Interview between curator Àngels Miralda and Achinoam Alon
Àngels Miralda: This interview is in relation to your exhibition in Zürich, May Day, which ran from 5 May to 9 June at Lemoyne Project. A while ago you sent me an article by Harvard law and business professor Shoshana Zuboff titled “Big other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilisation.” In it, a variety of themes are explored relating to massive daily data extraction and the velocity of change and consequences this has on our lives and the structure of labour. I really enjoy how your exhibition juxtaposes these big themes with the material qualities of art making with honey collecting in order to make a relation between data and ecology. Firstly, can you describe the work that can be called the starting point of the exhibition: a series of the differently-sized ceramic cookies that create the metaphoric basis of this juxtaposition?
Achinoam Alon: I initially approached fortune cookies out of an interest in their affordance, their interface. Their invitation to a primal gesture of cracking them open – a kind of subtle, irreversible violence is suggested there.
We seem to ‘accept cookies’ online and the sophisticated violence practiced on us in the form of surveillance, data mining, and control, as casually as we do our collective fortune – the scientific certainty of global warming. We dismiss alarming scientific forecasts in our everyday behaviors with the same manner we would with a fortune cookie reading. The aphoristic character of the fortunes can be applied to and related by most people. This touches on themes of increased automation of our everyday experience through algorithms, memes, and a human life based on mediated stimulus-response, as well as our inclusive future as a species.
Observing the fortune cookie as a ‘prediction tool’, one with the potential of behavioural modification (power of superstition), I found parallels to our emerging ‘digital assistants’ (i.e. Alexa). Those too, are in the business of behavioural prediction and inevitably, its modification. In her article, Zuboff quotes Hal Varian: ‘The way to predict the future is to observe what the rich people have because that is what the middle class and the poor will want too’, where he is basically talking about personal assistants.
Inside and around the cookies, you can see this branded fabric which I produced with several references to logos and the prediction of 2 degrees. The monogram woven on the fortune is relying on this old capitalist logic expressed by Varian, referring to the evolution of luxuries into necessities. Implementing this concept through marketing the rise of ‘just’ 2 degrees as the ‘luxury’-scenario prediction for human life can be seen as the last attempt to draw everyone’s attention. We are witnessing this freak phenomenon in contemporary consumerist culture, i.e. in its reverted form, with Balenciaga’s ‘World Food Programme’ collection, where a symbol of hunger becomes that of 'taste’.
ÀM: Zuboff uses the term “extraction” which is one that I reference frequently in more material and ecologically-minded exhibitions. In her words, data flows are termed as “data exhaust” which is formed by the runoff actions of users in mega-platforms such as Google and Facebook. This data is related to “raw material,” which can be compared to the ore or the product that comes from the ground and later for refinement and production purposes. Can you delve a bit more into this metaphor of exhaust with fossil fuels and how exhaust can relate to the scent vaporisers in the exhibition?
AA: the scent released from the sculptures is sweet, meant to attract and lure – it's a sticky honey-trap and your new lover is only really there with the intention of invading your life and make you reveal all your secrets for the benefit of a third party. Observing the main aspect of the aroma diffusers for what they are originally, I like to make a connection to the ‘Wellness Industry’. Some people I know use them with the purpose of blurring unpleasant smells coming from the street, this is corresponding with the phenomenon of treating environmental symptoms instead of the cause – what can’t be remedied is only temporarily camouflaged or greenwashed.
Simultaneously, the nozzles are reminiscent of the smokers used to sedate bees before approaching their hives for harvesting purposes. The scented steam can be than seen as mere smoke, also as idiomatic reference to a metaphorical ‘smoke screen’ that tech companies are using in obscuring their intentions of what seems to be a sophisticated ‘warfare’ on our intimate sphere. It's about how people are getting inured into giving away so much of their personal information, bring these data collecting devices into their most private spheres, for vague promises of increased convenience and services in return.
Going back to the term ‘exhaust’ – as with refineries so with bee keeping, raw materials are processed into several derivatives and subcategories. With us being the raw material for the big tech companies, there's usefulness to any kind of data we produce – all is collected and analysed. In that manner, the algorithmic power of 'big data' is way more efficient in its ability to process everything – it is really zero-waste.
ÀM: There’s another concept that I think relates very well to your exhibition and that is of technology’s ability to produce a “psychic numbing” towards exploitation. This relates to your fabric pieces that we discussed prior. How do you see the psychic numbing of labour and climate collapse as related?
AA: well, most people are either busy ‘keeping their heads above water’, or creating as much a convenient and efficient life for themselves as possible. Also, considering the amount of virtue and resources put into the development of AI technologies, one could claim that there's a brain drain from disciplines that would have taken on finding solutions to our upcoming climate catastrophe, into the gutters of more lucrative realms of ‘big data’ and specifically the surveillance project.
ÀM: I want to bring in another reference which is connected to science fiction and narrative. In an episode of Black Mirror called “Hated in the Nation,” the plot proposes that bees have gone extinct. Humanity has patched up this lack with a series of algorithm-controlled drones whose sole purpose is pollination. They are controlled by a central government system. In the episode, a hacker interrupts the code to respond to trending Twitter themes and kill the person who is most hated in trending hashtags. This episode combines a lot of the themes that you do including technological collapse, the security issues still apparent with hacking and technology, the weakness of the system we inhabit, and social control. Can you speak more about the bees in your project and how they differ or are similar to the premise of this episode?
AA: Honeybees form societies in which thousands of members integrate their behaviours to act as a single functional unit. The process of automation of our Everyday through hyper-mediated communications and transactions must be endorsing the hive mind functions of human society. We already suffer some of the consequences of this influence through social media, as we got to learn the power of targeted ads and the online propaganda made possible through government–tech-giants alliances, has to create political revolutions. When interaction patterns and social dynamics of individuals can be recorded, classified and the contents accordingly ‘personalized’ – when we are hacked – Democracy is hacked too.
ÀM: Lastly, I want to bring up a final reference that has to do with technology and identity. Your series of sculptures are titled off of the women listed in Lou Bega’s “Mambo Number 5.” The sculptures embody some kind of proto-AI Siri or Alexa “characters” and reference the feminine naming of these personal helpers. They are the “ears” in the home of capitalist self-surveillance society. Cultural anthropologist Andrea Matošević has a text titled “Industry Forging Masculinity: “Tough Men,” Hard Labour, and Identity,” returning to extraction and labour, I was wondering if you could comment more on gender in these works. How are the changes in labour organisation and femininity in robotics used in a changing labour industry?
AA: at the moment, these changes seem to be used for maintaining old power structures. It is still soon to grasp the scope of how recent developments are going to influence us in the long term, but technology has always defined and determined society and gender relations with it, as historically reviewed in Matošević’s essay. Now, there's a tendency towards greater inequality. We know that Tech working environments are pre-dominantly male and are familiar with the sexism hovering through cyberspace. I guess the shift goes from treating labouring bodies as technologies, hence when humans are fetishized for their functionalities and physicality which makes them be perceived as obsolete and replaceable beyond their obvious temporality, into reflecting that upon ‘female’ identified entities.
Whereas Matosevic references Zoolander, the titles of each sculpture refer to one of Lou Bega’s women characters from his son Mambo No. 5. Siri and Alexa are anthropomorphised algorithmic workers that affect our daily lives, just as gender and identity have done for all of human history. There is motivation to change these conditions and May Day serves as an urgent reminder of what is yet to be done, as well as a general reflection of the contemporary’s anxious mood – constantly at the brink of collapse.