Erica Scourti: Archiving our (Dark) Lives

Published on March 6th, 2016


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Erica Scourti utilises social-media networks as raw material, probing and testing their data-processing alogorithms to create self-portraits for a hashtagged age.

This interview is part of New Archive Interpretations a research project by Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, curated by Annet Dekker

Interpretations of the Archive #3 : Personal archives and subjective archiving

It is often said, “we are all archivist”. Everyone selects, collects and stores books, objects, photographs, film, audio recordings and video. People collect either for the sake of reconstructing the past or as a way to hold on to special moments – the memorabilia functioning as small inducements to recall.

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Photo: Rosa Menkman’s memory objects, Facebook 6 March 2016

Most often the act of collecting concerns physical objects such as in this photo, small mementos that only have significance to its owner. But what happens when collecting digital material – from photos, videos, audio files, scraps of text or emails? Each millisecond, numerous digital documents are sent around e-mail servers or shared on social platforms. Aided by the cheap data storage, easy access and distribution mechanisms these acts of blogorrhea – the excessive, compulsive or stream-of-consciousness blogging over trivial things – provide unprecedented access to private lives, but also offer opportunities of erecting large digital collections. What was once an expensive and to some extend the privileged act of archiving has become the norm, at least for many. Whilst the digital may change how we conceive of memory, it is just as important to understand the influence these often invisible computational systems have over our data. In what ways do the digital storage vaults, such as Google Photo, YouTube or Flickr, and their auto-editing software and data-processing algorithms affect our urge to collect and archive our digital lives?

Het Nieuwe Instituut invited artist Erica Scourti to contribute to the New Archive Interpretations project, in relation to the exhibition Temporary Fashion Museum. Scourti was asked to look beyond institutional archives and to address the role of social platforms in creating a personal archive. Taking her own life and documents as an example she explored the (im)possibilities and effects of online archiving and how this relates to the way identities are constructed, whilst questioning the optimalisation of online production and distribution. Whilst based on the artist’s ‘real’ archive, and intentionally collapsing temporal distinctions within it, Scourti offers up her past and presents a new and constantly updated collection of videos as a live, performed archive.

In her project Dark Archives, Scourti utilises social-media networks as raw material, through probing and testing their data-processing algorithms she creates self-portraits for a hashtagged age. She activated an automatic, constantly updated archive to foreground the algorithmic outsourcing of personal media organisation and its implications for networked, distributed memory. Uploading her entire fifteen-year personal media archive, consisting of daily photos, videos and screenshots, to Google photo, the collection is parsed by auto-editing, classification and tagging software, allowing hundreds of videos, collages and animations to be automatically generated as a result.

Dark Archives draws not only on the artist’s individual archive but implicitly also on the millions of other user media that the algorithms use as deep-learning training sets. Aiming to explore the idea of what escapes classification in an era of increasingly intelligent auto-classification systems, in the second phase of the project, Scourti also involved elements of staging, scripting and fictionalising, by inviting a group of writers – Jessica Bunch, Christina Chalmers, Sandra Huber, Linette Voller and Joanna Walsh – to search her archive using specific keywords of their choice. They were then asked to speculate on and caption what they imagined to be the missing set of media for that search term: the photos and videos that somehow evaded classification. These captions were then matched with existing media from her archive, creating a new series of videos optimised for mobile viewing (which viewers can access online), alongside a slideshow of all the speculative archive images, screened continuously at Het Nieuwe Instituut.

Next to challenging notions of data collecting, shared authorship and individual memory, Dark Archives points to the issues that arise when image archives can be parsed, and potentially monetised, once in the hands of corporate platforms.

 

Archiving our (Dark) Lives. An interview with Erica Scourti
by Annet Dekker (19 November 2015 / 25 January 2016)

“In a time where ownership of digital assets is being replaced by access to them, the question of who can access what archive becomes key.”

Erica Scourti was born in Athens, Greece and now lives in London. In 2013 she completed a Master of Research degree in Moving Image Art at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design, run in conjunction with LUX. Her area of research was the figure of the female fool in performative video works and the mediated subject of networked capital. Moving across video, performance, photography and text (among others), her work has been exhibited widely, among others: Somerset House in London, FACT in Liverpool, Hayward Project Space in London, The Photographers’ Gallery in London, Kunstverein Munich, Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, Museo Reine Sofia in Madrid, Kunstmuseum Bonn, H3K in Basel, and ICA in London.

Currently her interest is in the notion of a subject entangled within technosocial systems. She draws on unintelligible gestures, encryption and feminist strategies of refusal while exploring automatic archives, the maintenance of digital infrastructures and the limitations of rhetoric of exposure and visibility. As was said in Art Monthly (December 2014): ‘Ultimately, all of Scourti’s work asks a series of fundamental questions. How do institutions seek to define forms of representation? How has technology, and specifically social media, affected our understanding of identity and subjectivity? Where does our agency reside in an online environment where our data is tracked and our behaviour is persistently manipulated?’ To hear what this means in the era of digital archives and automated systems, I asked her a few questions.

Can you say something about your background? How did you end up being an artist?

Despite being interested in art from an early age, I did all science A levels at school in Athens, and then moved to London to start a Chemistry BA, which I quit after a year. A circuitous route then took me through a fashion foundation, a year of fine art textiles, and then two years of a fine art BA, where I taught myself video editing and got involved with what was then called the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement. I then spent years running educational workshops and projects, particularly with young people at risk of exclusion. After the Conservative government pretty much killed off that entire sector, I went back to university to study an MRes (research Masters) in Moving Image Art.

My early work, particularly in video, addressed the commodification of both happiness and dissent, through mainstream media, advertising and entertainment, and often drew on redemptive narratives of self-betterment as a new capitalist credo. Slowly I began incorporating myself into the work, reflecting on my own complicity within these seductive structures, rather than assuming a position of critical distance from them. This thread continues into my work now, where I try to acknowledge my own relationship to the things I want to problematise; there is no position of purity, no space to speak from where you too are not also implicated.

Could you briefly explain what the Dark Archives project is and how you set it up?

The Dark Archives project consists of various stages and elements. In summary, I uploaded my full media archive to Google photos and then commissioned five writers – all complete strangers – to select keywords to search it with; words like weapon, gift and love, were amongst those chosen. Their search terms were used to generate short sideshow/ videos capturing all the images returned for that particular keyword, which were then shared online. They were then asked to imagine the missing media from each set, and to write captions for them, thereby projecting their own ‘reading’ of my Google-parsed archive. I then drew on these captions to search my own media archive again, and as the final part of the process, I am now making a series of short videos from these captions and media, to be shared at Het Nieuwe Instituut.

In more detail – the first stage entailed research into and production of a series of ‘automatic’ videos using archive app Magisto. These were shared online during summer 2015. On the one hand I was interested in the automation of archiving, which outsources what was once a laboriously-gained skill (video editing) to an algorithm that decides what to cut and what to keep, sparing users the ‘hassle’ of doing it themselves. On the other hand I was interested in how auto-archiving apps connect to the social media imperative to ‘share': the idea that experience, once captured photographically or in video, only has real value once it is shared. This presents a problem if users have too much media to choose from, or can’t be bothered to make a 15 second video especially for Instagram. Magisto makes its role as enabler of social media sharing explicit by offering an Instagram function, helping users to present and perform themselves within a network more effectively. It also selects media from a user’s smartphone to makes its own videos and sideshows, a service that can feel can feel quite creepy: a cute version of the less cute reality of living entangled with a vague sense that you’re being watched or parsed by unknown (non)human agents. There is a sense that new things are constantly emerging from the archive, without me actively instructing it or anticipating it, reflecting the wider, emergent properties of a technologically-mediated world, whose functions cannot always be anticipated.

You explore the subject’s construction, or better your own, in the networked regime of the Web by looking into and being part of the invisible structures. What is your main interest? 

I’m interested in how the technologies that we are entangled with are recording and archiving our lives, in particular in the traces that we make all the time without being necessarily conscious of it. Beyond that, I am interested in the observer effect, in which conducting an experiment necessarily affects the experiment itself, and fully acknowledging that I stand within the systems being investigated, and that any insights I glean are necessarily partial, and incomplete. In other words, I’m observing myself as a subject aware of her own entanglement in sociotechnical infrastructures, using my own personal experience as a starting point. So, while my work reflects the particularities of my own specific identity, it attempts to link this to broader collective experience- without, of course, claiming some kind of universal human experience or subject. For example, almost everyone living in the West has a relationship, even if it’s discordant, to some kind of photo archive, or online platforms. Exploring my own relation to these interfaces, as I’m doing in the Dark Archives project, by uploading all of my photos onto Google, is a way of addressing themes that most people will at least relate to, if not share.

Also, part of my current research, including the Dark Archives project, grew out of my increasing awareness of the limitations of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her essay Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You, calls the ‘paranoid epistemology.’ This puts an inordinate amount of faith in ‘knowledge in the form of exposure…of unveiling hidden violence’. This approach assumes first of all the existence of an objectively verifiable reality or meaning prior to its uncovering, that just needs the right tools or perspective to get it out there, and secondly that gestures of uncovering necessarily have agency; as if simply uncovering and making visible the extent of state surveillance or racial discrimination, let’s say, is enough to make these long-entrenched systems wither away. This isn’t to be nihilistic, but to suggest other ways of generating knowledge and other forms of making which foreground faults, leaks and fictionalised spaces that haven’t been fully concretised.

In this spirit, like Sedgwick, I would argue for the performativity of knowledge, which does not assume its existence prior to its representation and uncovering, and does not place all its faith in exposure. In terms of art works, particularly those that operate as infrastructural critiques on aspects of networked, militarised life- like surveillance, or data tracking- this means querying what is really meant by making visible, and from what position the artist is speaking. What does visibility really mean, whom is it for, what does it do and what does it assume about existing structures? Rather than making certain structures visible, I would argue that every act of uncovering or making visible is making anew, is a form of knowledge generation that is necessarily subjective.

So, rather than attempting to ‘expose’ the inner logic of Google’s photo database, or trying to uncover that master key that makes sense of it all, I wanted to adopt a more speculative angle that imagines flaws and elisions in the system, and by extension asks how inclusions and exclusions to any archive happen.

In general the purpose of a dark archive is to function as a repository for information that can be used as a failsafe during disaster recovery. Could you elaborate what this means to you with regard to your current project Dark Archives?

The ‘dark archive’ as I understand it is functions as a back up copy, not necessarily of the actual contents but of the metadata, so that if natural or man-made disaster destroyed the archive, its contents could still be readable. In this way, it points to the future of archives, perhaps even beyond human civilisation.

Another meaning of the dark archive refers to the contents that cannot be located or retrieved and are therefore, functionally invisible: a nested archive within the main one, which nevertheless exerts a (possibly negative) force upon it. For example, Amazon could be seen as a very ‘bright’ archive; their business model is based on retrievability, which means that everything within it can be easily found and accounted for. Amazon has to battle against the ‘forces of darkness’ such as spam, algorithmically churned similar products (e.g. t-shirts) and products with very similar titles, all of which threaten to obscure the contents with ‘actual’ value by making them un-findable. So, there is need to keep things retrievable otherwise the content of the archive can fall into a void: available but not locatable and therefore not saleable. And the more stuff the archive gets, the darker it becomes.

Yet, another aspect of the dark archive relates to accessibility, since one of its main attributes is being publicly inaccessible, and therefore, relatively ‘invisible’. In the context of my project, the media archive (which I have uploaded in full to Google’s photo service) is a dark archive of sorts: it is accessible to me, but not to anyone else without a password. At the same time, it could be said to be ‘bright’, since its contents are both accessible and intelligible to Google. In a time where ownership of digital assets is being replaced by access to them, the question of who can access what archive becomes key. These ideas also reflect my research into the digital afterlife, and who has access to personal data, including media collections, after death.

Of course a dark archive may also be one that is kept intentionally secret, echoing an artistic approach of working with ‘methodologies of encryption’. These play with gestures of unreadability, obfuscation and withdrawal from the viewer, as a way of avoiding instrumentalisation, of not being readily accessible to cooption by either market or institutional forces. So, these different valences of the dark archive all fed into my thinking around this project, addressing visibility and darkness in relation to archiving.

Doing some Google image searches for you, I am amazed how many images come up. In an earlier interview you also said that you were ‘obsessed with documenting’ (Furtherfield), already at an early age being the one walking around with the camera. What does the image mean to you?

That is a difficult question- what is an image? Is it something that we see in our own mind, is it any form of mediation, is it a linguistic image or a spoken word that refers to an image, or all of the above? Personally, I have an almost ritualistic attachment to images, or at least to their collection, reflecting a lifelong desire to capture, track and mark the days of life as it passes. Perhaps the more photos, and documents, there are, the more coherent the narrative of one’s life becomes, the more readable you are to yourself as the protagonist within it. As the ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ logic of social mediated existence suggests, it’s the capturing of this life story and its validation through sharing with known and unknown others that really matters.

Some time ago, I was interested in strategies of over-identification, in ways of ‘gaming’ the social media systems by extrapolating their unspoken imperatives (e.g. to over-share, to actively and continuously participate) to absurd levels. Now, I am more interested in forms of refusal (including the way this gets commodified into tedious articles on ‘digital detox and ‘disconnection’) but also in the images, and other data, that are swapped privately, for example through Whatsapp or email. What value do images that do not publicly circulate have? Though this may be a moot point, since they still technically have ‘value’ to the platform corporations they move within.

Do you think the image still relates to memory in a system that is all about consumption, distribution and circulation? In other words, do you see a different function of images in a networked, computational culture?

Maybe the function depends on who, or what, is looking at images in this entangled network; what fascinated me with the Google database was its keyword search function, which allows users to search their whole archive according to a word. ‘Selfies’ and ‘food’ are ones it offers up, preordaining these categories as significant, most likely in anticipation of their eventual sharing on social media (or, that personal archives are now read through a ‘sharing-eye’, even if they never do get shown publicly). Here, images may relate to memory, but are also embedded within wider systems of value generation.

More to the point, the obvious reason the service was offered for free was the pure potential millions of personal photos held as excellent training material for the pattern recognition and visual analysis tools at Google’s disposal. Images – especially ones rich with other metadata like geolocations, timestamps and camera brands – are obviously incredibly valuable, not, as the users may perceive them, as reminders of times past, but as nodes within a commercial network, whose full value may take years to emerge.

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Questions around the value and visibility of images reflect my ongoing interest in how they are being read for/as data, and how this indicates a future of transparency, where all media is ‘readable’ and connected. In previous projects – like UnDisclosed (2013) where I sent people unique video ‘postcards’ that were only shared publicly (i.e. online) as the metadata the recipients were asked to complete – I’d worked directly with the idea that, while text is easily readable by online algobots, the actual content of videos is not. Really, at that point it was the metadata and not the image itself that had ‘value’ in the context of online search.

Then in So Like You (2014) I used similar image searches to find reflections of my own photo archive in other online users’ photos, exploring how images themselves begin to be perceivable as holders of information by the crawler bots, since the analysis and search is happening at the level of purely visual information, whether they have titles/ hashtags/ captions or not. This lead to me the question of what escapes capture within the archive; what contents can never be found, because they can’t be deciphered adequately, because the algorithms aren’t sensitive enough to interpret their content, or because their metadata is incomplete or contradictory.

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Previously you asked someone to write your memoirs, The Outage, based on your digital footprint, it became a strangely personal yet distant narrative… In a way the new work builds on that, rather than asking a human person you use computer programmes to create a narrative, a history, or an archive, of your online activities. Although at first it may look random, for me, the associations that emerge between texts, image and text (from meta-data to comments), or in the juxtaposition of images, there is a subtlety, humour and self-mockery that seems natural, but being aware of the learning process behind, creates a eerie feeling or tension between human and machine agency. Asking the question, how much influence do you still have? Do you think that this is still a collaborative process – meaning working together towards a common goal, based on more or less equal terms – or does the one gain in agency over the other?

The tension between human and machine agency, and in the increasing impossibility of making a distinction between them has played an important role in many of past works. I try to explore these tensions, using processes like predictive text, or profiling at a personal level to question in broader terms what non-human perception, agency and intelligence could be. The dangers of apportioning too much agency to machines can be clearly seen in the context of warfare, where delegating responsibility to drones glosses over the entirely social, political and human logic driving their calibration, and also in things like automated forms which determine what benefits, health care or housing citizens are entitled to.

A lot of my work includes working with other people in some way, often subtly contrasting the completion of tasks by human and non-human agents. For example, in the project So Like You, while I initially used my images to search online, I then asked the people whose pictures came up as ‘similar’ to go through their own archives to find a similar image, thereby asking them to act almost like human search engines. With the Dark Archives, by inviting the writers to speculate on and imagine what is missing from a particular archive, I am similarly asking them to deduce the logic of the algorithm’s operation, to work out what it includes and excludes.

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Erica Scourti, So Like You, 2014

You have stated elsewhere that the “devices we share so much intimate time with are actively involved in shaping what we consider to be our ‘selves,’ our identities” (Rhizome), reflecting back on some of your previous works and the current one for Het Nieuwe Instituut, I can imagine, even though there is a privileged position from which you are doing them, that these processes affect you, as an individual?

Yes, it’s true that I’ve found unexpected effects come out of some of my projects, what I think of as their ‘emergent phenomena’ – the attributes, or outcomes, particularly at an affective or emotional level, that were not designed into the system or experiment. Of course there are wider emergent properties of a technologically-mediated world; for example, the affective responses to, let’s say, being on Twitter (anxiety is a common one!) were not necessarily anticipated beforehand and only emerged through usage. Most of my work deals with these ‘psychotechnical vulnerabilities’, often performing of gestures of risk in relation to them. For example in The Outage, giving my private data and online presence to a ghostwriter to fashion into my fictional memoir, could be seen as enacting a wider societal fear of digital violation and identity theft, even just the fear that someone else could access your emails. But also, what emerged from this project, which I did not anticipate at all, was how self-conscious it made me feel. It was a feeling that I had been objectified, made into an image that I wasn’t in control of; and as the book’s narrative involves a sort of death, there was a feeling that ‘my’ data body had been killed off in some way, an experience that was both exhilarating and stressful.

Also, a lot of my projects require personal involvement, which, since they often relate directly to me, create some sort of emotional stress or at least affective charge. For example, the correspondence with strangers, giving and asking them personal things, addressing them in the right way, being available over email – all these are actions whose effects cannot be accurately quantified or even directly visible, yet are crucial for projects to run smoothly. Like emotional labour, traditionally gendered as female and unpaid/ undervalued, this work tends to fall under the radar, becoming invisible. In general I’m interested in directly addressing the often unseen work of maintaining and caring for sociotechnical infrastructures.

In what ways has The Outage influenced the current project the Dark Archives?

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Erica Scourti, The Outage (London: Banner Repeater, 2014), design by Eva Charlton

In both projects, there is a common concern with what could be called automatic archives – the personal and public data, including photos, that we accumulate simply by being alive, and moving through digitized space. And both projects employ an outsider to speculate on and fabricate their own ‘version’ of my biography, reflecting my interest in life-writing as essentially performative rather than descriptive: we don’t just tell the story of our lives, as if there is one singular story that exists prior to its representation in literary or photographic form, but through the telling of that particular story, make it a reality.

As explained previously, in The Outage, I gave a total stranger access to collections of my intimate data- everything from URL histories to Amazon recommendations and Facebook archives- while inviting them to use these plus any information freely available online, to fashion a portrait of me, which was then published as a paperback. In this sense they we were given control over my image, which is to give them authority over a crucial aspect of personhood- the power to fashion a profile, at a time when countless ‘profiles’ of everyone online exists, both intentional (e.g. a Facebook profile) or not (insurance profiles, used to determine the value of potential customers). Moving through digital space what profiles are created of us, and for what purpose? Who gets to author his or her own images, or their own profile? I gave up the agency to my own image. At the same time, the very gesture of ‘giving it away’ implies that I do own my image in the first place, an assumption that reflects a privileged position not shared by all members of society.

With the change to digital archives, similar to traditional archives sources may remain intact, but their existence is constantly changing and dynamic. This is something that is clearly visible in your project. So, what does this mean for one of the main tasks of an archive – a place to store memories, what happens when a memory vault, changes into something fluid and processual? In other words, what do you think it means when archives are thought of in terms of (re)production or creation systems instead of representation or memory systems?

In a sense, it may be that archives, like knowledge and autobiographies, are also potentially performative, as opposed to strictly descriptive. French philosopher Jacques Derrida suggests as much when saying “the archivisation produces as much as it records the event”. Perhaps every document creates (rather than describes or illustrates) the event; every search creates an archive, and every archive gives rise to a different reality. Search queries both create an archive and are potentially archival material in themselves, and as Derrida says, the archiving itself is productive of events, historical and otherwise.

This also relates to my interest in intimate data, the archive of our personal information, which constantly expanding or contracting, and also mutable, depending on what search is undertaken. One thing that is obvious to search with now may not be fifty years from now: every historic era creates new search terms, new lenses with which to read the past. The cycles of music and fashion, the threads that carry through and are picked up years later attest to the unanticipated interpretation of contemporary life through the eyes of future generations. Every archive could be said to nest potentially limitless archives within it, lending it an unfinished or semi-fictional quality.

The dark archive seemed to encapsulate many of these ideas: a hidden, yet existing archive, whose contents may be retrieved at some future point but for now are inaccessible. What agency do these – and by extension, all other – unintelligible and obscured entities exert, if any? Is there a something that cannot be captured, quantified, translated? And if there is, how do we acknowledge that refusing visibility and capture is itself a privileged position, grounded in an almost Romantic/ heroic (i.e. usually coded as white, male) ideal of seeking that which can never be represented, commodified, put into words (and sold back to us as t-shirts/ adverts/ lifestyle signifiers…).

As blockchain technologies become more widespread, meaning that a permanent record exists of any transaction made, it could be that contrary to past fears of data being tampered with, new issues will arise out of the impossibility of deletion. If every digital asset or transaction – including identity – can be traced, there are obvious political implications around visibility and the right – or at least desire – to be forgotten, or unseen.

 

An extended version of this interview was posted on 16 March 2016 on Erica’s blog.

 

Video credit: Erica Scourti, Dark Archives, 2016


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