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The Googled Body: Rosamund Lakin in ConversationEdwin Coomasaru // 27 October 2014

Rosamund Lakin, still from First Opinion (2014).

 

Edwin Coomasaru: At an ICA panel discussion in May, Boris Groys claimed that algorithms would become the new art historians and curators due to their ability to process huge quantities of data supposedly needed to make distinctions of ‘taste’. What role do search engines play in how information is accessed and disseminated?

Rosamund Lakin: There is a beguiling illusion of an infinity of online information, accessibility and coherence. Search engines seem to point towards the idea of there always being an answer; it is so shocking to us when Google has no results. We all know that search engines are largely tailored by our search history, but we still look for a kind of impartial, absolute truth when typing in a search. I think it will be more distressing when search results no longer give the impression of objectivity in its display of information, and it becomes very specific to us as individuals, tailoring its results to what it thinks we will like – and hopefully ‘like’.

It is an interesting point Groys makes about algorithms and taste, but I feel it is an observation rather than a despairing warning: he speaks of the difference between the traditional creative process, carried out in private and only then presented to the world on completion, and the current need to involve the world (via the internet) in the documenting of the entire process, so that a constant stream of updates becomes the end product. This generates such a vast mass of information that can be observed, traced and analysed that only computer algorithms can begin to contain and curate all the available material. Thus it is beyond even the cleverest human brain to compute all the relevant data and come to an informed judgment about any individual work of art and its place in the world.

Rosamund Lakin, still from First Opinion (2014).

 

EC: Yes, as it would also be beyond the abilities of any ‘pre-internet’ human to process all the artistic material ever produced. But the increasing use of algorithms for analysing and influencing collective behaviour is interesting. How does your work investigate the way body norms and anxieties are manifested in the collective use of Google Search?

RL: The ‘body fear’ that comes when Googling health symptoms is explored in my film, First Opinion (2014). Search engines are frequently used as a personal doctor, for self-diagnosis, which of course can be very useful – but if we search and search, we all eventually come to the conclusion we have incurable cancer. Equally we are using search engines for reassurance about being ‘OK’, physically, mentally and in our behaviour. We are willing to share our most intimate fears and confessions in a way we would hesitate to do with another human being, no matter how close the relationship. The negative aspect of this is that people who are definitely not ‘OK’ can feel subject to the pressure of collective norms. Throughout First Opinion, the computer user is seen obsessively inspecting themself with a double-sided magnifying mirror, flipping between the digital screen and the reflections. I wanted to find a way of signifying the bodily effect of the medium of information – a state where the body, the self and the information technology are intertwined.

Rosamund Lakin, still from First Opinion (2014).

 

EC: Indeed, government and corporate data surveillance is being used to try and predict the future behaviour of populations, whether to seek out potential dissidents or marketing opportunities. What is the significance of the seer-like, almost spiritual, impression of Google Search that your work explores?

RL: Search engines have replaced the oracle, the confessional, the physician. Human beings have always invented an infallible source of wisdom, faith and guidance for themselves. Google certainly does have a seer-like presence in our lives. It shapes our behaviour and decisions; it is used a source for moral guidance, career-building, finding relationships. The internet has spreads into the metaphysical as well as physical realities of people’s lives.

Content online is becoming more open to user-driven, crowd-sourced approaches without an ultimate authority to declare what is ‘worth’ viewing. I think it is fair to say that there is a reflexive relationship between people and the internet. We all recognise how much we depend on something like Google, but it is also worth thinking about how much humans have adapted in order to better relate to their technological devices. To get the most out of a search engine or voice-instructed machine, we have to modify the way we communicate.

It is amazing how quickly this has happened: even five years ago it was seen as unhealthy and disturbing if people spent most of their time on the internet; but now its seems not only widely acceptable, but somehow strange if you don’t choose to. It is what most people do at work and during leisure time.

Rosamund Lakin, still from First Opinion (2014).

 

EC: The common conception of Facebook use as a leisure activity is somewhat misleading. Users exchange their personal data for access to search engines and social networks – some commentators have described this as a form of labour; others have suggested that users are the ‘product’ sold to advertisers. Considering your Instagram Residency for the International New Media Gallery and Instagram’s imminent introduction of adverts in the UK, is it important to stage critical interventions on social media platforms?

RL: The personal data we offer willingly is a high value currency indeed, and although we may experience a mild, temporary irritation when asked for more details, we rarely stop and refuse – our desire to keep on getting access is more powerful. In our impatience and naivety, we don’t consider how much we are giving away for free, or that we are being sold. Who actually reads the small print before exclaiming, “I agree to the terms and conditions”?

It doesn’t seem that surprising that Instagram plans to introduce adverts – it will just become more like a glossy magazine. However, I think it will be quite unnerving if the advertised brands mimic the look of Instagram photos, so that it is harder to differentiate between what is posted by followers and what is a marketing campaign.

I have not used Instagram before, so I will be engaging with the platform afresh for the residency. I’m interested in how the internet has made it much harder to differentiate what one is doing as art and what is ‘normal’ internet behaviour (non-art, as it were). I shall explore how I might use social media as practice for my work – whether as a form of subject matter or a methodology for an artistic practice. Online platforms are a significant source and an inventory for sampling and sharing, as well as contributing to a crisis of representation and rights of authorship.

 

Follow the INMG Instagram Residency programme at instagram.com/inmgallery or #INMGresidency to see Rosamund Lakin's recent work, new projects and experimental work-in-progress on display from the 27th October - 2 November 2014. Lakin is a London-based artist who recently graduated from Oxford University. Edwin Coomasaru is the Director of the International New Media Gallery and a research student at the Courtauld Institute.