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Advertising Positions, 2017
Animations / Mixed-media Installation
Daniel C. Howe

There was a time, however brief, when the web was a space free of commerce and capitalism. Today, however, our every online action is tracked by sophisticated automated systems ("robots") that mine our most personal data to analyze, predict, and finally, determine our behavior. While this vast surveillance architecture has indeed been used by governments as a means of control, its unchecked growth is due largely to corporations motivated by profit. Human users are rarely asked to consent, but must instead accept tracking as the necessary cost of access to the “free” information we can no longer live without.

The works in this exhibition also begin with “robots”, though with a different agenda. Rather than tracking humans, these robots are trained to search the web as if they were human, following specific user-profiles they are assigned (age, gender, location, interests, etc). Each trained robot is released on the web, driving a modified version of the Chrome browser, to periodically visit sites that it “likes”, and to click on links it chooses, which then bring it to still further sites. This process continues over several weeks, during which time the robot collects and saves each of the ads with which it has been targeted (generally several thousand or more). The specific ads shown are determined by real-time auctions, which occur within the time it takes the page to load, in which the robot's growing data profile is sold to the highest corporate bidder, who then injects one or more ads into the page content. The robot, rather than using these ads to make purchases, instead uses each as the texture for a single polygon on its virtual mesh body. The training period concludes when the robot’s new skin, which you can see here for the first time, is complete.

A fully-articulated conceptual art intervention with an aesthetic outcome… that at the same time operates as an engaged computationally‐sophisticated (programmatic generative bot-art) and polemical intervention against the ubiquitous networked advertising that permeates and ideologically colonizes cognitive space with visual trash: portraiture for the blemished flesh of browsing beings.

-D.J. Johnston  

Special thanks to Sally Chen, Leoson Cheong, and Dorothy Chen for their extensive contributions to this work. Thanks also to Miu Ling Lam, Diane To, Tobias Klein, and Tamas Waliczky for their feedback and assistance.