Stephanie Rothenberg, like many corporations, is interested in what you’re doing online. But unlike those companies that are collecting data for monetization, Stephanie uses API, virtual worlds and online transactions as a platform to make art and critique. Her project Laborers of Love/LOL took advantage of the recent phenomenon of crowdsourcing to have workers abroad cull images of sexuality and desire in order to create a collaged pornography; it was a critique on desirability as much as it was about digital labor. Her Creative Capital project, “Reversal of Fortune,” is a series of installations that both depend on and critique crowdfunding that happens between affluent Americans and developing countries. Elements of the project are premiering this fall in international exhibitions at The Lowry Contemporary Gallery in Manchester, England, and at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Germany. We spoke to her just before her Manchester exhibition opening.
Jenny Gill: This work is really layered and complex—it’s making virtual transactions visible, it’s translating digital human interactions into organic plant growth. Can you talk a bit about the development of this project and the metaphors at work here?
Stephanie Rothenberg: I have always been interested in using art to raise awareness about particular social issues. Before this project, I had been creating interactive artworks that explored both the benefits and exploits of new forms of online digital labor. These performances and installations leveraged what is known as crowdsourcing—outsourcing work to a so-called online “crowd” of global Internet users. The majority of these online workers were, and still are, in developing countries. They perform online work tasks for little money.
Through these earlier artworks I became aware of a new online phenomena that was becoming more popular and was somewhat of a reversal of crowdsourcing. It is known as crowdfunding. Here the online crowd funds a project or business venture that someone wants to pursue. The most familiar example is Kickstarter, which is mostly used for cultural projects. But crowdfunding is also widely used by charity organizations as a social media platform for raising money to assist people in the developing world with small “micro” loans. Rather than cultural projects, these loans are for small-scale local initiatives such as purchasing animals for a farm or paving a village road.
Thus the title of the series Reversal of Fortune, in which we see a more affluent demographic funding people in poor economies through micro loans. This type of lending has many contradictions, which the project aims to address. These include the exorbitant interest rates on micro loans by the actual banks and the persuasive mechanisms used within this form of online philanthropy to solicit your empathy.
In the gardens, I wanted to make these exchanges of financial transactions more visible through mapping and visualization. But it was also critical to underscore the human life that is at risk. I felt that the archetypal metaphor of the plant as symbolic of human life would emphasize this reality. By using “living” data, the project also challenges conventional data visualizations that are super slick and streamlined because plants are unpredictable. And with the dirt and water in the interactive gardens, it gets messy!
Jenny: I bet! How do the garden artworks work technically?
Stephanie: I like to describe the large-scale installation, Garden of Virtual Kinship, as a giant computer controlled printing machine merged with an aquaponic system. This “printer,” the overhead watering system, moves via a series of motors controlled by a small computer called a Tiny G. The entire system is connected to the Internet that collects data from the social media charity websites that are using the crowdfunding process I previously mentioned. The watering system is activated when someone online lends to a borrower’s project such as purchasing a cow for the farm. Once activated, the plants representing micro loan borrowers get water. But the plant-borrowers actually only get a few drips. The majority of the water gets pumped to a large tank representing the exorbitant interest rates and fees charged by the banks.
In Planthropy, a garden of hanging planters, each planter is outfitted with a wifi-enabled mini computer called an Arduino. Each plant represents a specific cause such as breast cancer or world hunger. The wifi/Internet component of the planters searches on Twitter for key words related to each cause. For example, the planter representing world hunger searches for the key words “donate world hunger” in Twitter feeds. When someone posts a Tweet to a hunger charity that most likely will contain those words, it activates the individual plant’s electronic system. This causes a solenoid to open and release water from a small IV bag to the plant. In addition, a quote from a Twitter post is played aloud through a computerized voice and financial statistics on some of the top hunger charities scroll by on a small LCD screen.
Jenny: You’re presenting these works from the Reversal of Fortune series this fall in two major exhibitions and a conference—all in Europe. Why do you think work like yours tends to be more exhibited overseas than in the U.S.?
Stephanie: I think there are two aspects relevant to your question. First is an issue of funding. Europe, and I should also mention Australia, have always been more supportive of the arts and less market-driven than the U.S., especially NYC, where art equates with dollar signs. Electronic art can require more costly equipment and maintenance in order to show it, making it more challenging to exhibit—and to sell. This is evident by the small number of galleries in NYC that show technology-based art.
In addition, I feel the arts are much more integrated into European culture and play a more valuable role in society. This has facilitated a more experimental playing field and more opportunities to show work. I’ve noticed this even with the recent cultural funding cuts in Europe. For instance, outside of a few places such as Eyebeam, most art and tech residencies/labs in the U.S. are connected to an educational institution. In Europe, they are often supported by national funding so accessible to more artists.
The second part might possibly have to do with the primary content of this recent work—social media and emerging micro economies. There is a lot of discourse in the European art scene around these topics. Europe has a longer history and connection to open-source philosophies and the “commons” that have led to successful experimental projects with alternative lending and exchange models. And research and development in virtual currencies such as Bitcoin continue to thrive.
Although I do find that after an artwork debuts in Europe, it often shows next in the U.S.
Jenny: You received the Creative Capital Award in 2009 in the discipline we call “Emerging Fields,” which include a lot of technology projects, but also other work that falls outside of traditional art disciplines, like social practice. I’m curious how you’ve seen this field that you work in change over the years.
Stephanie: I feel the number of artists working in areas relevant to the term “Emerging Fields” has grown a lot larger. This is due to both more mid-career artists working outside of conventional plastic arts as well as the rise of MFA programs offering degrees in hybrid forms. What has become known as social practice art has become much more widespread and popularized.
In terms of technology-based work, many of the forms and processes of 2009 have become either commercialized or obsolete. For example, in my award group, experiments with virtual currencies and locative media were happening in hacker labs and less familiar to the public. Today we see Bitcoin in mainstream news and locative media such as augmented reality being used for guided museum tours. But that is also why art engaging emerging technologies is so exciting—when an artist can create a critical work of art that speaks to that technology’s moment of cultural apex before it happens!
Jenny: You are a professor at SUNY Buffalo, so I know teaching is an important part of your practice. What do you think is the most important thing (or things) you can teach your students?
Stephanie: I teach courses in both graphic design and emerging technologies. Regardless of the discipline I think it’s important that students realize making work is a challenging experience, regardless of the discipline. It has to be a labor of love because outside of school it’s difficult to find that same supportive and nurturing environment. I also believe in the power of positive projection. If you truly believe in what you do, others will too!
For more info on Stephanie’s project, and where it is exhibited, check out her project page.