An artist statement I wrote about Mediations on Digital Labor at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana appeared in Leonardo on October 1, 2016.
This has been a work in progress for the last year. The fabrication of the vigil (made almost entirely of repurposed Amazon boxes) would not have been possible without Amanda Marder in the UT Dallas FabLab. This was my first time at the iDMAa conference, which I submitted to as an exhibiting artist because Christiane Paul was one of the jurors (and I trust her judgement). The exhibit is full of inspiring work. You should check out the list of artists and their websites on the iDMAa Exhibition webpage.
Here is the artist statement for this installation:
A Vigil For Some Bodies reimagines Amazon.com’s virtual job platform, Mechanical Turk (mtuk.com), as a site for recovering memories and investing in the human modality of the crowd worker. The shelf in this exhibition is fabricated from repurposed Amazon boxes. It holds artificial candles dedicated to the loved ones remembered by virtual workers. The sculpture, like Amazon boxes, is modular and can be constructed to fit various dimensions—in this format it is approximately 4 feet tall by 6 feet wide and 17 inches deep.
As a series of humanist, solidarity activities, I have been hiring digital laborers on Mechanical Turk since 2008 to realize their embodied selves in jobs where they are paid to perform athletic events (as in my previous project, Mechanical Olympics), meditate (in my participatory exhibit Mediations in Digital Labor), or chant “Om” for an ongoing video project, Endless Om. This project started as a Mechanical Turk job request in which I asked workers to light a candle in memory of a lost loved one. Fifty workers responded to my job by sharing details and memories with me by way of Amazon’s crowdsourcing platform. This interaction took place during the weekend of Halloween in 2015.
Shortly thereafter, Amazon advertised temporary job positions in their Fulfillment Centers during the November-December holiday season. I transformed my crowdsourced vigil into a series of modified battery-operated candles (purchased from Amazon.com) labeled with the names of those lost and remembered and the worker IDs of the Turkers who shared their memories. Then I applied for a job in a Dallas-area Amazon Fulfillment Center (AFC). I photographed the candles throughout the hiring process inside and outside the two AFCs I visited. The candles presented in this exhibition of A Vigil For Some Bodies have traveled to an Amazon Fulfillment Center, to Hong Kong during ISEA, and now to Winona for iDMAa.
This semester Dr. Sabrina Starnaman and I continued our collaboration on a project that I have been calling a “recovery through mediation.” We worked with Dr. Starnaman’s class, Rebels, Reformers (and Recovery) to create a participatory media project that further recovers the text, Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis. Published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1861, Life in the Iron Mills was first recovered—a once lost text now considered “a point of origin” for social realism–by Tillie Olsen on the Feminist Press (CUNY) in 1972. Students created a Mechanical Turk HIT (job) that asked Turkers to create self portraits expressing what they would imagine the Korl woman to look like. We sent these Turker selfies to a Fivver worker who created a 3D object file that we in turn fabricated as a larger-than-life portrait of a “digital Korl being.” The students then re-inscribed the sculpture with text from Davis’ novella. We are grateful for the support the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology showed us with a grant that put this pilot project into action.
ATEC graduate student Philip Barker helped us fabricate our 21st Century, mediated version of Davis’ Korl woman. Phil made this documentary video of the project as it unfolded in Spring 2016.
I’m in New York for the Platform Cooperativism event at the New School and the buzz is in the air about an upcoming internet revolution. Will there be a revolution? Radicals here suggest alternative paradigms for sharing and owning the way we collaborate online. Other radicals (maybe with a different history or experience) talk about the potential for creating change within the present capitalist system. Yes, there is a lot of talk about capitalism, and yes, it’s time to get down to it. The event is free and it is being live-streamed. So, you can see me on this channel on 11/14 at 11am EST.
I’m delighted to be included in this monumental coming together–the third in a series of conferences at the intersection of the internet, society, and labor hosted this year by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider. I’ll be providing an introduction to the “Worker’s Voice” session, with a brief nod towards some of my creative collaborations with Mechanical Turk workers and some survey findings of an experiment I ran on Mturk to determine which dimensions of online work were important to the workers. My presentation is not as great without my voice over, but you can see the visuals (including some survey findings) here.
THE OC WEEKLY favorably covered my exhibition in the Grand Central Arts Center Project Room in last week’s printed edition. In Jail Benches and Amazon.com at Santa Ana’s Grand Central Art Center Dave Barton understood the project as “a deceptively simple take on low-wage jobs.”
I captured the above video to showcase the hand-drawn aspect of the exhibition, which Barton described as “chalked out on the floor of the gallery, using the natural lines of the black utility tile to provide something akin to a giant piece of lined paper, with the worker’s feedback done in cursive or block letters.”
Seen and heard below: A time-lapse video created on the night of the opening showcases the fragile nature of the “unencrypted data” on the floor of the gallery while the Mturk workers chant in unison (my digital post-production mediation). Barton wrote, “The now ephemeral quality of work (and lack of security that comes with it) reveals itself on the installation itself. Patrons have to interact with the misery of the workers represented: If they want to read what has been written, they have to stand on other words to do so. Those words—and the work represented by those words—slowly becomes an indecipherable blur of white chalk dust after enough people have shuffled through it.”
On May 2nd from 7-10pm I hope you will join me at Grand Central Art Center (Santa Ana, CA) in the Project Room for my opening of Mediations on Digital Labor.
The exhibitions statement follows:
Mediations on Digital Labor began with a hijacking of the Amazon.com Mechanical Turk website (Murk.com) for a critical, poetic, and alternative practice: Artist xtine burrough hired the Turkers to pause from physical labor.
As a play on the Mturk model, for which an industrial-sized, global workforce is paid less than minimum wage to work in untraced conditions, earning “rewards” paid on Amazon.com gift cards, the artist offered her set of workers 25 cents to break from labor for up to five minutes. She instructed the rested workers to describe their experience in 10-100 words. Trebor Scholz uses the word “playbor” (as in play/labor) to identify the tension between digital work and play that takes place not just on sites like Mturk.com but in all facets of online pseudo-participation. Scholz writes that in digital culture, “It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between play, consumption and production, life and work, labor and non-labor.”
When more than 50 Turkers took burrough up on her alternative job she imagined the international group sitting together, respecting each other in silence. Though it is impossible to target a single worker, or a group of workers, for employment on Mturk.com she posted another “HIT” (Amazon’s word for “job” is “human intelligence task” or HIT) requesting a 10-second video of the worker chanting the word “Om,” for which she paid 75 cents per video and received nearly 30 responses. These videos became the pool of digital data stored on the jump-drives hanging from the Grand Central Art Center Project Room’s walls. Each digital container has one file, a single disembodied “Om” chant from a virtual worker. The workforce extends from the USA to India, and these chants are in various mother tongues. One of them was made electronically, the computer itself speak/chanting “Om.” Some of the videos include an image. Many are black or some variation on pink or red, the color made when a video-maker’s finger is pressed against the camera lens to conceal her identity.
On the floor of the gallery burrough has spent time in silence drawing out the Turkers’ feedback in chalk. Presented here is a small selection of the data, on her hard drive there is more than she could fit on the floor. Burrough chose the texts that resonate with her own experiences with intentional resting, or meditation. As viewers step into the gallery her chalk letters are unencrypted, analog data for human participants that morphs and erodes. Viewers are encouraged to participate: Reach for the sky to select a (now recycled) recording of the Om chant, or sit on the ground and rest. Use the chalk provided to add your feedback. What was it like to rest, intentionally, for a couple of minutes? How did you feel before and after your rest?
Like Scholz’s gray space between play and labor, this collection of digital chants, compiled from a virtual job board, showcases the voices of disembodied strangers making a sound that can accompany one’s return to her body at a vibrational frequency found throughout the natural world.
This is a first attempt at assembling a group chant from single media submissions I have received in an on-going call on the Mturk.com website for “Om Chants.” Yes, it’s sort of a weird job to ask the Turkers (as the workers call themselves) to complete. One worker labeled his file, “A Chant for all Turkmanity.” Indeed.