All I Know is What’s on the Internet, The Photographers Gallery, London
26/10/18 to 24/02/19

I was looking forward to this as I hoped it might prove useful not necessarily for my Body of Work but rather for my Contextual Studies extended essay, which is more specifically concerned with the unfolding impacts of digital photography. However, I was ultimately a little nonplussed by a lot of the work on show here, mainly because it didn’t quite deliver the content implied by the title.

The exhibition has a narrower focus that I had expected: rather than looking at the impacts or opportunities of digital photography, instead it went deep into the inner workings of the digital technology industry and infrastructure. It is concerned with inputs more than outputs, if that makes sense. It looks at the people, companies and technology that underpin the internet itself.

Two descriptions of the show will help to contextualise it. First, Katrina Sluis, senior digital curator at The Photographers Gallery:

“The show is not about individual photographs and what they can do, but more about the kinds of systems and infrastructures through which they circulate or don’t circulate.”
(Sluis, BJP, 2018)

And this is from a review in Fused:

“Traditionally, photography has played a unique role in documenting the world and helping us to make sense of ourselves and each other. In today’s climate, however – where digital images flow, multiply and accelerate online with such unparalleled speed and force – the cultural responsibility of understanding an individual photograph is being usurped by the industrial challenge of processing millions of images.”
(Fused, 2018)

Many of the works act as critiques of the digital image culture, holding up a mirror to our obsessions and digging beneath the surface to show what our ‘likes, comments and shares’ actually lead to. One running theme is that the digital infrastructure upon which our images and online identities sit is, to a large degree, dependent on human labour. At one end of the spectrum are the moderators, enduring transgressive and potentially harmful content on piece-work so the rest of us don’t have to (though what does that do to the moderators?), while at the more nefarious end are the click farms and ranking hackers that aim to manipulate what we see, and therefore what we consume and potentially what we think.

I think I was cool on the exhibition for a couple of reasons. First, the narrow focus; there was contextual and conceptual overlap between some of the 11 projects on show here. For example, Google Street View drivers caught on their own cameras (Emilio Vavarella) and failed scans from the Google Books library digitisation programme, where the hands of scanner operators entered the frame (Andrew Norman Wilson) are so conceptually similar, one wonders how they both made it into the exhibition.

Secondly, not all of the ‘revelations’ on show here were particularly new to me. Perhaps as I am more internet-savvy than average (I used to work in the web industry), things like captcha systems being used for training driverless cars, or the content moderation layer, are not new to me. So what remained for me was to determine whether the works on show here were engaging, visually or conceptually. Some were; most were not.

A couple of highlights

The name Constant Dullaart sounds like a joke or an unfortunate example of nominative determinism, but it is apparently his real name, and his art actually isn’t dull. His work Brigading_Conceit (2018) makes material the otherwise intangible world of fake social media followers.

from Brigading_Conceit, 2018 by Constant Dullaart

The most valuable kind of fake follower is that which is verified with a mobile phone number, so Dullaart’s work takes thousands of SIM cards and creates artworks from them, often arranging them in militaristic formations, giving life to the metaphor of ‘an army of followers’.

Winnie Soon took an interesting look at Chinese censorship in Unerasable Images (2018), a video work compiling screenshots of a Google search for the Tiananmen Square Protest  of 1989.

Unerasable Images, 2018 by Winnie Soon

The vast majority of the 300+ searches are blank, but every now and again the surreal sight of a Lego recreation of the event pops up. The censors seem to be playing a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ with this one incongruous image.

Main takeaways

Quite honestly my biggest learning was that I should research exhibitions in more detail before visiting! It was interesting, but not engaging, not really what I was expecting.

To be picky… the title (from a Trump quote) talks about what’s on the Internet, so one would presume that it is concerned with visual culture consumption. But as it’s much more about content creation and manipulation, it comes across as less concerned with what’s on the Internet than with what’s behind it. In this respect it has more in common with industry exposés such as Mathieu Asselin’s Monsanto work of a couple of years ago, only this time it’s a group show about Silicon Valley.

The review I read that chimed most with me was in New Scientist, who asked “Is the internet losing its ability to surprise?” (2018). Yeah, it is, a bit.

EDIT: thoughts on presentation

OK so a few days after writing this up I realised that what stayed with me longer than the content of any of the projects on show here was the variety of presentation strategies.

By this I mean two identifiable but definitely related points.

First, the medium (or combination of media) in which the original artwork was presented. As well as photographic prints there were physical machines, digital displays, artworks created from found objects and videos.

Secondly, the extent to which the presentation supported the intent of the artwork itself. For example, Five Years of Captured Captchas (2017) by Schmieg & Lorusso is presented  as a series of concertina books, opened out wide to demonstrate the evolution of the technology. Likewise, the Google Street View camera glitches noted above present the images as circles, resembling a lens more than a photograph, giving the viewer the sensation of being the camera. One final example: Dark Content (2015) Eva and Franco Mattes’ videos of interviews with offensive content moderators, are themselves heavily censored by way of digitised avatars and synthesised speech – on the face of it to protect the identities of the interviewees, but considering the approach more deeply it actually lends itself to the overall message about digital censorship.

On reflection, this variety of ways of achieving a marriage of medium and message is probably my biggest takeaway from the whole exhibition.

Sources (accessed 10/02/2019) (accessed 10/02/2019) (accessed 04/02/2019)