Despite her young age – contemporary Scottish artist – Diane Edwards addresses serious social issues through her artworks. She has a research attitude and pays close attention to the impact of technology on the environment and humanity. Before, beside art galleries she has exhibited in industrial settings too; similar to how the Hungarian audience is going to see her new, site-specific work this spring as part of the exhibition Machinic Leviathan, commissioned by OFF-Biennále Budapest. During her visit in January, we had the chance to talk with her about her artistic practice, dangers of personalised online search engines, technology designed for addiction, invisible labour, and the openness of audiences towards sociocritical artworks.
Noémi Viski (NV): In your artworks, the topic of technology and its impacts on the society of the present (and the future) is recurring. What are the exact issues you are focusing on?
Diane Edwards (DE): In my most recent project and solo show, ’[un]dead Labour’, I was concerned with the manipulative power of networked technologies through social media, search engines, cookies, targeted advertising, and the way in which they can influence emergent behaviors and actions of their users.
[un]dead Labour emerged from a site-specific interrogation within a disused biscuit factory in Bermondsey, London. This factory was one of many which transformed the urban London landscape during the first Industrial Revolution – which in turn had a huge societal impact. I started to relate this historic world changing event to contemporary shifts in labour practices, through machine learning and technocapitalism, which play a part of what some may call the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.
I began to take notice of my own personal interactions with the internet. I feel less confident in my own discoveries and choices. Through the ever progressing predictive power of Google’s algorithms, ‘what I am looking for’ is always right there, in front of me. It saves me so much time, but actually it’s influencing my choices, what I buy, what I do. Unkowingly we are all being put in a box and kept there, being stripped of our own intuition and initiative and more.
NV: What does the title ’[un]dead Labour’ exactly refer to?
DE: It’s a multilayered, playful name, ‘dead labour’ is a marxist term, which in part refers to the idea that within the factory, workers are working for capitalist gain and are tools of a wider machinery. I was playing with the idea of the undead in multiple ways. On one hand I was thinking about the fourth industrial revolution and artificial neural networks which I propose are ‘undead’ in the sense that they are not alive, yet they have lively behaviours, decision making abilities and agency which has potential to affect society and influence people’s behaviours and actions.
On another level, I was thinking about the zombification of culture and society, the loss of our own autonomy, being led by digital prompts and suggestions. I see it, for example, on my daily commute to work: at the train station and on the road, people just staring blankly, transfixed by their screens. Glazed eyes, not really present, detachted from their environment and the other individuals around them.
These zombie workers are exploited through unpaid invisible labour; invisible in the sense that we are fairly unaware of the capital that is being gained from our time spent online. That time being manipulated and increased by technology designed for addiction, ‘infinite scroll’ for example.
NV: It’s really interesting to think about how we are making profit without even realizing it – it is terrifying at the same time…
DE: The Internet at one point felt very free, it was all about exploration and discovery. I use Google for instance (and the majority of people I know use it too), however it’s so directed to you personally, that you miss out the potential of stumbling upon the weird and wonderful. It is a shrunken form of the internet; it has been optimised, however there is a risk in making everything easier… We become reliant on technology, with diminishing skills, attention span, memory and ability to think for ourselves. Even when thinking about research, I have papers sent to me by e-mail through academic social network sites, and through my online searches. I’m getting back what it thinks I am interested in. Even if I am uninterested in it, it’s still taking me places, rather than me choosing where to look.
NV: It is somehow about control and about the extraction of human labour, without knowing it. As I have seen, in your works you are not just focusing on the extraction of human labour but from nature as well. We know barely anything about the materiality of technology; in one of your artworks called Sub-structures, you put the emphasis on this topic.
DE: I believe it’s essential to really understand where all the things we interact or consume have come from, and what is the material flow of those objects. It’s is important to emphasize and direct attention and care to the way in which these technologies manifest, their geopolitical and environmental impact and the multiple forms of toxicity – be it through the irresponsible treatment of mining waste, the disregard and displacement of communities through land grabbing, the illtreatment and poor working conditions of illegal mineral mines, the power struggle between countries to control technological innovation, for instance the USA/China trade war with rare earths, which happened not too long ago and led to the USA opening more of it’s own mines, who has these minerals has the power to produce these technologies, etc. The list goes on and on…
I feel we should have an understanding of these complex issues and step out of the shiny bubble of urban consumer culture, into the dirt. I think an artist can help bring this discussion to the public and get them to consider these very hybrid complex devices that we use, which are seemingly magical: not many people can tell you how they actually function, how the materials interact with each other, etc..
Sub-structures, attempts to demistify these issues, drawing attention to the materiality and environmental impact of digital technologies.
NV: Showing materiality in it’s real form is a way how you are expressing that, and also you often combine synthetic and organic media to create installations and sculptures, for example in (un)dead Labour project, in which you draw a parallel between sugar and data/data driven applications…
DE: I have always worked with mixed media, juxtaposing the material, the spatial and the digital. I enjoy creating environments and objects and the way in which they force the viewers to look around themselves and take notice of these materials in juxtaposition with each other. It is a reminder that we are never truly detached from the material. I’m not so interested in creating completely digital works, rather the interaction between static, visceral material and the electronically active digital display. In terms of the use of synthetic and organic materials, I feel that’s where we are at… the synthetic and the organic are entangled. So yes, I think I am always interested in that push and pull between the digital and the physical.
NV: You’ve mentioned that some artists feel a responsibility to draw attention to the mentioned concerns. We are speaking about complicated sociotechnological (and environmental) issues with global effects. One could say that art is still not a space to solve these kinds of social ills. What do you think is the role of art in that case?
DE: I wouldn’t say art can solve these vast and complex social and environmental issues. However It can start discussions, draw attention and create alternative and productive narratives to explore and inspire. I feel it is an undoubtably useful platform which allows for multiple voices, knowledges and experiences to converge, providing a wider engagement with current matters of concern, creating a space in which meaning, reflection, and action may emerge. Artists who strive to work in a transdisciplinary way have a beneficial role in bridging the world of academia to the public, using a visual language to disseminate and critically challenge the world around them.
NV: When you are not doing your own art practice, you are working for Arts Catalyst (a nonprofit contemporary arts organisation in London). How do you see the response to these topics from the audience? Are they open-minded?
DE: In my experience, there is a growing interest from art institutions and smaller organisations of work that critically looks at the current political, societal and environmental concerns. Arts Catalyst brings together artists, scientists and other researchers for discussions and talks. An equal importance is given to the public programme that accompanies an exhibition, where invited speakers take the discussion further, or other artists expand on the ethos of the show through performance or screenings. The exhibition sets the scene for a matter of concern, and then the discussions and talks, even publications are really where the action starts happening.
The audience is very intrigued to really learn more about these topics and get in amongst the research. At my most recent show, at the biscuit factory, I had some really good feedback from audience members who stated that the work made them think differently about their relationship to networked technologies. They reflected on how they themselves were getting sucked in and that the show made them more aware of their behaviour. It is interesting to think about what potential your work has, what can it do, how can it make a difference to people, and open up discussions.
Cover image: Diane Edwards: [un]dead Labour, 2019. Courtesy of the artist