Data as Trace, Data as Tag

By Joel Kuennen and Riccardo Zagorodnev

There is currently a case before the Supreme Court, Carpenter v. United States, that is deciding both ownership of one’s data as collected by a third party—your service provider—and the government’s right to access that information without a warrant. Little case law or congressional regulation has been established thus far on these glaringly important issues. One of the greatest lines of contention that has appeared in the first round of oral arguments is the distinction between the information that would be available in a physical search and the information available as held by a third party, the implication being that an individual would be disinclined to allow a third party to hold the most valuable and sensitive information and therefore it is not subject to Fourth Amendment protections. 

In short, the government is arguing that law enforcement does have a right to access information stored by a third party without a warrant because people don’t value their information sufficiently. 

Data is a force and we need to understand the power it holds over us and the power we yet hold over it. To engage with data, the traces we leave behind, we must first look at how it is collected. Our first two artists in Strings look at two very different types of traces we leave in the wake of our lives. 

Branger_Briz (Nick Briz and Brannon Dorsey) look at the small computers we carry around with us every minute of the day. Smartphones, or any WiFi enabled device, send out probe requests that contain information which, when cross-referenced with public databases, can be used to map a person’s travels throughout the day. This piece doesn’t use the geolocation on our phones that we may turn on or off. Probe Kit, 2015, takes advantage of a specific vulnerability written into WiFi protocol. This vulnerability is well known to software developers but remains unpatched as it would upend the user-friendly protocol that currently exists, i.e.: you’d have to sign-in to a WiFi network every time you connect. 

Much of our data becomes available for the sake of ease. Heather Dewey-Hagborg forces us to consider the biological data we leave behind like a piece of gum on the sidewalk or a strand of hair on the bus. Stranger Visions, 2012-2013, takes advantage of what is called Forensic DNA Phenotyping (FDP), a technology not far removed from the anthropometric stereotyping done by eugenicist Francis Galton who created facial composites of “types” such as: criminal, scientist, Jew. FDP is beginning to be used by police departments in the United States to create “descriptive profile from any human DNA sample”. However, these profiles are general at best and racist at worst.  Heather makes the point that “Forensic DNA Phenotyping is simply the latest in a long succession of identity-inscribing technologies which claim to use science to classify types of bodies into socially constructed categories like gender and race.”

Data does not only consist of traces left behind, but it increasingly determines who we are. We self-define through tags, flattening our complex and continuously evolving identities into easily indexed profiles with picture, location, and identifying information.

Shawné Michaelain Halloway’s work, explores the experience of a tagged identity through a project combining sexwork and artwork. As a site, her labor intersected with themes of power, identity and the internet. Her triptych USER ID : ADD-TAGS-TO-DESCRIBE-YOURSELF.PNG, PROFILE-PIC.PNG, ABOUT-ME.PNG, visualizes a layered, imagined and performed identity within the context of the internet. A Personal Project, the series of video works she created from her experience as a camgirl/artist explores in depth the complexities of expected identities within these two positions, performer and artist. Viewed collectively, the works locate methods of resistance against the exploitative tendencies of online pornography by metabolizing fetishization.

In a turn towards the simulated self, Amanda Turner Pohan’s The Living Body Archive of Linqox Criss, 2016, traces the arc of MF, a queer, cis-male user in the online world of Second Life. Using screen recordings, voice actors, Greek mythology, philosophy and aerosoles, Pohan’s installation gestures towards the liberating potential of technological platforms and the implications of a fluid conception of identity and gender. Biometric data collected from both MF and the avatar was translated into a scent that is dispersed through the gallery by a vaporizer and respirator assemblage. This allows MF and Linqox to saturate the gallery and permeate the visitor’s physical body, merging with their virtual identity physically. 

Jennifer Chan’s practice is steeped within the visual culture of the internet. Austerity, 2015, made in response to the Great Recession in the European Union criticizes the way in which austerity measures are used to maintain lifestyles that require exploitative economic practices. In many ways the project of the European Union represented the hopes and possible solutions of a global society. The web, popularized shortly after the introduction of the Euro in 1995, developed alongside this period of increased wealth and decreased barriers to travel. Displaying excess became a norm online. By using videos uploaded to YouTube and other video platforms, Jennifer collages biting critiques of advanced capitalism as it appears in the streams of online visual culture. Austerity incorporates footage from a Greek vacation, a destination wedding, a trans-european motorcycle trip and haunting imagery from California wildfires to question the role and responsibilities of transnational economies. Austerity captures a strangely upbeat culture in the face of oppression, destruction, violence and exploitation.

The artists in Strings address, incrementally, the monumental question of how the subject is defined in an age when every dimension and component of the global environment is atomized and mined for value. The mass collection of data and the layered algorithms that mine them force us to consider the latent value of the most insignificant gestures. We have already begun to see self-censorship as a response to these pervasive surveillance networks as well as massive shifts in information value systems. We are at a point where the individual risks losing the ability to orient themselves within the multitude of anesthetizing data streams, a landscape where the only thing that becomes meaningful is the abstract relationship between data sets.