As part of our Digital Programme’s recent Experimental Photography School, Search Engine Artist and Internet Imperialist Gretchen Andrew came by to discuss how the internet is imperially, creatively, and maliciously used as a source of definition. Revealing her creative process and using examples from her work, Gretchen invited us to consider the implications on image culture, while teaching us how to do it ourselves.
The Photographers’ Gallery: How did you first begin working with search engines as artistic mediums?
Gretchen Andrew: My first search engine piece was accidental. My painting mentor Billy Childish first taught me how to copy his work. I put these paintings on my website as “NOT NOT Billy Childish paintings” because of their liminal, actor-like state of being both NOT Billy Childish paintings but also NOT entirely NOT Billy Childish paintings. These paintings started to emerge in search results ahead of and indistinguishable from the real deal. This “not not” nuance is one that search engines, and computers in general, have a very difficult time with. I began to consider how else search engines struggle with nuance and what this means for the way they answer questions and the definitions they create.
TPG: What is your process?
GA: Like any good imperialist I begin by identifying existing vulnerabilities, words, search terms, ideas, places etc. that I might have a chance of getting my images to the top results for. I then go to my painting studio and consider the replacement imagery, how to make a body of work that redefines the existing internet reputation with appropriate nuance. I like to replace existing search results with paintings because, unlike with a lot of photography, the personal bias and hand of the maker is glaringly obvious. This reminder of objectivity, that all images have a perspective, is a large part of what I want to accomplish. I then spread these images around the internet in a way pleasing to searching engines called “search engine optimization.”
TPG: During the workshop you focused on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as a tool. At a basic level, what is SEO, how does it work, and how do you use it in your practice?
GA: SEO is a way of structuring web content to optimise discoverability by search engines. It involves establishing the credibility of your content in association with specific search terms, in large part through getting other sites with lots of visitors to link to your content. The network is really important which means to be successful in my internet imperialisation I need to make lots of content and rely on an increasing army of other creators. I use SEO to push my images up to the top of search results page where they become a larger element in the search term’s definition.
TPG: You call yourself an internet imperialist, what does that mean?
GA: By organising information in a certain way I can take over the online reputation of ideas, names, terms, but places are particularly interesting to me. I like the idea that, through manipulation of search engines, I can extend my definition-making influence in an outweighed way. Knowing how to use and organise information is like having a military.
One of my current projects is to imperialise image search results for “Bow New Hampshire” with my images of growing up there. It’s a very small town in a very small state so most of the people coming across these results won’t have a primary experience of it as a place. Instead they get my very consciously personal paintings.
“Internet Imperialist” is a little tongue-in-cheek but also meant to remind us about all the very serious ways internet imperialism is occurring. I’ve been looking into how remote civilizations are represented online and experimenting with replacing their imposed online image identities with blank pieces of paper.
TPG: During Experimental Photography School you shared a video called “Boys vs Girl.” How does it relate to the ideas we’ve been discussing?
GA: I think a lot about how image search is used as a de facto visual dictionary and how problematic this is because of the way it codifies the existing discrimination in culture. It’s great because it’s revealing but terrifying for the same reason. It’s an obsession of mine that we not use “girl” to describe anyone over 16 or so. If you conduct and image search for “girl” you get sexualized women. Conduct one for “boy” you get children. Conduct one for “guy” and you get professional looking men. This video is an ongoing project using search results for “girl” and “boy” to be arranged in a way that exposes the false equivalency and reinforces the importance of thinking deeply about the increasing authority we give to search engines and the algorithms that make them work.
Gretchen Andrew (born in California, 1988) is a Search Engine Artist and Internet Imperialist whose HOW TO HOW TO HOW TO & #accordingToTheInternet projects look at the internet as a tenuous form of authority that can be used to understand, manipulate, and imperialize definitions. Her search-based practice is accompanied by a painting practice that is used as an image source for her related Internal Imperialism. She has completed projects or exhibitions with The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, The V&A Museum, The Photographer’s Gallery, The British Film Institute, The Lumen Prize for Digital Art, The British Arts Council, The White Building, Ace Hotel, The London Film School, and Whitcher Projects. She works in London with the artist Billy Childish.