Mediations on a Digital Workforce in Leonardo

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.

Citation, full article, and the abstract on Leonardo:
burrough, xtine. “Mediations on a Digital Workforce.” Leonardo, vol. 49, no. 5, 2016, pp. 436-7.  The abstract is on Leonardo.

A Vigil For Some Bodies in the IDEAS exhibit at iDMAa

A Vigil For Some Bodies, full view

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.

A Vigil For Some Bodies

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.

Platform Cooperativism

platform coop

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.

Working with the Turks, again

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.

Vote! The Mechanical Olympics Start Today

Videos made by the general public are competing against those made by Mechanical Turk workers at MechanicalOlympics.org. You can vote on the blog or log into your YouTube account and press the Like button to vote for your favorite videos on the 2012 Mechanical Olympics playlist.

Let the games begin!

Mechanical Games Press Release

Participants in Manchester
Mechanical Games participants in Manchester. Photo by Simon Webb Photography.

To celebrate Abandon Normal Devices festival in Manchester (1–7 Oct 2010), Cornerhouse are pleased to present this interactive project by media artist xtine burrough that will set up camp in Cornerhouse galleries on Saturday 24 July. The project created as an alternative performance and gaming event, seeks to inspire and re-ignite our imagination and interest in sport through filmmaking, as well as creating an online and crowd sourced version of the major public sporting events that some of us only see televised. View the Mechanical Games Press Release.