algorithms increasingly determine who we are and how we are perceived, artists who evade and confront these systems provide an essential counterpoint to the forces of technological determinism and control.
Gretchen Andrew is an artist who has worked actively to subvert and re-educate Google’s image search algorithm toward more progressive operations. A case in point is her work, How To, How To, How To (2016), commissioned by Arebyte. For this project, Andrew used search engine optimization (SEO) strategies to infiltrate the digital landscape and hack the system in viral fashion. In doing so, Andrew exposed the fragility of knowledge regimes trained with incomplete data. Her playful manipulation of search results serves as a powerful reminder that the digital world we inhabit is vulnerable to the creative will of those who dare to challenge it, including via methods outside the traditional repertoire of media artists.
Through her Vision Boards (2020-ongoing), Andrew manipulates the natural language data available to the algorithm in order to co-opt search engines as a vehicle for her own domination of the art world.
By convincing Google of her place on the Cover of Artforum (2020), in the Whitney Biennial 2019, and even as The Next American President (2020), her practice represents a playful reveal of the inherent vulnerability and malleability of large hegemonic algorithms.
Other artists have sought to critique Web2’s vast “Cryptopticon” and its impact on the individual’s autonomy and privacy, urging us to re-evaluate our relationship with technology by questioning it from without.³ Hito Steyerl is a German filmmaker, theoretician, artist, and educator known for her critical exploration of digital culture, politics, and the global circulation of images. Her work often addresses the impact of digital technologies, including the ways in which they are enfolded within structures of power and control.
How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) is a video installation that humorously interrogates the politics of visibility in a world dominated by surveillance and data capture. In this piece, inspired by the 1970 Monty Python sketch, How Not To Be Seen, Steyerl employs a satirical instructional video format to showcase tactics for evading the omnipresent gaze. Guided by an automated voice, the viewer is immersed in a blend of the real and the virtual, oscillating between the Californian desert home of decommissioned U.S. Air Force aerial-photography calibration targets and an animated depiction of an opulent residential community.
By laying bare the mechanisms of digital image production and distribution, Steyerl’s work reveals the capacity of new scopic systems to include and exclude populations.
Steyerl’s 2015 work, Factory of the Sun, weaves together news reports, video games, documentaries, and dance videos, while following workers compelled to generate sunlight in a motion-capture studio. In the game “Factory of the Sun,” these workers seize an opportunity to rebel against their oppressors by opting to dance instead of executing prescribed physical movements. As the boundary between game and reality blurs, the battle for light and energy transcends the virtual realm, spilling into the very fabric of their existence. In the process, Factory of the Sun comments on the commodification of data and the exploitative practices that underpin the digital economy, highlighting the dangers of an algorithmically-governed society.
From Steyerl’s showcase of the communicative power of images, Sougwen Chung probes the complex interplay between humans and algorithms, often questioning the autonomy and agency of both human and artificial creators. Once a research fellow at MIT, where she engineered bespoke robots, Chung crafts sketches based on neural networks trained using her own drawing gestures and biometrics. Her long-standing project, D.O.U.G. (Drawing Operations Unit: Generation_) (2015-ongoing), comprises performances involving the artist working together with a robotic arm to produce elaborate drawings.
Through a human-machine feedback loop, both participants mimic each other’s gestures, prompting viewers to question the evolving nature of creative authorship in an increasingly hybrid world.
The gestures of drawings past are preserved in this process, serving as a memory bank for the latest iteration of D.O.U.G. while also pooling the visual styles and color palettes of historical creators into a reservoir from which the robotic arm can draw new inspiration. In this way, Chung’s work approaches AI as a realm of uncertainty and doubt rather than a means to a predetermined end. By examining the intersections between humans, machines, and more-than-human agents her projects challenge our understanding of creativity in the age of AI and raise questions about the influence of algorithms and data on human expression.
Stephanie Dinkins is an American artist and educator who creates multimedia installations that engage with issues of race, gender, and social equity. Her work often employs AI and other cutting-edge technologies to make legible the harmful effects of algorithmic systems on communities of color. Back in 2020, she developed the concept of “Afro-now-ism” as “the spectacular technology of the unencumbered Black mind in action” — a concept that both channels and challenges the premises of Afrofuturism.⁴
In her Conversations with Bina48 (2014-ongoing), Dinkins engages in discussion with Bina48, a sophisticated computer that attempts to transfer the consciousness of a living person to an AI humanoid robot. Through a series of ongoing video-recorded dialogues, Dinkins and Bina48 investigate the question of whether “an artist and a social robot [can] cultivate a relationship over time.”
While their exchanges poke at the problems of a transhumanist agenda and big data, another of Dinkins’ projects, Not The Only One (N’TOO) (2018-ongoing), embraces the frailties inherent in small data sets to propose a posthuman alternative. Based on conversations with different members of the artist’s own family, the work is a multi-generational memoir narrated, by turns awkwardly and movingly, by an evolving artificial intelligence. Envisioned as a voice-interactive AI entity, N’TOO is precisely designed, trained, and attuned to the aspirations and values of those underrepresented in the tech industry. By harnessing deep learning algorithms in the form of a chatbot, N’TOO not only reflects but champions the voices of its community, preserved as an offline archive away from capture.
In evading the operations of large algorithms, Dinkins’ approach is different to that of Gretchen Andrew, who seeks to weaponize them at source. Yet both confront Web2’s unspoken ideology of “algorithmic violence.”⁵
Such violence is the target of artist and researcher, Mimi Onuoha, whose work explores the social implications of data collection and algorithmic systems through analog and digital art. Her projects often focus on the ways new technologies reinforce existing power dynamics by isolating and marginalizing particular communities. Utilizing an array of media, including print, code, data, video, installation, and archival media, Onuoha visualizes the voids that pervade systems of labor, ecology, and social relationships.
Her installation, The Library of Missing Datasets (2016), features a collection of empty folders whose tabs represent data left uncollected or intentionally withheld from the public. The work is a tangible repository for the overlooked elements in a society saturated by uneven data and information poverty. It also implies that what we disregard divulges more than what we attend to. Her installation, In Absentia (2019), shows that the ignorance inherent to contemporary data collection dates back to the early twentieth century, when the US Board of Labor Statistics refused to publish W.E.B Du Bois’s study of the Black community in Lowndes County, Alabama.
By engaging critically with technology, artists like Onuoha are not simply pushing out an old art world envelope, they are challenging a tech industry in which echo chambers and filter bubbles have become the new white cubes.
For it is only by creating work that confronts the logic of algorithmic homogenization that artists can puncture the poor art of data-driven decision-making.
To that end, Lauren Lee McCarthy perhaps exemplifies the contemporary artist who subjects issues of surveillance, automation, and social interaction to critical review. Her project LAUREN (2017) is an immersive performance in which McCarthy transforms herself into a smart home assistant and human version of Amazon Alexa, highlighting the invasive nature of technology and its creep into our domestic existence. By living with participants and controlling their home’s functions through custom software, McCarthy queries the sacrifice of privacy for the sake of convenience. LAUREN is a meditation on the “smart” home as well as the role of human labor in the future of automation.
Follower (2016) is an enigmatic app-based project that enables users to have a “follower” for a day: a real-life, day-long shadow. Participants sign up, download the app, and are left in suspense. When the day arrives, the “follower” remains discreetly hidden, yet ever-present in the subject’s consciousness. As the day concludes, a single photograph, captured by the “follower,” serves as a memento of their elusive encounter.
The work plays on the desire for attention, and therefore surveillance, in a world where social affirmation is digitally inflected.
By blurring the line between online and offline interactions, McCarthy highlights the effects of algorithmically curated experiences on our social behavior.
Artists who challenge the logics of a data-driven world don’t simply offer a counter-narrative to the creeping influence of digital technology on our lives. By working on the very infrastructure that undergirds the tech industry, they are also capable of pushing it toward more socially progressive operations. Concepts of “algorithmic identity,” “tactical parasitics,” and “networked disruption,” have helped to clarify those strategies that rupture Web2’s seamless neoliberal experience, whereby every bit of data is another means of leverage. Artists who adopt such approaches have consistently revealed and confronted the imperfect architecture of digital realms that govern their human dependents.
By demystifying algorithms and data-driven systems, the artists discussed here promote digital literacy while empowering others to make informed decisions about their online interactions. By working actively to confront the worst excesses of the Web2 era, these female creators have reimagined our relationship to technology while projecting alternative futures that prioritize autonomy, human dignity, and plurality. Their works remind us that the Web is not a neutral zone but a battleground in which creators must claim their stake in the production of the world and control over their own data.
With thanks to Alex Estorick.
Nina Knaack is a contemporary art historian and writer based in Amsterdam. She is passionate about telling the stories of artists so that they can focus on creating. Knaack has written for a range of cultural magazines in her homeland, including 3voor12 and Groninger Museum. Her work focuses on the digital art world and how crypto artists can build careers without gatekeepers. She also writes for Culture3 and Nifty Gateway, while working with artists and collectors.
¹ M Haiven, Art After Money, Money After Art, London: Pluto, 2018.
² J Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data, New York: New York University Press, 2017, 34.
³ S Vaidhyanathan, Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
⁴ S Dinkins, “Afro-now-ism”, NOĒMA, June 16, 2020.
⁵ M Onuoha, “Notes on Algorithmic Violence”, ’CAUSE, April 2018.