Perceiving the Imperceptible. Mónica Alcázar-Duarte – Second Nature
Published on April 8th, 2023
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new essay: “Perceiving the Imperceptible. Mónica Alcázar-Duarte – Second Nature”. Light Work Magazine
“Second nature” means that something has become so familiar that it is imperceptible, unnoticeable, and habitual. In 1952, programmer Christopher Strachey, working with Alan Turing at Manchester University, wrote a simple computer program to generate automated love letters. Strachey based The Love Letter Generator on a few simple rules that would choose and randomly connect words from different lists of nouns and adjectives that came from conventional love letters. The result was a vast quantity of ever-changing love letters. Though crude and lacking the romance characteristic of literature, their quirky strangeness exerted a gripping appeal on the computer students who read the poems on university walls. They were mesmerised by the workings of the Ferranti Mark 1, one of the first electronic computers. Though the program became quickly obsolete, in 2009 the generator produced new love letters due to David Link’s diligent work. This time the crudeness of the letters and their poetics were overshadowed by the burden and nostalgic beauty of heavy machinery. The installation demystified the workings of a machine, which half a century later has become largely invisible.
The layering of filters, deep-fake created GAN videos, and Midjourney paintings have created a solid casing and dense fabric around the inner-working of computers. Today, our secret lovers read our letters and ignore their machinic co-author. The previous mystification of the computer’s inner working has shifted to its outer surface. In her work, Mónica Alcázar-Duarte draws attention to the duality between the computer’s inside and outside. The series titled Second Nature started with her own experiences while she was using Google image search in different countries. Depending on her location, terms like “Mexican” and “Mexican women are” delivered different results. While clearly the algorithms learned from her searches, they also reflected the country’s stereotypes of “Mexican.” In the US, the images related to illegal immigration and pariah status. In the UK, it was all about food. And after roughly twenty results, people from El Salvador or Colombia began entering the image stream. In the UK, the second search for “Mexican women are” displayed women in red clothes and “hot” poses. In the US, the same query generated nannies and cleaners. We acknowledge the stereotypical bias in algorithms. Yet, these searches also revealed how culture feeds and targets bias and hence how algorithms fortify power imbalances between business models and users.
Mónica Alcázar-Duarte used Second Nature to spotlight the system of human classification present in the online economy of search engines and the ecology of social media platforms. Rather than perpetuating the stereotypical Google search results, she decided not to show the images themselves. Instead she photographed herself, referencing some of the postures she had seen online. She covered her face with flowers, hair, or graphic elements. Second Nature mimics iconic portraiture by displaying attractive images of a female body. Yet, stuck into their black box, masks covering their faces, and their poses both performative and restricted, these figures are unnatural. It’s uncomfortable to look at them. Not conventional self-portraits, they reflect the online search results. The embedded Augmented Reality in each image also shows an overlay of keywords and drawings of plants or trees. These refer to natural terms appropriated for the internet and its technology (for example, cloud, web, stream). During the summer of 2022, the artist presented this work as part of Radical Imagination, The Photographers’ Gallery exhibition in the public space of Kings Cross in London, across from Google’s London office. This returns the work to public, physical space. Occasionally, people stopped to point their phone at the poster only to encounter an unexpected layer of word tags from the Google search results along with animated nature drawings. The tags form an abstract poem of cultural representation and bias, yet Second Nature also shows humanity concealed by nature, no longer at the forefront. Inserted into public space, the posters form a perfect Instagram background where, returned to their digital ecology, the tags may activate new meanings.
Alcázar-Duarte still investigates cultural-specific bias in collaboration with creative coder Bente de Bruin. They present sets of Internet search results as a GAN video and website (iamnotdata.site). Here, they have attempted to create a new digital perspective and persona with the limitless capabilities of GAN. However, while experimenting with different datasets, they learned that the more images they used, the more limited the result. Similar images predominated and those that didn’t fit the main criteria dropped out. Ultimately, the project showed how more data actually becomes less diverse. That is, the initial (and often promised) infinity of possibilities became both limiting (enhancing the technical bias) and limited (more = less). Similar to the earlier project, it emphasized that algorithms are inherently biased and that they also impose bias on existing cultural tropes, narrowing the stereotypical even further. As the digital continues to slowly seep into our cultural unconsciousness, Mónica Alcázar-Duarte addresses its complexity and our complicity, observing the machine’s inner-workings while highlighting its incongruous poetics.
Annet Dekker is a curator and researcher. aaaan.net
Mónica Alcázar-Duarte completed her Light Work residency in April 2022.
image credit: Mónica Alcázar-Duarte – Second Nature (2022)
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