Imagine if every single image on your phone was displayed on a gallery wall, each one enlarged and sprawling across a ready white space for all to see. It would be OK with a few of them I suppose – that flattering selfie in front of a Koons sculpture, the artfully filtered shot of a sushi dinner, friends sat in rays of of sunlight picnicking in the park. But what about the other ones that are very much for your (or a carefully selected other’s) eyes only? The naughty ones, the less boss-friendly ones, the ones where you look frankly dog rough? But the thing is, you can’t choose. There’s no one without the other. The data gatherers can’t tell the difference. Online privacy doesn’t discriminate.
It’s an issue at the heart of Branger Briz’s piece, A Charge for Privacy, which lets you charge your phone in return for every single one of your images to be stored and displayed at random along with all those of others who’ve engaged with it in Lincoln’s Chad Varah house. And these notions of personal rights, online privacy and the digital spheres smashing the boundaries between personal and private are also the key ideas throughout this year’s phenomenal Frequency Festival.
The biennial event takes place in various spaces across Lincoln, from a church-cum-drop-in centre to a subterranean Roman gatehouse to abandoned shop units and conventional gallery spaces. The overarching theme this year centres around the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta, the document purporting to have set out ideas of fairness and liberty, one of three copies of which sits proudly in a vault in Lincoln castle.
The truth of the document is that while it does set out freedoms, those are not freedoms for all. They are for the barons, not the serfs. The internet too offers freedom – from geographical boundaries, from the need for physical proximity to communicate – but not for all. For the regular serf surfer, this freedom comes at a price: our data and our privacy.
The Office for Creative Research tackles this issue head on in its Ad Infinitum installation, the culmination of an ongoing project to examine every single advert we’re targeted with online every day. We’ve all joked that “ha! Facebook thinks I’m pregnant!” or “The Daily Mash reckons I need a Wacom,” or been made aware of more sinister insinuations – that we’re infertile, or looking for an affair, or interested in some naughty evenings with a kind-looking, buxom older woman. But thanks to OCR, we can see exactly what these unseen eyes see us as; a terrifying thought in itself. Someone (or some algorithm) somewhere thinks a lot of things about us, thanks to the things we’ve looked at or bought or thought about buying or drunkenly clicked on.
The project started life as a Chrome extension called Floodwatch, which summarises these findings in intriguing and colour coded charts. Jeremy Thorp, OCR co-founder, says: “We started to learn about these tiny decisions that are being made about you, and stored. No one really knows what’s going on, so we wanted to take that collective action event though we don’t have a lot of power to push against advertisers. One of the things that scares me is that the same machinery is being used by things like insurance adjusters, and it’s not a very good picture of you.”
That’s the inherent issue with progress and digital: it helps us, it gets to know us, and it never goes away. But it’s also autonomous, and that’s a frightening thing when it starts to judge. Where Frequency really succeeds is in highlighting these problematic elements of the digital world, while also celebrating its capacity for beauty. The most perfect manifestation of this is in Tom Dale Company’s I-Infinite, a supremely powerful dance piece with a single performer, a dark space, a lot of hazy water vapour and some incredible projection mapping. Viewers dressed in surgical-like gowns move freely around the space, while the dancer interacts with the visuals. It’s ominous, it’s beautiful and it’s a sublime union of the power of corporeal movement and technology.
There’s a feel of insurgency to the curation across Lincoln’s cobbled, medieval streets, digitising the Mary Portas dream into a delightfully dystopian re-appropriation of the high street. Sited in an empty retail space in a shopping centre basement is Squidsoup’s Enlightenment, which also examines the relationship between tech’s more ethereal possibilities and the movement of the human body in the form of a rectangle of dangling LED lights enticing people to walk through. Their movements trigger the lights, which change colour in waves of illumination. It’s a simple joy in a sad space, and exactly the sort of art we need more of.
Perhaps the most unusual setting for work at this year’s Frequency isn’t a shop or a church, but a coffin. It’s a strange experience being in a coffin, lid down, and an Oculus Rift headset on; but I must admit, a rather warm and pleasurable one. The experience was courtesy of artist and developer James Brown and his piece Taphobos, where one person lies in the coffin and the other uses a computer game to try and “rescue” them from their burial (the piece’s name is derived from “tapophobia”, the fear of being buried alive). Communicating with microphones and headphones, it’s an exercise in trust and communication and is based very much on a situation that’s both real and virtual – running out of oxygen.
The gallery sites are largely more conventionally curated, relying heavily on video screens with a noticeable omission of two-dimensional or photographic work. The most brutal of these is loosely digital but wholly related to the more overarching themes of the Magna Carta, forcing viewers to question how they feel about corporal punishment. Jordan Baseman’s piece July the Twelfth is a video work in stark monochrome that uses the recording of a prisoner’s execution in Georgia in 1984. It’s just text and audio, rendering the chilling words as almost banal conversation. We hear the instructions for straps and headpieces, then the checks being made, then the confirmation of death. So measured and emotionless, and so utterly bleak, the avoidance of graphic imagery makes it all the more gruesome.
As Frequency’s sprawling range of works demonstrates, the term “digital” is a slippery, broad denotation, and one that’s no longer a futuristic marker. What the artists have made clear now is that digital is today what paint once was: a tool for expression, not what defines it. For me, the most potent works at the festival were the ones that forced a meditative state – the pieces that forced a feeling that seems a direct counterpoint to the criticisms levelled at the digital sphere. If technology is, as we’re told, morphing us into attention-deficient, antisocial robots, let’s celebrate how far it can make us go the other way. The feeling of awe and the meditative rhythms of Road, a huge video piece by Driftwood, suddenly seems to make the digital noise and tech-fear abate. Harnessed properly, tech has the capacity for beauty and calm. In the week of Talk Talk hacks and the era of children making “am I ugly? Please comment” YouTube videos (see Louse Orwin’s piece), it’s exactly the reminder we need.