26 October 2018 - 24 February 2019
Exhibition Day Pass £5
Free entry before noon
Free entry under 18s
We live in a digitised reality. Such has been proven with the recent political controversies in which the phrase ‘fake news’ has entered our everyday vocabulary, in which the lucrative commodification of our personal data made international headlines. “All I know is what’s on the internet,” the title of the new exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery, is a direct quote from Trump: it was his response to the discovery that a video he tweeted, supposedly containing an ISIS protester, was a hoax.
Worrying though this may be, this amalgamation of eleven artists’ works at The Photographer’s Gallery not only builds on our skepticism, roused in the wake of these scandals, but in some cases reveals our complicity. It presents an uneasy reality in which this world of post-truths is little but a result of our own ignorance, or our vanity.
The exhibition contrasts hugely with what lines the walls of the floors both above and below it. Stretching the definition of ‘photography’ to its very max, the room is an onslaught of movement: flashing screens, and the mechanical arms of Kneissl and Lackner’s ‘Stop the Algorithm’ installation. The only elements that take the form of photography in the traditional sense are, in fact, digitally curated from screenshots, stock images, Google Books and Street View - which, while controversial among artistic circles, nevertheless provide a nice continuation from the Gallery’s experimental ‘media wall’ on the ground floor. Familiar motifs, organic features of everyday modern life, hung from white walls as conventionally as any Monet or Van Gogh creates an eerie juxtaposition of sorts. It invites further examination of what we tap, flick, scroll through everyday without a second thought.
Thematically the exhibition is equally as disorientating. Coupled with detailed descriptions, the works appear to question common understanding from all angles to an overwhelming effect. They are not paired, and broadly speaking can only be linked through the familiarity of their shared aesthetic, or, perhaps, their desire to reveal the unknown.
One such common thread reveals the usually hidden army of workers behind aspects of the web we consider to be ruled by algorithms alone. Andrew Norman Wilson’s Scanops is understated in appearance but certainly one of the highlights of the exhibition. Effective in its simplicity, the series was painstakingly curated from pages of Google Books in which the scanner’s hand has mistakingly been captured. The two-dimensional appearance, simple colours and shapes gives a somewhat ghostly effect, as if photoshopped; presenting the detached hands of faces we will never see.
Behind the next wall other works implicate us in this concealed digital labour. Itself nearly hidden against its glass case and white backdrop, Schmieg and Lorusso’s Five Years of Captured Captchas is conspicuous in both its huge size and - upon a closer look - the flashes of colour contained in each individual screenshot it displays. The piece documents the evolution of Google’s familiar ‘Captcha’ security system from the early mess of jumbled letters to the most recent use of Street View images in a series of elegant books - forming a bizarre but beautiful photo album for the Internet age. Google actually uses the results of the image-based tests to train its artificial intelligence network - something which many determine to be unpaid labour, and was the subject of a significant legal challenge back in 2016.
But perhaps the most eye-catching piece of the whole exhibition is Constant Dullaart’s space age combination of SIM cards and aluminium. The work utilises only a fraction of the thousands of tiny chips purchased by the artist in his attempt to construct a digital army of fake identities, designed to like and comment upon various social media streams. Now an established trend following the rise of Instagram in particular, the cards are required to verify the accounts before later being sold for scrap. The dull reflection and neat, angular appearance of this piece somewhat gives it the appearance of a science-fiction movie prop. While perhaps slightly less beguiling than the subtlety of Schmieg and Lorusso’s paper creations, Dullaart’s effort is certainly as thought-provoking: an insight into some alien world populated with little gold chips, rhythmically liking and commenting, liking and comment, to appease its vain overlords.
Indeed the whole exhibition is tinged with a sense of other-worldliness: the representation of an environment that should only belong in tin-foiled heads or a Black Mirror episode. This appears to be understood by the curators, who cleverly frame it with works such as Winnie Soon’s Unerasable Images, which, in its depiction of Chinese Internet censorship, provides us with skeptical discourse that is perhaps more familiar to the mainstream Western press. Nevertheless, one is left upon exiting with a feeling of having been poked and prodded by this barrage of information. While overwhelming it provides a satisfying reflection of the similar cascade of news stories, images, facts and figures we are exposed to everyday through the wonders of the Internet; a reminder that this other world is indeed our own.