Digital Wondering 13
Digital Wonderings are a series of online speculations around the curatorial theme of TRUST. They can take any form, from a conversation, a short statement, a film or a photographic series. Invited contributors come from a wide range of disciplines and can respond and react to the theme and the format as they wish.
In this conversation Katrina Sluis and Jonas Lund consider the project ‘Operation Earnest Voice’ held at The Photographers’ Gallery in London in 2019. It was an audacious intervention with the aim of overturning Brexit. From here they discuss the politics of ambiguity, automation and adtech, decentralization NFTS and consider accountability and trust (and the commodification of both these concepts) within different networks and business models.
Katrina Sluis: Whilst your work does not directly engage with the photographic image, it is deeply invested in infrastructures of control and dissemination – from social media platforms to the art market – which also influence photography’s cultural value. It’s now been two years since we worked together on Operation Earnest Voice: Brexit Division, which The Photographers’ Gallery commissioned in 2019 as part of the exhibition season for All I Know is What’s on the Internet. Since its founding in 2012, the Gallery’s digital programme has attempted to „pollute“ the medium-specific institution with network culture and the politics of circulation, computation and cultural value. What’s been your relationship to photography and digital culture?
Jonas Lund: In my teenage years I spent a lot of time in the darkroom, and I was very committed to it. I went on to study photography at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, which is the centre of Dutch Photography. It was a very strict medium specific education. Everything I made during this time was about photography, photography, photography: questioning the image, questioning the author, all the usual undergraduate stuff. At the end of three years picking apart the medium, I was completely done with it. Photography felt increasingly irrelevant, and I felt restricted by the camera „apparatus“. Around this time I also started to code, make websites, and discovered the field of net.art and I thought – oh man – I should have just invested my energy in making online stuff rather than photography. There was something very liberating working in this way – in a field which had a short, poorly documented history and an instantaneity in its production, circulation and reception.
Katrina Sluis: This tension between representation and dissemination is something Daniel Rubinstein takes up in his essay What is 21st Century Photography where he states that ‚in a post-Fordist society the locus of political agency and of cultural relevance has shifted from the object – as visually arresting as it might be – to the processes that (re)produce and distribute the object.‘ In commissioning Operation Earnest Voice, I was interested in how a medium-specific photo institution might privilege imaging systems over images, through the lens of computational propaganda.
But before we continue, perhaps it’s worth pausing to remember what actually happened in the project. In the week before the first vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal in 2019, a floor of The Photographers’ Gallery was transformed into a fully operational influencing agency for four days. What materialized was a kind of Cambridge Analytica simulation – with all the Silicon Valley accoutrements – including robot therapy cat, a fridge of Red Bull and Solylent, standing meeting area, motivational office posters, and rows of screens reporting metrics, KPIs and current website traffic. It launched with an office party, and had a programme of meetings, lunchtime talks by openDemocracy, and was staffed by paid members of the public who responded to a recruitment video you made, calling for hackers, PR people and social media experts to work in the office. I remember being very moved by reading all the applications.
The entire project was livestreamed to the web, and Gallery visitors were free to wander around and interact with the workers – I had numerous conversations with Google and Facebook employees who came down to take a look. By the end of Day Two, there was a dramatic split between those workers who believed they needed to create more compelling images and a better narrative to sway the public; and a second group who were creating a fake news generator which needed text and image assets to spew out multiple alternative nonsensical narratives. At the time I remember thinking this was a brilliant reflection of the contemporary crisis of representation.
Jonas Lund: Underlying Operation Earnest Voice was a desire to make visible the banality of office politics… it sounds so good when you say things like this. There’s so much mystification surrounding Cambridge Analytica. It’s important to remember, at the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of dudes sitting in front of computers and writing code to extract some sort of value. And it’s still quite ambiguous what this data actually can produce.
A lot of the critique I heard about the 2016 election was that the left instantly latched on to the narrative that Russia interfered. By offering a very clear explanation as to what went wrong, Cambridge Analytica became a block which prevented further reflection on what had happened, allowing the left to ignore the demographics of those that voted to leave. Having said that, I believe there’s no question that Trump collaborated with Russia and Cambridge Analytica played a part. But in approaching OEV my question was: how can you how can you make this more visible and more problematic?
Into this mix I proposed that it might be possible to reverse Brexit using the same tools. The recent political history of Brexit shows it was such a tremendous blunder, right? Such levels of stupidity. Maybe stupidity is not the right word – maybe complexity, more than anything.
Katrina: On day two or three there was a dramatic pivot, as you became increasingly convinced that the UK was heading for a no-deal Brexit, which would be “bad for business”. Instead, you instructed the workers to focus on developing “PaaS” – propaganda as a service” – focusing on the development of a suite of products which could be sold to everyday people at an affordable price point in order to “democratise” computational propaganda.
I mention this as there is an important thread of ambiguity throughout OEV. Firstly, there is the provocation of the project itself – before OEV even kicked off, the Leave Means Leave campaign was lobbying for the Gallery to be investigated. However, if you walked into the Gallery this LARP-eque project was perhaps less threatening than the social media narratives which were circulating. As one of the workers, Edwin Coomasuru noted, the ‘artwork’ could be read equally as a satirical left-wing coup to overturn Brexit, or as a portrait of the failure of the left, as you imply. At the same time, in your role as CEO, you were deeply sincere and very difficult to read; as the project unfolded workers started to wonder if you had planted one of them in the office to cause reality-style-TV conflict. I don’t think we even discussed how it would play out or end. Colleagues working in other museums and galleries subsequently expressed their amazement that the Gallery would commission something potentially so risky.
Jonas: In Operation Earnest Voice – as with much of my work – I create the parameters of a system which has some regulations and restrictions as to what can happen and how. This creates a field of ambiguity because the system is performative, has its own bias and its own rules. But in terms of the way it actually performs, sometimes I have agency over that, sometimes not. In this way I also think we both naively underestimated OEV: we thought it’s safe and that we’re protected because we’re operating inside an institution and it doesn’t matter because it’s art… you can do whatever you want. But then it has some actual consequences, which also, I think caught us both by surprise. Of course, I’m also very happy as an artist, cynically, because with controversy comes attention. But in hindsight, I don’t find it very controversial. I don’t know.
Katrina Sluis: I’m reminded that when Vice news visited the Gallery, they did a stunt where they brought a Brexiteer who has been down at Westminster protesting with them, to see if the office could successfully „persuade“ her. She was a retired scientist, passionately against the EU, and generously engaged with the project. Of course, Vice’s stunt missed the point in understanding how „persuasion“ operates – if you consider the social media micro targeting undertaken by Cambridge Analytica of people algorithmically identified as „persuadables“ in the final weeks before the vote. At the time did you believe it was possible to persuade people? Or was OEV a symbolic gesture?
Jonas Lund: In principle, I do believe that art has the power to influence someone to change their mind or to look at the world differently. Perhaps it is possible that Operation Earnest Voice actually touched people not totally embedded in the art world complex because it was hosted in a photography institution, and by default photography institutions are more open and familiar. I would hope that many people who encountered it, learned or realised something, and thought differently afterwards.
The problem is, I don’t think art scales. If you look at Silicon Valley, there is always this question, does it scale? However, for something like contemporary art, it’s a very silly question. The whole art world operates based on the assumption it’s elitist by design, and that’s how it works. To maintain the power structure of art, and a hierarchy of the subjective value production, you need to maintain that pretentious quality.
So, then you have to ask yourself what agency art has to influence the masses? I mean, in a progressive sense, like countering QANON? It’s utterly ill equipped for this because it’s not operating in the same network, it’s not operating with the same type of agency. But in terms of whatever agency art has within these contemporary networks, sadly, I think it’s very limited. Honestly, I think almost no one has agency over these networks anymore. How do you counter this type of computational propaganda which breeds polarisation and conspiracy theories? I think advertising is the root cause of it, the broken business model of the Internet, but that’s probably a conversation for another time.
Katrina Sluis: Agreed. But to dwell more on the subject of networks, business models, trust and accountability, it’s worth remembering that in 2018 you made the effort to decentralise your art practice. You created 100,000 „shares“ in your practice, where one share equalled one Jonas Lund Token, a cryptocurrency you initially built on the Ethereum blockchain. Shareholders acquired rights and voting power over your work and the future of the Jonas Lund Token. The first 10,000 shares were distributed to a board of Trustees of art world professionals; the rest have been allocated to a bounty programme and a series of JLT artworks available for purchase. How successful were you in giving up control?
Jonas Lund I felt like this was the logical last step in the research I was doing into automatic or streamlined decision making: to create my own decentralised, autonomous, self-governing artistic practice. There is something about decision making in my art practice that always becomes very interwoven with what I make – there is always this underlying struggle to assert some authority as the artist. Now, when my artistic decisions are backed by a board of over one hundred people, it sort of has to be the best decision, right?
Only afterwards I realised the problems with this approach. I’ve discovered it’s actually not a decentralised organisation I’ve created; it’s a centralised, very labour intensive organisation. My friend Sebastian Schmeig says that it’s like an instrumentalization of friendship, because a lot of my friends are on this board, from which I’m extracting free advice, even though it’s an automatic distributed network.
Katrina Sluis: Given these misgivings, what do you think about the current NFT craze? I note that in the photography realm, over the past years the blockchain has been posed as solving the problem of image authenticity, image control, and most recently a tool for solving the dubious ethics of documentary photographers.
Jonas Lund: I’ve been on many panels over the past months discussing the blockchain and NFTs. And I’ve had this position since the very beginning: NFTs have no legal grounds at all. Technically, it’s an awful solution for verifying anything. If people actually looked into the NFT contracts being used – you’re not buying an image, you’re buying a weak certificate that is only governed by social convention. There is nothing that stops anyone from doing anything with this image. Legally it’s kinda useless. I didn’t realise that photography had a problem with that. It’s not a problem for Gursky or Dijkstra or any other contemporary photographer. They have what’s called the certificate of authenticity, that’s it. It’s the only thing that’s necessary to „claim“ and authenticate photography, right?
Katrina Sluis: The artist Adam Broomberg recently made social media waves partnering with Verisart for his project #FairPhoto. Verisart’s CEO as you know is Robert Norton, who was previously co-founder and CEO of Saatchi Art and Sedition Art. If you look at the Verisart’s marketing rhetoric, they proclaim their guiding principles are “building trust” and creating services “that enable trust”, and that “we trust each other as a team”. Are we witnessing in these projects the commodification of trust?
Jonas Lund: Yes, that’s totally it. The promise of the Ethereum Smart contract is that you can programme trust. But then, as one of the founders of Etherum, Vitalik Buterin, has lamented many times, this is very poor wording. It’s not a contract, it’s more like a program. It’s a script which decides what you can and can’t do with a couple of functions.
The blockchain Ethereum is a trustless protocol, which means you’re governed by the protocols that you all agree to. If you want to look into any organisation in this whole space that actually operates like this it’s Ethereum itself. It’s an interesting organisation, with a foundation that submits and evaluates proposals. It operates on consensus: if less than 50 percent adopt it, it’s not going to get adopted. So, it operates as a totally decentralised, distributed, autonomous organisation. It’s the original!
Other organisations such as Verisart are not decentralised. It’s like they programme trust, but it’s entirely centralised based on their own smart contracts. So yeah, you’ve got to trust somebody… and then you trust these guys? They’re not stupid, but I’ll admit I never thought it was a solid idea to sell a certificate of authenticity on the blockchain. All the way back in 2015 when a startup in Berlin called Ascribe started facilitating these transactions, I thought, that’s nice and novel, but what type of problem are you actually trying to solve? But now, because it’s so hip, you can ask for money to just do that. It’s just so stupid. It’s like what’s wrong with paper? It holds up in court. It’s likely your smart contract does not.
Katrina Sluis: So, in your opinion, should we believe in the radical potential of blockchain to progressively transform art and cultural production?
Jonas Lund: I don’t know honestly. But will it undermine any art world hierarchy? Definitely not: it will just further deepen the financialization of everything, basically, which is very depressing. Money, it’s just money! And sadly, that’s now the dominant narrative when it comes to this. Of course, the current popularity of NFTs makes sense, because it’s hard to quantify the quality of art under the terms of computational neoliberal measurement. The only numbers you really have are auction results and prices.
So what you see with NFTs is that there’s an increase in pricing transparency now, which is interesting, as it adds to the power of these metrics of valuation. But then market performance is an awful metric for artistic quality. It’s a really poor metric. Particularly auction results – you have to remember that collectors auction artworks that they don’t want to keep in their collection. This is what people don’t understand about the things that end up in auction: it’s collectors who are primarily using it as an investment speculation vehicle, not for the love of the art.
Katrina Sluis: With this in mind, how should publicly funded museums approach these tools – should they operate on Facebook, and self-consciously mobilising these tools to progressive ends?
Jonas Lund: I remember you and I had a conversation about it in December about algorithmic curation andwhat’s to come. My prediction was that each institution will have their own in-house algorithm for figuring out how to beat the others in the attention game because attention is all that matters. Of course, it’s also the failure of the funding organisations, who put requirements onto institutions to prove their relevance by numbers. It’s only logical that the next step is to try and optimise these numbers as much as possible, and adopt a computational approach to this, where you try and replicate the Instagram or TikTok algorithm for defining who’s the best. Of course, it already plays a part in picking actors for films and picking artists for exhibitions. In this sense, all subjective value production is based on network transmission: the bigger transmission you have, the more valuable things are. This is especially true when it comes to NFTs because the performance of your NFT is just a reflection of your social capital. And it doesn’t matter what it is: you invest in something that’s not even something. And then that’s it. So that’s my prediction, which is very sad.
We’re all going to be like slaves to this automatic decision-making garbage. I’m sure culture will go the same way. I mean, I’m sure it already is operating this way in some places. Artists start to adjust their production purely based on these signals. The algorithm rules, so then artists optimise, because that will be the pathway to the institution.
Jonas Lund is a Swedish artist that creates works that critically reflects on contemporary networked systems and technological innovations. He creates paintings, sculptures, photography, websites and performances that critically reflect on various power structures of control. His artistic practice involves creating systems and setting up parameters that oftentimes require engagement from the viewer. This results in performative artworks where tasks are executed according to algorithms or a set of rules. Through his works, Lund investigates the latest issues generated by the increasing digitalisation of contemporary society like authorship, participation and distribution of agency. At the same time, he questions the mechanisms of the art world; he challenges the production process, authoritative power and art market practices. https://jonaslund.com
Katrina Sluis is a curator and educator whose research is engaged with the politics and aesthetics of the image in computational culture, its social circulation and cultural value. She is presently Associate Professor and Head of Photography & Media Arts at the Australian National University and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image, which she co-founded in 2015 at London South Bank University. From 2012-2019 she was Senior Digital Curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, London artistic commissions and public projects on machine vision, synthetic imaging, net culture and speculative photographic education, including the platform Unthinking Photography. She is a core member of the rogue collective behind You Must Not Call It Photography If This Expression Hurts You and co-editor of the forthcoming book The Networked Image in Post-Digital Culture.