Tara Kelton on big data, surveillance and human agency in the age of Instagram

Algo portraits at Mumbai Art Room explored what “portraiture” means in today’s technocratic world. Multimedia artist Tara Kelton tells us more.

by Jones John Published on : Jul 29, 2020

Tara Kelton is a multimedia artist, who explores how human sensibilities, artistic labour and societal perceptions are affected by the pervading influence of the digital in our lives. For around a decade, her work has focussed on the “algorithmic control of labour by western corporations” and the diminishing role of humans in society, as automation, artificial intelligence and other digital mediation replace human hands. Looking back at Algo portraits, which was curated by Skye Arundhati Thomas, Kelton breaks down the pervasiveness of surveillance and the structuring of contemporary lives through algorithms empowered by big data, for STIRworld.

A still from The River by DisneyHuntress | Algo portraits by Tara Kelton | STIRworld
A still from The River by DisneyHuntress Image Credit: Courtesy of Tara Kelton

Excerpts from the conversation...

Jones John (JJ): Now that most people are spending almost all their time online, what is the relevance of the data we generate? How does it affect us? In the sense of actually affecting our data-based representations as future commodities, but also in creating images of us, as perceived by ourselves and others. 

Tara Kelton (TK): I explore these questions in Data Döppelganger, which makes the case that a person’s advertising data or data trail can form a more accurate portrait than a conventional portrait. For the work, I purchased an Instagram advertisement and attempted to target myself and my ‘data doubles’ (people that have the same data points as my own). I collated my own target points and used them to create the advertisement with the help of a digital artist. The advertisement and data become a two-part portrait, the advertisement in its vernacular language, and the hard data behind it (in the form of a printed-out purchase receipt from Instagram).

The work repurposes the space of the Instagram advertisement, which has become such a presence in our lives, but is simultaneously quite glossed-over and opaque in its function. We leave a continuous trail of data behind us and so many secret entities collect information about our behaviour and desires, that they know more about us than we know about ourselves. While what we experience in virtual platforms is evolving in ever so slight increments, designed to hold our attention longer and longer, the mechanics are becoming increasingly more complex and invisible. Data Döppelganger attempts to call attention to these processes. 

Praveen Chandra’s visualization for ‘Data Döppelganger’ | Algo Portraits by Tara Kelton | STIRworld
Praveen Chandra’s visualization for Data Döppelganger Image Credit: Courtesy of Tara Kelton

JJ: The two images in Black Box paint divergent depictions of the same scenario, with one being relatively more ‘realistic’ than the other. What does the obvious distance between perceptions of the virtual employer mean to you? What does the subjectivity mean to you? 

TK: Uber drivers, and other gig economy workers in India are typically migrants with no safety net or job security (as seen most starkly now during the coronavirus crisis, or even previously, with the number of cars being impounded by the banks in India from drivers defaulting on their loans, so much so that they have run out of space to store the cars). The terms and conditions of their jobs change from minute to minute, determined remotely by a combination of algorithmic and human decisions in Silicon Valley, to which there is little recourse. Wherever the drivers have tried to perform any collective action, Uber sends undercover employees to photograph their protests and then uses facial recognition to identify and permanently ban them from their platform. Their power over the drivers is complete, falsely packaged in language such as ‘freedom to choose your working hours’. 

I wanted to find a way to talk about how disconnected these workers are from the corporation and algorithms that control their lives. In Black Box, I interviewed Uber drivers in Bangalore and asked them to describe the company they work for (where they imagine it is, what it looks like, who runs the company, etc.). I then gave these descriptions to local photo studios around Bangalore, asking them to recreate them using images from their existing photo libraries (customers at these studios frequently request to be “placed” in imaginary or far-off scenarios/locations, like Paris and New York, and the studios have extensive digital libraries on their computers of foreign cities and all manner of photographic digital ‘props’). The result of this process is a series of fantastical visions (digitally constructed photographs) of the unknown entity behind the black box—produced in a local photographic vernacular.

‘Black box’ visualises how an Uber driver perceives his employer | Algo portraits by Tara Kelton | STIRworld
Black Box visualises how an Uber driver perceives his employer Image Credit: Courtesy of Tara Kelton

JJ: For you, what does it mean to be under surveillance, both overtly and through more insidious means as we see in the documentary The Great Hack, which is seen referenced in Brittany in the pool and Brittany Kaiser?

TK: The planet is still feeling the consequences of Cambridge Analytica’s meddling in the US elections, which has impacted so much policy, moving America rightwards (and backwards) in every dimension - climate change, public health, human rights. With the pandemic, we have unfortunately entered a new stage of surveillance, where it is sold to the public as a matter of life and death. China’s app Alipay Health Code is mandatory for every citizen and now determines where and which of their citizens can travel, work, socialize - each person gets assigned a red, green or yellow code in the app, that can change at any time, and the state knows where every citizen is, at all times. Every time China develops an app like this during a crisis, the app and citizens’ diminished privacy remain - even after the crisis subsides. The West has been crippled by the virus and China can now export their technocratic systems to the rest of the world from a position of even greater strength. And India has just declared it illegal not to download their own version of the app, Aarogya Setu - we have yet to see how this will develop, but it’s all pretty concerning. 

In the West it also increasingly seems like privacy has become a commodity only the rich can afford. Your devices won’t track you, for a fee. Turn off advertising, for a fee. Apple’s devices are more secure, but more expensive. 

You shouldn’t have to pay for privacy. 

Brittany Kaiser | Algo portraits by Tara Kelton | STIRworld
Brittany Kaiser Image Credit: Courtesy of Tara Kelton

JJ: What do you think are the implications of the pervasiveness of technology for us as a generation in transition, and more importantly for the future where progressively more people will be habituated to digital technology, and all that comes with it, from infancy?

TK: The most frightening part of what is happening, in what I think of as our new dark age, is how more and more of human activity has no material form and is just sitting on servers - from history, to money, to culture. How easy it is to rewrite, or write over a person’s life, and identity - or even whole events, histories. I think that’s why we are seeing a turn towards the spiritual by millennials. Our devices are magical boxes that can’t be disassembled, the companies we work for and shop from are remote abstractions, Wikipedia is dying and the encyclopaedia makers are gone, truth is over. And the speed of progress outpaces our ability to regulate or critique it.

Brittany in a pool | Algo Portraits by Tara Kelton | STIRworld
Brittany in the pool Image Credit: Courtesy of Tara Kelton

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