I got to know Joyce Yu-Jean Lee through my work on the exhibition “Search for…Serendipity. The more you search, the less you find” in 2016. The show explored how technology and the Internet mediate the understanding of self and how algorithms subliminally eliminatie chance encounters and serendipity. The more you search on Google (or any other search engine), the less new and surprising information you find because algorithms are programmed to create profiles of our preferences and present us with what it predicts we will like. Of course it is still possible to find something new on the Internet but, slowly and steadily, our searches will be perfectly attuned to our personalized information and news. What is more, as technologies get ever more sophisticated and may outsmart us one day (#technological singularity), it is important to be aware of how technologies shape us, our daily lives, and the understanding of what we think is true (#fakenews). Today, my interest in digitalization and algorithmization has intermingled with discussions about feminist issues – a conglomeration of issues that Joyce also incorporates in many of her art works and so I was thankful that she took some time to chat with me recently.
Joyce’s FIREWALL Café clearly displays how search engines can subliminally alter us. It first popped up as an Internet Café in New York and invited visitors to search images on Google and Baidu (Chinese version of Google) simultaneously. You may be aware that there are a number of countries that limit their citizens’ access to the Internet but China is one rather extreme example of a government that runs very strict firewalls to block and censor politically sensitive material, censoring its users online and offline. FIREWALL highlights these issues of Internet freedom or the lack thereof. I was flabbergasted, for instance, when I first visited China in 2009 that the violent massacre at the Tiananmen Square in 1989 is not included in state authored history books, nor the Internet. Censored access to certain information demonstrates an entirely different (hi)story… What we see is not all we get!
With FIREWALL, Joyce and her collaborator Dan Phiffer foster an important dialogue about these issues by comparing censored content in China with wherever the project is installed. The search for “happiness”, for instance, resulted in a conglomeration of happy family pictures on Baidu versus joyous individuals jumping in the air on Google. One could argue that the algorithms that generate these search results influence our understanding of how to live a happy life: either through personal successes as manifested on Google or as a nuclear family that ensures state stability on Baidu. That said, search for a more sensitive subject and you’ll see how the search engines can further shape our perceptions of reality. The search for “Beijing tiananmen massacre” or “Liu Xiaobo” in China will not provide photos of the actual violent crackdown that happened on the square nor portraits of the dissident who was incarcerated in a Chinese jail for years and died thereof. Thus, FIREWALL is an artwork that monitors censorship and shows quite plainly how technology mediates our understanding of what is true. It reveals how knowledge and historiography are manipulated.
It is safe to say that this kind of manipulation is not solely happening in authoritative countries like China. Every search is filtered, either in order to protect children from graphic material, or to make sure employees don’t get distracted from their work. I was also interested in how the search for women and women’s rights issues returned different search results. Joyce comments:
The physical representation of women in China is a little bit different than in the US. Google is more censored in terms of pornographic images while China monitors political issues. On Baidu you can easily find racy images of women but topics like women’s and reproductive rights are restricted or entirely censored by the Chinese government.
For example, pictures of the Feminist Five, a women’s rights activist group in China, cannot be found on Baidu and finding out about feminist agendas is quite tricky. Moreover, users who don’t have the means to install a VPN are especially disadvantaged to access information, particularly about social movements in China. Especially now that the #metoo movement is gaining momentum in China, social media becomes a powerful tool for empowerment. Citizens create various strategies to circumvent online censorship and government punishment, as the #WoYeShi or #ricebunny campaign demonstrate. Online activism by Chinese women is increasing as they find ever more creative ways to connect with each other, a phenomenon coined as “creative hacktivism”.
And this is where I return to Joyce and her latest solo show, “State of the DysUnion,” of which I got an exclusive Skype tour. The exhibition contemplates a variety of issues, like the nation’s health, finance, ecosystem, and gender inequality and how they are mediated and falsified in the media, especially after Trump’s inauguration. Joyce guided me via her phone through the show and I traveled through time and space from the confines of my office. From what I saw on my screen, the exhibition was set in a slightly dystopic yet ecstatic environment that stands as a metaphor for the current media landscape. Centre stage is a cylindrical screen that presents a myriad of layered footage from the women’s march in the US, overlaid with moving images of the California Wildfire. Time and again, front pages of national and international newspapers from the days of Hillary Clinton’s nomination as Democratic candidate and Trump’s presidential victory rose up. Joyce described:
I’m interested in the parallels between the health of our nation (the state of a union) with that of environmental or ecological health. I think wildfires are a clear signal that something is wrong with our environment: something is off balance and unhealthy. There is this tipping point in a wildfire when it gets hard to contain and it will move like it wants. In the same way, I feel the “me too” movement has gained momentum and become its own thing. It’s no longer just a moment—it’s the time and the age of women taking back what they believe is their right to respect and fair treatment. I thought the fire was a fitting metaphor for the march and the women’s movement, and it just so happened that footage of both events were covered in the media around the same time.
Two other pieces accompanied the central piece that create the illusion of a contemporary media landscape. In “Water Wisdom: Miracle Workers,” a pile of sand created a vortex on top of which different headlines were swirling around. Clippings from women’s lifestyle magazines bring issues of the beauty industry and sexism to the fore. Tucked into a corner, I saw a giant weather balloon that resembled a cloud. It displayed headlines from newspapers about the economy, international relations, and technology as sentences grouped into clusters drifted in and out of focus. ’Uneasy Peace: Mr. Technology is your Friend’ talks to the idea of a virtual cloud that is always pressing silently into our space. We can try to ignore it, but we are addicted to it. If we don’t focus and let it fade into the background, we immediately feel out of touch. “State of the DysUnion” also included a soundscape that set an emotional tone for the entire exhibition. Joyce continues, I paired the projections with a tone poem entitled “The Swan of Tuonela,” part of the Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22, 1895 by Jean Sibelius. This Finnish fable describes a fictional land of the dead, which I felt would set an appropriate mood for the media landscape I created in the space.
And indeed. Even though I wasn’t physically there, I could get the feeling of a dystopic yet soothing environment. Classic music and the pictures on the screens represent dark and frightening themes yet the soft tones and surfaces obscure the looming dangers—at least when you allow yourself to let loose and imagine a different world. Joyce concludes: The news today can be difficult to swallow because much of it is just ugly. So the music is beautiful but alludes to the dark nature of what I’m showing. It’s a journey through a very bizarre landscape and my processing of how to develop personal agency in our media consumption.
In the end, I only got a virtual tour of the exhibition, which made me dependent on Joyce’s choice of framing what I got to see, which is a fitting metaphor for what the news and/or algorithms do with our perception of reality. We receive filtered information through the eyes, values, or cameras of someone else every day, but we aren’t continuously aware of that filter and the bubble in which we may be trapped. Every online encounter relies on a haptic and virtual interface between us and reality, and what one believes ultimately relies on the eye of the beholder.