What happens when you send three Hivers to Shanghai, China? There within lies an excellent question.
This January I had the opportunity to join Aline Martinez Santos and Jon Flint on a one-week adventure in China’s most populous city, Shanghai.
Working with the excellent team from Chronus Art Center, the first non-profit gallery dedicated to new media art in China, the HIVE co-organised a series of events—talks and workshops—to showcase the best of the residency and its projects. We brought to Shanghai of one of the most ambitious projects to emerge from the Hive #02. The project, Cached, is the result of the collective effort of 7 residents who came together in true interdisciplinary spirit and posed the question: Do we really understand how our personal data is interpreted by algorithms? And…What is our‘digital self’ and how can we define it?
Through an immersive artistic installation they designed, participants discover their‘digital self’ — in other words, how they are perceived over the internet by the countless algorithms that decide what advertisements to display on their screens, what friends they should make on social media, etc.
Touching down in Shanghai on a rainy Friday evening, I joined Jon and Aline at our hotel located down a dimly lit street in the heart of the city. The two of them were still hard at work taping away at their keyboards while a small black printer ran in the background. Camped out in Aline’s room, the bed covered in electrical wires, tape, arduinos, these were last minute preparations for their workshop on Sunday, they told me. With the complexity of bringing the full-scale installation of‘Cached’ posing a real challenge, they decided to simplify and downsize. Instead of trawling social media(Facebook or Twitter) for posts, the web-app based experience they devised for China relied on a set of questions about your past, present and future in order to get the gist of who‘you’ are.
The first event on our agenda? A Saturday afternoon talk at the EXTRART BASE gallery in the heart of Shanghai. Arriving there, we were met with a lively, engaged audience of art enthusiasts, scientists and more. I launched the afternoon with an explanation of what thecamp and the HIVE is. My presentation, complemented by short videos and photos always has the effect of provoking gasps and wide eyes from within the audience—people just don’t believe it’s a real place! Following my brief introduction, Aline and Jon took the mic for and took us on a deep dive into the inner workings of Cached and the theoretical reflections that guided them throughout their project’s development.
Following their presentation, we opened the floor to questions and explored the deeper theoretical implications of the‘Digital Self’ as well as managed to clarify how and when new candidates might try and join the Hive in the future. One member of the audience even shared his own personal philosophical reflections and suggested new paths for exploration in the realm of digital identity.
On Sunday we were off to Mongshan 50, a recently renovated complex of industrial buildings which is now home to Chronus Art Center’s offices and gallery as well as perhaps another 30 different shops and contemporary art galleries in the district.
Arriving at CAC an hour before the workshop was slated to start, we were delighted to learn that we’d succeeded in reaching our maximum number of participants! Over the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, with a great group of people from very diverse backgrounds(product engineers, blockchain specialists, neuroscientists and artists, among others), we discovered what algorithms are, why we might want to give them more consideration in our daily lives, and how we might be perceived by said algorithms as we live our lives through social media.
The second half of their workshop format had everyone scrambling around to prototype new visions of the future, to solve fictive problems in relation to our‘Digital Self’. Alongside a product engineer working in a highly successful startup in Shanghai, our prototype looked to re-imagine a product that would transform the way algorithms perceive us and turn our‘Digital Self’ into the opposite of our physical self. Using a selfie-stick, a magnifying glass, an iPhone and other odds and ends, we constructed a functional prototype of our idea. In a way, we created a new‘filter’ for our photos, whereby we grew long beards and appeared much older than we are in real life — in a way, manipulating our identity online.
We ended the day tired, but delighted at the outcomes. The workshop was a success and our first true collaboration with Chronus Art Center largely exceeded our expectations!