by Mikko Lautamo
It’s been four months since Donald Trump was elected president and pundits are still scratching their heads. What the hell happened? There are many answers, but one reason for Trump’s aberrant victory was purely technological: Twitter bots were spreading fake news and propaganda on his behalf. In Presently Untitled, Jiayi and Shih-Wen Young address this cybernetic infection by showing the five most influential bots, each represented by glowing IV bags filled with sickly green liquid; they’re presented opposite a network of blinking white LEDs representing real human Twitter traffic. The installation – of wires, lights, neon-colored water, small computers and sound running on a 5-minute loop – is designed to portray the frenzy of activity on Twitter in the nine months leading up to the election. The last moments of the loop comprise a devastating and cathartic crescendo: you can see in real time how Twitter users go from behaving naturally and rationally to becoming screaming echo chambers for robotic propaganda. If a social media network is like a brain, then what happened in the run-up to the election was a total seizure. The group mind shattered, and robotic influencers took control.
In this sense Presently Untitled is a nativity scene for fake news. It shows in dramatic fashion how lies become a political movement. The physical structure representing this phenomenon is
a mass of wires hanging from the ceiling with space to walk on all sides. At the front are the IV bags. Filled with what looks to be bad medicine, they resemble a nightmarish vision of
chemotherapy. The effect is clinical, as if we are witnessing an autopsy, a birth or a euthanization. At first, the room is calm; the wires leading to blinking lights gather in a tangle on the ground and the LEDs flicker in a manner resembling slow breathing. Each medicine bag has a mechanism that clicks and releases fluid every time the bot it represents sends off a tweet. As the clicking of the medicine bags ramps up, the lights flicker more rapidly as human Twitter users re-tweet the bots. With each re-tweet the lights flash twice in succession, and when those re-tweets are again re-tweeted, the lights blink even more rapidly, generating what the artists call a “second degree infection.” As the network begins to echo itself, the flashing increases exponentially. The clicks, at first hardly noticeable, become a cacophony as small speakers attached to computer boards on the ceiling, each one relating to one of the lights on the ground, begin to chime in creating an audio environment halfway between digital noise and chirping crickets. In the final moments, LEDs flash constantly as second, third and fourth-degree infections drive the system to echo back and forth like a brain on speed until the inevitable collapse on November 8, when all the activity drops back to normal. The robots did their job and the rest is silence.
As artists, educators, and also scientists (both have backgrounds in physics), Jiayi and Shih-Wen (he’s credited with “technology direction”) are at the nexus of people threatened by Trump’s policies. Both immigrants, Jiayi from mainland China and Shih-Wen from Taiwan, they are particularly attuned to the dangers posed by an oppressive, authoritarian regime. Presently Untitled is the final stage of a three-part series examining Twitter and the election. Twitter Rain, the first in the series, used clear IV bags to rain water down on viewers. It was completed in July of 2016 at the Djerassi Artist Residency, on the eve of the Republican National Convention. Since then, the idea has morphed into an almost cyber-dystopian mode as the implications of the data became clearer. Despite being couched in neutral, scientific language, this piece stands as an indictment of the current administration’s mendacious rise to power.
At the heart of the piece is rigorously analyzed data. Jiayi, a professor at UC Davis, worked with her colleague, Ph.D. candidate Qilian Yu, to analyze, compress, and structure the massive amounts of Twitter traffic into something comprehensible but still statistically valid. What you see is a randomized sampling of a tiny sliver of real data that accurately reflects the whole. If there is a kind of natural symmetry between Twitter behavior and the real world, the implications are terrifying. The patterns feel like Trump: reactionary, atavistic, violent and deeply disturbing.
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Jiayi and Shih-Wen Young: “Presently Untitled” @ Pence Gallery through March 30, 2017. Presently Untitled will be in Shanghai for the 5th China International Technology Fair in April and in Manizales,Colombia for the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) in June.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist and educator from Sacramento. His work uses computer code to create interactive and never-repeating installations centering on blended biological, social, and economic systems. He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in the United States, Australia and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.