Turning the specter of internet surveillance into art

Sunday, 12 November 2017, 12:58:20 AM. The Glass Room wants us to take a second look at privacy and power

“The Glass Room... what is that?” a young woman asks, while walking arm in arm with a man past a well-lit storefront in London’s Soho district. From the outside, the art installation looks very much like an Apple Store. There’s a long white bar running through the center of the room. The sign “Data Detox Bar” is not visible from the street. Toward the back of the space, rows and rows of little white pedestals prop up iPads, each of which plays a different video.

This isn’t the first iteration of The Glass Room, an art exhibition that revolves around technology, power, and surveillance, but the new location and a shifting mood in popular attitudes toward Silicon Valley are palpable in the newer pieces.

In Ashley Madison Angels at Work in London, uncanny 3D models of women whisper robotic sweet nothings from iPads installed in random spots all around the space. Their script is taken from the hack of the infamous infidelity dating site, which revealed thousands of fake “women” — including 436 in the vicinity of London — who struck up conversations with users.

In another impressive piece, Megapixels, the viewer approaches a giant screen. A camera scans your face against a facial recognition database, listing the match percentage next to each prospective match.

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Press a big green button, and it prints a receipt for you.

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Megapixels is in the same spirit as many of the pieces that debuted with the exhibition in New York, like the striking Forgot Your Password, which is the entirety of the LinkedIn password dump printed into several thick tomes. It’s a post-Snowden critique of the privacy and security concerns faced by ordinary people who have little power against the corporations and governments who employ surveillance against them.

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Forgot Your Password.

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An alarming number of passwords from the breach are some iteration of “password.”

But the overall theme in the newer wave of pieces is less about the evils of surveillance and the benefits of privacy, and more about the future of work.

Amazon Futures, a multilayered glass model of an Amazon warehouse as described in a patent application, depicts a warehouse as a beehive with drones buzzing forth from its depths. Data Production Labour is a cheeky interactive installation in which the viewer places their smartphone below a camera and browses Facebook for two minutes. The machine then prints out a receipt calculating how much “labor” you’ve performed against the local minimum wage, encouraging the laborer to seek lost wages from Facebook.

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Amazon Futures.

And near the front, nestled between The Alphabet Empire (a web of string and nails of Google’s various investments) and Unintended Emissions (a ever-changing map of the data being emitted from cellphones in the room), there’s Apple Towers, a 3D representation of Apple’s revenues and overseas profits measured next to government expenditures in the UK and EU.

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Apple Towers.

Next to Apple Towers, The Alphabet Empire takes on a deeper context. The older piece is made up of small colored strings and little pegs, a neatly labeled web that represents Alphabet holdings. The New York version of The Glass Room was primarily a critique of surveillance — particularly government surveillance, with corporate surveillance as an incidental side effect. London is much closer to the EU, which has taken a sterner regulatory approach to America’s tech giants, but moreover, the mood in 2017 has shifted.

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The Alphabet Empire.

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The Alphabet Empire.

This current political moment of anger against unbridled capitalism changes how every piece is viewed and felt. In How Long Does It Take to Read Amazon Kindle's Terms and Conditions? an actor reads the aforementioned Terms and Conditions in real time, for nearly nine hours straight. The curators of The Glass Room queue it up first thing in the morning, and when they shut down for the night, he’s still going.

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How Long Does It Take to Read Amazon Kindle's Terms and Conditions?

Before 2017, the piece would have been a commentary on whether Amazon was trying to slip something nefarious past you, perhaps by surveilling you through your Kindle, or giving your reading history over to the government without a warrant. In 2017, it feels like a commentary on the free labor that the tech industry expects from its users. Of course, one could always decline to read the Kindle’s Terms and Conditions — and really, most of us do — but our refusal to do labor comes at our own risk, not at Amazon’s.

The Glass Room, located at 69-71 Charing Cross Road in London, runs until November 12th, from 12PM to 8PM each day.

Photography by Sarah Jeong / The Verge


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