Mediations on Digital Labor in the OC Weekly

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.”

Mechanical Turk Workers Chant Om

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.

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.