In autumn last year, The Photographers’ Gallery presented the exhibition So Like You, a new work by London-based artist Erica Scourti, commissioned by Photoworks, #temporarycustodians and The Photographers’ Gallery, for the Brighton Photo Biennial 2014. Here, in this second part of a series of blog posts, the artist discusses the project and her influences and thinking around the idea of identity in the age of the internet. Part 1 here.
Double Life ©Sanja Iveković
Although anxieties around the authenticity and identity of a mediated self are seen by many as linked to, if not the outcome of, technological advances – or ‘the internet’ – they echo long-standing concerns in Western thought, as Plato’s mistrust of mimetic representation in his criticism of poets and ‘the other imitators’ in the Republic attests to. In recent, but pre-internet, history, Sanja Iveković’s 1975 project Double Life matches photos from her own personal archive with advertising imagery derived from glossy magazines, to foreground the reflection of commercial imagery in representations of lived experience. Double Life thus presents the artist’s life as both specific and generic and always already mediated. Her project acts as a precursor to the repetition enacted in So Like You, which connects my personal photos with algorithmically-determined ‘similar’ ones, and again to the archives of the people who responded, providing an image whose similarity was determined non-automatically by a human.
What marks Iveković’s work as pre-internet, however, is that it clearly distinguishes commercial imagery from personal photos without commodity status. This distinction has become harder to make: take, for example, a selfie posted on a writer’s website, which is ostensibly part of her branding, and may therefore represent cultural capital that could later be transformed into real capital. As photography critic Geoffrey Batchen pointed out, from the moment an image circulates online it has currency and value, and is therefore, intentionally or not, commercial. More broadly, Google is itself a corporation that exchanges private data for free service, and hence the monetization of personal experience is arguably at the heart of its operation. By using its tools, this project is thus already implicated in the production of commercial value for Google and in the notion that what is private and personal, is also profitable.
Double Life ©Sanja Iveković
Perhaps emerging out of a resistance to the commercialization of personal experience predicated on a singular, unique self, the concept of normcore, coined by the trend forecasting group K-hole, is something like the embrace rather than studious avoidance of sameness. The logic goes that increasingly niche and knowing consumer choices, in the name of standing out from the mainstream, lead to the dead end of ‘mass indie’, where despite any superficial lifestyle variations, everyone is united in the same fruitless search for difference. The apparent demise of any clear boundary between mainstream and marginal culture, which might be linked to the immediate access provided by the internet to almost all niche interests, and the commodification of alternative subcultures like punk, grunge, rave etc, also undermined the value of being/thinking differently. After all, K-Hole argue, there’s nothing special about being unique if everyone is asserting uniqueness; normcore thus becomes yet another way to be ‘cool’, paradoxically by being ‘average’.
Despite its inconsistencies and critical blindspots – especially regarding the privileges of blending in – normcore could be seen as a counterpoint to the market-oriented injunction to stand out. As Rory Rowan argues, ‘capital operates through the production of subjectivities and thrives on extracting surplus value from the generation of social difference’, suggesting a potentially subversive current to pursuing similarity instead. In So Like You, finding visual near-matches of my photos with thousands of unknown others, and then seeing my moment of life ‘repeated’ in theirs, could highlight and welcome a sameness of experience across a global network. As with normcore, perhaps there is relief in realizing that my life is nothing special after all.
Initial search photo. Me and Mel on a beach ©Erica Scourti
Search result. Under The Sea, watercolour ©Carol Eaton
Another search result. Military plane
However, for reasons I’ll explore in more detail, this generates a whole other set of problematic dynamics, not least the repetition of subjectivities such as my own: a relatively privileged, white, Western and already visible woman. However, the faultiness of the algorithm in perceiving my own image as similar to someone ethnically, socially and geographically different from me suggests a potentially positive aspect of computer vision in not ‘seeing’ sociocultural diversity. Differences are emptied out to meet the algorithmic eye, which pairs pics taken by iphones with pro-DSLR shots, photos of delicate watercolours with military planes, photos from South Africa with photos from Greece and so on. To follow the logic of this (problematic) claim, a visual search algorithm could be said to by-pass specificities of personal affiliation, political allegiance, geographic location and aesthetic preference in what appears to be a unbiased process of selection, signaling a post-racial, post-gender society where value can be objectively determined by software.
Emotion recognition software ©Erica Scourti
As the practical applications of pattern recognition software in racial profiling or reconnaissance suggest, algorithms are never neutral but reflect instead the biases and cultural assumptions of the people who write them. Emotion-reading software, for example, an offshoot of facial recognition technology, promises brands the ability to read users’ affective responses to their products in real time, by scanning for shifts in facial expressions. Quite apart from the increased intrusion into personal privacy these applications augur, any claims to objectivity are undermined by a reliance on culturally assigned presets for what emotions like ‘happiness’ or ‘sadness’ look like, and by the unspoken assumption of a default subject who is most likely to be white and male. Similarly, auto-tagging software that algorithmically parses images into descriptive keywords betrays the sexism of the people who devised its taxonomy. For example, as researcher Jay Owens pointed out at a recent talk, an image of a businesswoman returns ‘sexy’ and ‘lady’, while a businessman is less condescendingly tagged ‘man’ and ‘powerful’.
Auto-tagging software tested on one of my old polaroids ©Erica Scourti
Moreover, as Karen Barad argues, apparatuses and any other method of analysis, such as algorithms, are ‘neither neutral probes of the natural world nor structures that deterministically impose some particular outcome’ and thus cannot be separated from the phenomena – be they visual, textual or informational – they purport to observe. As the ‘observer effect’ in scientific study maintains, conducting an experiment means affecting and being part of it, so that acts of measuring, scanning and analyzing themselves posses agency. There is no place you can stand, nor tools you can use, that bring back a truly objective picture of the terrain, just as living within a capitalist system means being entangled in networks of value one may nevertheless seek to navigate and resist.
Similarly, there’s no such thing as ‘the internet’ but rather ‘my internet’, reflecting my individual search history and online behaviour populated by feeds, search results and other content that Google/Amazon/Facebook algorithms have deduced I am already predisposed towards. As a gesture towards acknowledging my own position as both conductor of the experiment and case study, I undertook the search process within this project with my existing web history, bookmarks and preferences intact. Far from being neutral, any search results generated therefore implicitly reflect my own specific ‘web identity’.
The photo that came up in a search, connecting me to Karel Donk
However, the image results returned in this project do not constitute the ‘work’ but more importantly represent potential connections to other users. By asking them to scan their own lives for visual matches to my personal photos, the people I contacted are themselves assigned the role of search engine, in a literal enaction of the way that, as Katrina Sluis and Daniel Rubenstein argue, ‘every participant within the network is simultaneously a viewer and a performer of the image’. Here, the differing interpretation of similarity foregrounds the gap between human and machine participants’ understanding and intention. Photographer Bastiaan for example offered his photo of a night beach landscape as similar to my sunny daytime one, explaining that his ‘interpretation of difference / similarity is people using the beach at diff. times of day and their intentions (sunbathing vs fishing).’ His intervention in wilfully bending the ‘rules’ could be seen as an assertion of human agency that signals the limits of machine intelligence.
Sharon Johnson explains the similarity in my picture (above) and hers ©Erica Scourti
A foregrounding of human agency when considered alongside the idea of similar patterns of experience across a global network could point to a vague humanism that I want to question. Firstly, as with normcore, an assumption of sameness may erase the very real, material differences in human experience, which can easily end up in a universalising ‘we’ that condescendingly presumes to speak for others with different racial, economic, ethnic, gender identities than one’s own, and usually from a position of privilege. Also, any process of group identification excludes as much as it includes, divides as much as it unites, and reflects the socioeconomic biases of one’s position and search material. To give a couple of obvious examples, in this (my) case: not everyone has been to a beach, and not everyone has photos from their youth, due to everything from economic circumstances, to relationships, to self-image. Those who responded also reflect a very small, specific set of online users who were able to communicate in English and had the time or resources to spare. These observations serve as a reminder of some of the problems associated with Relational Aesthetics, which, according to Claire Bishop, Dave Beech and others, often failed to address the power dynamics implicit in any convivial or group situation, not just between artist and ‘collaborators’ but also between included and excluded participants.
As Bishop pointed out in her discussion of ‘delegated performance’, the collaborators an artist works with play the crucial role of supplying an authenticity borne of their ‘real’, lived situation. By ‘outsourcing authenticity’, instead of being its original guarantor (as in the example she gives of the artist’s naked, vulnerable body in ‘70s performance) the artist is able to tap into a proxy ‘reality effect’ by sourcing it from people with specific attributes due to their profession, age, nationality and so on. In So Like You, however, the respondents are not chosen for any particular affiliation beyond being visible and reachable online and many are themselves photographers, artists, designers, writers and bloggers. That is, people with a creative profession or practice of their own. Overall they perhaps provide an authentic commitment to creating content that contrasts my own role as organizer of the content and formulator of the viewing framework. This reflects a shift in discourse towards investigating infrastructure rather than the content within it. For example, in Benjamin Bratton’s work on The Stack, a vertical diagram of infrastructural layers composed of human and nonhuman users and the debates around stacktivism which derive from it, Keller Easterling’s focus on ‘active forms’ over objects in global architecture in Extrastatecraft and David Joselit’s foregrounding of network aesthetics over objects in After Art. Projects where work is openly outsourced implicitly posit the artist as content organiser, rather than fabricator, while others, like DIS for example, explicitly function as platforms for curating and disseminating other artists’ work while being included in exhibitions as artists in their own right.
While this trend reflects a shift towards a growing awareness of the importance of infrastructures, this is not meant to imply a hierarchy of value nor straight split between platform and content, or (after McLuhan) medium and message. Poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s tweet that ‘context is the new content’ may be partly in jest, but I would suggest instead that an artist’s work emerges precisely out of their interplay, and that any object (or image/other artifact) is inseparable from the ways in which it circulates. This echoes Bratton’s postulated ‘composite user’, who exists in combination with ‘other kinds of nonhuman Users (including sensors, financial algorithms, and robots from nanometric to landscape scale)’ and could be seen as the embodiment of this subject whose existence is entangled within wider infrastructures. Following this logic, while the video and the Instagram image iterations of So Like You can function and circulate in their own right as traditional art image-objects (for example as limited edition prints, at film festival screenings), the project as a whole posits a composite work emerging out of the framework, or platform, I set up.
Screenshot of the similar selves tumblr ©Erica Scourti
 Socrates says of the maker of tragedy (i.e. the poet and the painter) “if he is an imitator; he is naturally third from a king and the truth, as are all the other imitators”. Plato, Book V of The Republic.
 Everyday and everywhere: Vernacular Photography Today. Podcast, Tate Modern, 2013
 Kate Crawford argues that the ability to blend in and become invisible are privileges afforded only by those who don’t stand out in some way on accounts of their ethnicity, disability, class, age, gender and so on.
 Rory Rowan, SO NOW!: On Normcore, e-flux journal #58
 At Banner Repeater, London Dec 2014- check website for documentation
 Karen Barad, Posthumanist Performativity: How Matter Comes to Matter, 2003
 Katrina Sluis and Daniel Rubenstein The Digital Image in Photographic Culture (2008)
 Claire Bishop, ‘Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity’, in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012)
 For example Jonas Lund, Studio Practice (2014) at Boetzelaer|Nispen tasked other artists with making paintings for him before getting feedback from various professional sources to decide on whether to ‘sign or destroy’ the work.
 DIS is listed as an artist in the upcoming New Museum triennial, with corresponding ‘biographical’ details’.
 In digital marketing circles, the marrying of design and other formal attributes with the content is referred to as ‘contextual content’, with the adage “Content is King; Context is King Kong”.
 Benjamin Bratton, The Black Stack E-Flux journal