You might not need to type "Obama" into Google Image Search to know what you'll find. You can already call up those images in your mind--photos from speeches, majestic Air Force one embarkations, candid portraits and the occasional conspiracy / Birther memes to mind. But what if you searched for 奥巴马--his name in Chinese?
That was the sort of question on the mind of Aaron Swartz one weekend last April during Seven on Seven, a 24-hour 14-person artist-coder hackathon at the New Museum. With the photographer Taryn Simon, Swartz whipped up a fascinating website called Image Atlas. which was built on a simple concept: take a standard Google Image Search, translate it into a spectrum of languages across Google's localized sites, and show what comes back.
It was part art, part app, an elegant and fascinating micro project that asked questions and looked good. It was my favorite thing that day. Lauren Cornell, the New Museum curator, would choose it for permanent display on the museum's New Art Online archive in August. She wrote that it "raises profound questions related to language, international culture, and systems of information. Questions such as: What does popularity (i.e., the top result) reveal? How neutral is the statistical data? How is visual language transforming due to digital technology? How does translation affect meaning?"
"One of the things that people are paying more attention to," said Aaron that afternoon, "and which I think [emcee] Douglas [Rushkoff] alluded to, is the way that these sort of neutral tools like Facebook and Google and so on, which claim to present an almost unmediated view of the world, through statistics and algorithms and analyses, in fact are programmed and are programming us. So we wanted to find a way to visualize that, to expose some of the value judgments that get made."
"Smile" as seen on Image Atlas
The impulse feels familar for Swartz, adjacent to the one that led him to do things like building repositories of concealed data or downloading reams of copyrighted academic journal articles: to expose the problems of another widely-accepted system that's been programmed by law, a copyright structure that filters information and keeps knowledge at a distance.
During the collaboration in April, the stresses of Swartz's intimidating legal case emerged. “The length of time it took to enter his password conveyed a certain pressure that was upon him,” Simon told the Times. “There was this sense that something was closing in on him. Something that needed to be guarded against.”
"Folder: Handshaking," Taryn Simon, 2012
Taryn Simon drew inspiration from Image Atlas for her latest project, “The Picture Collection,” a series of photographs of the contents of an archive located at the New York Public Library also called the Picture Collection. The nearly century-old archive is like an old-fashioned Google Image Search, consisting of more than 12,000 folders separated into keywords and each containing clippings of related images. For decades, artists would use the archive to gather ideas; Diego Rivera visited while working on his mural at Rockefeller Center, while Warhol borrowed many images and didn't return them. For her project, which opened last week at the John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco, Simon photographed the contents of 44 of the folders, including a number of copyrighted images. Says the artist statment, "She highlights the invisible hands behind the seemingly neutral systems of image gathering."
Curiously, Swartz's and Simon's project with an attempt to make something quite different: some kind of live visual archive using data from each of the registered audience members, about whom the pair at one point had gathered data using Google. "We wanted to create a spectacle or an experience, something that wasn't related to an app or a consumer item," she said, until they learned that "it was not possible for legal reasons." That reminded them, she said, of "an important aspect of art and technology colliding, these places we can go to. But there are boundaries, and these boundaries are becoming more clear."
Swartz threw in a personal note about the collaboration. "I should say," he said, "as the nominal technologist, one of the interesting transitions for me was the perspective of making something that... is not only useful but raises deeper questions."