Life Online: An Artist Statement
If you asked me at the beginning of the fall semester which of my courses would garner the most campus-wide attention, I probably would’ve put this course last on the list. While certainly timely and important, the content of this course didn’t seem particularly contentious to the average student. However, over the course of this semester, our small Introduction to Digital Studies classroom became the center of college news on two distinct occasions.
First, and perhaps most innocently, the affectionately termed “Email Saga” occurred when a student in our class emailed of a list of all the Davidson Domains users, rather than the official email account for the Davidson Domains support team. Seizing the opportunity for instant affirmation by peers, multiple students took to spamming the thread with short quips, event promotions, jokes, and memes in a chain-mail-esque capacity. A good portion of the audience of over 500 unwilling participants followed in real time the exchanges by several students and a few heated faculty members. Even the Technology and Innovation representative who finally answered to the the chaos described the event as an “unintentional viral CC event” because of the way it managed to form its own type of social media feed of live content for just under an hour.
This small blunder could most neatly be attributed to both the Technology & Innovation department’s accidental classification of the list as an open list which any student could email, as well as the Outlook feature which automatically fills-in-the-blank with email recipient recommendations when you start typing. Regarding the latter, it became a clear example of the type of unhelpful types of algorithms and default settings we don’t spend enough time talking about. That is, we could probably cut in half the number of emails that are sent to the wrong Sarah if we were forced to actually check the email address of the person rather than using the suggestion that is given to us, with little more inquiry than a brief glance at the tiny thumbnail image. Not only does relying on this type of setting discourage using thought in our online spaces, it also promotes a particular experience as neutral and “default” uncritically. Though this may was a comedic and generally harmless digital experience, it certainly raised the question of how we will catalogue, remember, and describe this event in the years to come.
Similarly, the second time our class went viral was with a group project from our class that was implicated in a dangerously exaggerated game of telephone. That group happened to be composed of three other class members and myself. For our Internet Conspiracies case study, we explored how different parties respond to school shootings, including conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones who have the power to convince people that such events never happened. Because the format of the project was a Twine game, the whiteboard we used to plan our project had a clear narrative flow.
However, by the time I heard about the alleged shooting threat, it was weeks later. The threat I heard about was a detailed plan, including a map and potential route of how a shooter could effectively shoot up the library. What’s worse, the threat surfaced in the height of panic around the doxxing of two Neo Nazi students. The two students in question were nationally exposed and vilified to a population angry for justice in the form of expulsion from social institutions. While this likely seems the only appropriate recourse to such an event, it also created a unique situation of hours of fear between the doxxing and the apprehension of said students. Part of this delay resulted from confused police officers – untrained in the age of digital threats – who failed to grasp the implications that one Twitter dox thread could have.
In light of this information, the fact that a shooting threat had been reported in the library spread quickly and poorly. People infused their own fears about the Neo Nazis, about a potential shooter, and their frustration with the lack of an official account from the school administration into a new story altogether. It wasn’t until several days later that our group would actually connect the dots to find out that this was one exaggerated account was actually our project board from weeks earlier. In the end, it turns into an ironic story: our project about conspiracy theories itself formed the basis of a conspiracy theory. The conspiracy also reveals that trust and credible information are at an all time low. Dictionary.com named “misinformation” the word of the year. Donald Trump won the presidency through claims to “fake news.” This year, journalists at the Capital Gazette were murdered for their journalistic work.
What ties these three incidents (the doxxing, the conspiracy theory whiteboard, and the email saga) together is that they are uniquely digital experiences. In the same way that it took hours to explain to police officers why the doxxing represented a credible threat to campus, it takes a while to explain either of the other incidents to someone born before 1980 (unless they’re regularly studying these things). In this new era of fear and intimidation rushed in with the digital, we are also left in dire need for an update to how the rules surrounding how our traditional social spaces apply to reflect contemporary digital issues. This project, like this class, explores that very phenomenon.
The Public Project Documentation
This whiteboard art installation was placed at the front of the library on the afternoon of Monday, November 26th, 2018. The whiteboard will live there through the end of the finals season.
At its heart, the Life Online assignment asked for elements of found object sculpture. For example, we were tasked with using public space and artistically unsophisticated methods to create pieces that engaged in academic conversations outside the classroom. In this way, the project was drastically different than art you might find in a gallery. The art is in your face, and almost in the way. A number of artistic decisions were made to reflect these intentions.
First, we used a whiteboard as our project’s backdrop, which are typically reserved for limited time written academic use, rather than for artistic endeavors. Relatedly, the choice of a whiteboard was essential to the conversation we wanted to engage with, as our earlier project, which caused the chaos on campus, was also on a whiteboard. We knew this would be a source of public attention, but we also put it at the front of the library by the stairwell so there would be no question of whether people would see it.
Second, we covered the board in newspaper pages as the background of the project. This had both an aesthetic and a practical function. Artistically, we felt that the newspaper in the background contributed to the chaotic theme of the project where there was simultaneously an overflow of information and a lack of meaning. Significantly, though, this was not just any old newspaper; these were pages from the Davidsonian issue which actually reported key facts about the events on campus that our project were referencing. So in a way, the background played a crucial part of obtaining clarity about both the art piece and the event.
Third, the project intentionally employed colors, shapes, and tape. Most obviously, we used different styles of fonts to recreate the anonymous “ransom note” effect of stories being pieced together. Similarly, the red and yellow tape were meant to attract attention to key email correspondences in a seemingly straightforward way. The yellow tape boxed in the guiding takeaways we wanted viewers to be thinking about, whereas the red tape reflected further information about the case that students may not have originally had.
Finally, everything was layered, but there was no clear starting place. This contributed to the feeling of the confused and misguided narrative that was circling campus. Although there were pathways the tape encouraged the viewer to take, there was also no clear guide of how to interpret the information on the board. The information was simply laid out for you to draw your own conclusions.
Ultimately, these artistic decisions were all made with the intention of furthering the message of reading deeply into the contemporary digital age that our entire course explored. Whether we were exploring the hidden implications of algorithms, the hidden environmental impacts of tech companies, or the hidden motivations of social media conglomerates, this semester fundamentally encouraged us to dig deeper. With this project, we wanted to expose all the information we had to concerned viewers, but force them to piece that very information into one coherent narrative with their own critical thoughts. Following the themes of the course, that is the engagement we want to encourage for life online and offline in 2018 and beyond.Life Online: An Artist Statement