'Life in AdWords'- Erica Scourti Coding and Codification
Millions are blissfully unaware of the technological forces at work behind the scenes when we use social network platforms, mobile phones and search engines. What lies behind the content of the systems we use everyday are algorithms, designed to track and sort through all the influx of diverse data. The result of this mass online activity is described by marketing companies as data exhaust and seen as an overflow of data. All kinds of groups have interest in the collection and analysis of this data quietly collected while users pursue their online activities and interests; with companies wanting to gain more insight into our web behaviours so that they can sell more products.
London artist, Erica Scourti, creates visual art projects mainly consisting of performative actions and audio-visual pieces that deal with the notion of self-mediation. As a result, “she is interested in the patterns that structure language in the Web and their capability to influence the self-determination of the users in a complex context of an individual but networked experience” (M. Burugorri, Interview with Erica Scourti, 2014). Indeed, most of her works reflect on image and text associations that, although seeming natural, have an unaware learning process behind; by submitting herself to this fact, Scourti creates pieces with an intimate appearance and very subtle humour.
Scourti began the long Internet based, networked art project called ‘Life in AdWords’, in which she wrote and emailed a daily diary to her Gmail account and performed regular webcams where she read out to the video lists suggested keywords. Scourti stated, “I wanted to make visible in a literal and banal way how algorithms are being deployed by Google to translate our personal information into consumer profiles, which advertisers pay to access” (M. Garrett, A Life in AdWords, 2013). Scourti’s work encodes the message of the mediation of personal and collective experience through language and technology in the networked regime of contemporary culture. Using autobiographical source material, as well as found text collected from the Internet displaced into social space, “her work explores communications, and particularly the mediated intimacy engendered by a digital paradigm” (M. Garrett, A Life in AdWords, 2013).
‘Life in AdWords’ makes visible the working of the algorithmic system more on the level of the language it produces. The frequent dumbness of the language employs humour explored through the juxtapositions, ‘Where is God?’, ‘Eating Disorder Program’ and the flattening out of all difference between objects, feelings and places. These algorithms that analyse our email content, Facebook behaviours, and so on, don’t just read us, but shape us. Scourti’s work exposes cultural issues with the invasiveness of technology and it’s ability to confuse algorithmically produced language as our own. Her confessional identity and the Google ads that it generates become confused and melded. Where does her diary end and Google’s consumerist language start? Are the Google Ads that much more artificial than the confessional forms of the diary and the webcam? In an interview with Daniel Rourke for Rhizome, Scourti provocatively asks: “Maybe the algorithm and social media soul is now so intertwined and interdependent that it makes little sense to even separate the two?” (D. Rourke, Artist Profile: Erica Scourti, 2013).
Google is a system that is beyond our control and necessarily involves handing over some of our authorial agency. But this question of agency is obviously crucial in the discussion of technology and runs through her project in various ways. The process of Scourti’s work involved a simple instruction; to write and process the diaries every day and do the webcam recording. This method could be seen as the replication of a software program carrying out automated scripts. However, Scourti explains whilst all the language used in the project was generated and created by the software, she was also exercising a certain amount of control over which sections of the diary she favoured and editing the resulting lists, a move which seemingly reasserts her own authorial agency (D. Rourke, Artist Profile: Erica Scourti, 2013).
‘Life in AdWords’ exposes the powers that profile marketers have of us, hence being able to target us more effectively and efficiently. “We are commodities delivered to advertisers, which keep the Web 2.0 economy ‘free’.” (E. Scourti, Life in AdWords, 2013). By divulging into the strictly computerised Google ads produced from her personal and emotive diary entries explores the invasiveness of marketers and their ability to translate these events into code.
M. Burugorri. 2014. Network Cultures. ‘Interview with artist Erica Scourti.’ Available from: http://networkcultures.org/culturevortex/2014/01/10/interview-with-artist-erica-scourti/ [16 August 2015]
M. Garrett. 2013. Furtherfield. ‘A Life in AdWords, Algorithms & Data Exhaust. An interview with Erica Scourti.’ Available from: http://www.furtherfield.org/features/interviews/life-adwords-algorithms-data-exhaust-interview-erica-scourti [17 August 2015]
D. Rourke. 2013. Rhizome. ‘Artist Profile: Erica Scourti.’ Available from: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/oct/8/artist-profile-erica-scourti/ [18 August 2015]
E. Scourti. 2013. Erica Scourti. ‘Life in AdWords.’ Available from: http://ericascourti.com/art_pages/life_in_adwords.html [18 August 2015]