The Artist Project 1: VPN to IRL

Artist Series One: VPN to IRl

@ XPACE Cultural Center

As boundaries between our digital lives and our “real lives” are becoming increasingly blurred, artists are responding in playful, critical and innovative ways. Digital Tattoo decided to connect with some of these artists within our communities to have conversations and look into what new metaphors are being created to represent our rapidly changing social, cultural, and political landscape. For our first meeting, we interviewed Tak Pham, who recently curated an exhibition titled VPN to IRL at XPACE Cultural Center in Toronto’s West end. Four artists, Sophia Oppel, Tommy Troung, Marlon Kroll and Ronnie Clarke, were featured in the show. Our conversation with Tak introduced us to these emerging artists and helped us to understand better the multi-media installations that made up the show. The common thread that brought together the four artists was an inquiry into the role that invisible data collecting technology plays in contemporary life. As Tak explained, his curatorial goal was to create a kind of “virtual private network” within the architectural space of XPACE.

One of the first things you notice upon entering the exhibition is an over-sized QR code. This was Tommy Troung’s piece, Blind Date, 2017. Visitors can activate the work by scanning the code with a smartphone, which redirects you to a webpage (coded by Tommy) upon which text appears, revealing specific identifiers about your device, your location, and whether or not your device has a camera. This functions as an uncomfortable reminder that our tools also have a grasp on us, as it reminds us that our devices are always tracking us. The small amount of information revealed on the screen is a small sample of the mass of data we produce as we use our smartphones throughout the day.

Tell Me Everything You Saw, and What You Think It Means, by Marlon Kroll, is a collection of photos featuring film stills of people’s backs. Kroll’s work raises questions around the ethics of watching others, the power dynamics of a one-sided gaze which reflects a data collector’s perspective on users. Kroll’s photos locate the viewer in the position of the surveyor. However, the point of view on the subjects of these photographs is obscure, while you can gather some minor details about the figure’s gestures and activities much is left to the imagination. The data we produce creates a portrait of us, incomplete representations of complex people using abstracted data points. The limitation of our “data portraits” leads analysts to interpret users, make inferences and categorize behavior.

Sophia Oppel’s piece Terms of Service was interactive, playfully using elements of visual surveillance by live streaming and projecting gallery visitors onto an adjacent wall. Terms of Service considers the decentralized power inherent in digital infrastructure, specifically looking at the invisibility of elements that structure the internet, like terms of service agreements. Oppel is concerned that the invisibility of power on the internet can be used by corporations as a tool for exploitation. In this piece, she installed transparent acrylic sheets with quotes derived from terms of service contracts from Facebook and Instagram. These sheets only became visible from certain vantage points shaping the experience of visitors as they navigated the space of the gallery. One of the acrylic sheets states: “You give consent by entering the establishment”.

Reading Together by  Ronnie Clarke explores the impact that our devices have on our bodies, influencing our physicality and affecting how we move through space. Her work includes a VR headset constructed from cardboard, it displays text too close to read comfortably and causes you to spin around tilting your head back to try to read a full sentence. Accompanying the VR set is a film documenting Ronnie Clarke and a friend performing the body movements as directed by the text. The two do a strange disconnected dance, demonstrating through their bizarre movements a breakdown in communication as the performer’s body moves in a puppet-like jolted fashion.

It can be easy to forget that information communication technology depends on its capacity to extract information from users in the form of data. This process of data extraction is often not on the mind of users as we enjoy our devices, the terms of service are opaque, and the infrastructure that supports the internet’s function is invisible. Artists such as Sophia, Ronnie, Marlon, and Tommy offer fresh perspectives through embodied, multi sensory experience of the gallery. They create a ground for the public to engage in conversation around what it means to be a digital citizen, what power dynamics are at play in our online spaces and how we might take control of our digital lives.

(The music in the video is by Big Blood)

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