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 morning at 11am in room 518B Sabrina Starnaman and I are presenting the pilot project that we developed in the classroom before arriving at our ongoing project, The Laboring Self, at the National Women’s Studies Association annual conference. In “The Korl Woman & the Crowd: The Laboring Body as a Site of Digital Resilience/Resistance” we relate the invisibility of immaterial laborers to the recovery of a text that was near-invisible for a century, Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills.
If you would like to follow along, you can download our presentation.
This month Sabrina Starnaman and I delivered a presentation of our ongoing project (now called The Laboring Self, which was a 21st Century Korl Woman in its first iteration) to the Digital Frontiers conference audience from my classroom at UTD. This was the first time that I brought a class with me to a conference by presenting electronically from my home-podium. It was not difficult and my students enjoyed hearing a conference presentation from the seats they occupy each week.
While we couldn’t see our peers in the room at Rice University, we were delighted with their engagement in our Twitter feed. Thank you Frontiersfolk—hope to see you in person next year!
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.
For a project that I’m producing right now I’m collecting Om chants from Mechanical Turk workers. I can’t believe I didn’t predict this—naturally, downloading and watching these videos has transformed my usual computing mode into one that is slightly less stressful.
I can’t stop myself from working with the Mechanical Turk workforce. As a digital media artist with a participatory, collaborative trajectory, the Turkers—as they call themselves, are reliable and willing collaborators in the form of an online “crowd.” Perhaps wisdom is to be had. I consider my Amazon payments to be the price of “art supplies,” in the same way a painter has to buy brushes and paints…And as far as the Turkers are concerned, I think that much of the work they do on the Mturk.com site basically constitutes a digital sweatshop. The laborers are far underpaid and work in conditions that go undocumented. No one keeps track of the time they spend working or if computing-related health hazards occur as a result of their work on Mturk. So I hope that my projects, which mostly get them off of the screen and encourage some kind of in-body experience, are worth their time and the payment.
So I was trying to think of a way to work with the Turkers again in 2015, seen as how it is not an Olympic year (for those years I host the Mechanical Olympics and the Turkers perform athletic, sometimes silly, Olympic-style events). I had a bit of an “aha” moment one night this January, as I was reviewing events of the week with the Turkers tucked away somewhere in the back of my mind. During that week I had an incredibly fruitful meditation session. I can’t say that I meditate regularly. I try to do it everyday but it often doesn’t happen. However, there was this one day, one time, that I felt truly rested when I came out of the meditation. I thought: Wow, that’s what this is all about. I felt my body gain something tangible from just resting for several minutes. As I revisited that experience I had the simultaneous thought: That’s it! The Turkers should rest! So…off I went to my Mturk.com requester account to pay the Turker workforce for doing: Absolutely nothing. Please, let me pay you to do nothing. Let me pay you to rest and experience what it is like to just sit for a few minutes with nothing to do but be.
In the instructions, I asked the Turkers to set a timer and rest for 1 to 5 minutes. Then I collected their thoughts. I encouraged them to write 10-100 words about their experience. Here are a few thoughts from the Turkers on being paid to rest or just on resting, in general:
- I rested for 3 minutes. To be honest, it wasn’t as restful as I would have liked, since I have a horrible stomach ache, and I don’t want to be working right now, so I spent the time wondering how to avoid these situations in the future.
- Well, my rest consisted of sitting here and fidgeting. I have a hard time just sitting still with my eyes closed. Also my cat started using my leg as a scratching post and my fiance asked me why I was sitting there with my eyes closed and if I was all right. It wasn’t too terrible though. It was nice to not do any hits for a minute (well 4 minutes) Thank you.
- My rest was a much needed break from all of the stress I am under right now, so thank you! I closed my eyes in bed and the few minutes that went by passed so slowly. It really was great!
- I went and relaxed on the sofa in my office for three minutes. It was nice to take a break from staring at the computer screen, though I wish had it been a bit longer. It was a short, but enjoyable break that I appreciated.
- i laid on the couch with my cat for two minutes. then thought i’d fall asleep and forget to submit this. now, i’m going to go take a nap since i was so comfortable there.
On Wednesday, November 11th, I will be talking about the Mechanical Olympics on a panel titled “Crowdsourced Labor: Digital Democracy or Centralized Sweatshop?” with Jeff Crouse and Beka Economopoulos at The Change You Want to See Gallery. This event is an installment of the monthly Upgrade NY! series on open source as it relates to activist and creative practice, co-produced by Eyebeam and Not An Alternative. It is presented as a prelude to “Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory,” a conference organized by Trebor Scholz to take place at The New School November 12–14.
Wednesday, November 11, 7:30pm, The Change You Want To See Gallery
84 Havemeyer St, Brooklyn NY 11211