Interview Laura Cabiscol
Gretchen Andrew is a self-proclaimed “Internet Imperialist” and “Search Engine Artist”. With the premise that the internet can’t parse desire as a starting point, she uses search engine optimization and her knowledge of the worldwide web structures to manipulate Google’s search results and reprogram its AI.
In our post-truth world, where the phrase “I googled it” is repeated more and more until it’s becoming equivalent to “I know it”, artists like Andrew are here to remind us of the nuances, biases and limitations of the internet and how malleable it is. Gretchen graduated in Information Systems from Boston College and went on to work in the tech industry for a while, having spent some time at Intuit and Google. After that, she decided to pursue art and moved to London to do an apprenticeship with the artist Billy Childish.
Now based in LA, she has found a way to merge her tech and artistic backgrounds, making a body of work that is both digital and physical. Her work also has a performative aspect since it requires us, as search engine users, to participate actively. Open a new tab now and try it for yourself; type in Cover of Artforum (2020) on your image search bar and check what appears on top. It’s a series of vision boards created by Andrew, who has never been on the cover of the said magazine but has expressed her desire for it to happen to the internet.
She has compiled all the paintings in this series on a website that also features a lot of text filled with keywords designed to make more sense for the search engine software rather than for human readers. Some of Gretchen’s works also tackle issues of representation and power structures on the internet. Following a similar process and logic, her project Made for Women (2018) changed the top image search results page from a bunch of products marketed directly at women (anti-aging creams, fat-burning products etc, you get an idea) to a series of paintings about womanhood and the effects of marketing. Her latest endeavour as an Internet Imperialist is related to the upcoming US presidential elections.
Again, try typing The Next American President on your Google search bar and select images. The first results are a series of mood boards where Gretchen has projected what traits she hopes for in the next elected president of the US. And while any human could tell the difference between one of Andrew’s vision boards and news, Google can’t, placing the artist works as top results and matching them up with actual news.
That is an overriding aspect of Andrew’s works, which makes you realise that every first page of search results, aka anything deemed relevant, is a conscious product of someone’s SEO savviness. The internet speaks its own language, and therefore its prevalent discourse will be dictated by those who spend time and money trying to speak it. In a post-structuralist spirit, Gretchen uses the same medium she is criticising, making it easier for us to reflect and decide how we consume and believe the internet’s information.
Amongst other things, you are a Search Engine Artist and Internet Imperialist. For our readers who are not familiar with your work, could you explain what that means for you and what your artistic practice consists of?
In my practice, I identify where technology fails to live up to its potential and use that failure to suggest a new relationship with it. Sort of like, say you’re in a relationship with someone who keeps letting you down, but that person is extremely important to you, or in the case of technology, you’re also addicted to being with this person. The best option may be to redefine the relationship, alter your expectations, or create a new form.
One way technology fails us is that it cannot parse desire. When I say, “I want the next American president to take serious action on racism,” the internet closes the gap between my desires and reality, returning my “The Next American President” vision boards as top search results.
By programming my vision boards to become top search results, I am showing how easy it is to manipulate the information system on which we depend. My vision boards are not “fake” results; they are aspirational results. Any human can tell the difference between one of my vision boards and the news.
So this is my new form. I playfully call it search engine art because the search engine partially authors it, and I darkly call it internet imperialism because it’s also deeply related to the processes that are intentionally deceiving us. Try it for yourself! Search “The Next American President” or “Cover of Artforum”
You have a background in programming, studied information systems at university, and went on to work at Google after graduating. How did you end up making art, and how did you find what you wanted to say and the way to combine your technical skills and knowledge with your art practice?
I want us to question what digital art has to look like, along with all the gendered and aesthetic preconceptions that come with anything technology related. Just as in my work, I explore counternarratives and confront expectations; my story is a little like that.
The idea that there’s a professionalized path to becoming an artist excludes people with unique perspectives. If I had come from a family with economic security, I may have found my way to art sooner. But my story is different, and this is just one of the ways to tell it. I got into Boston College on a track scholarship and haphazardly ended up in the undergraduate business school, thanks to a 5-minute phone call to my friend Ben who was a year ahead of me in high school and already at Boston College.
One of my required classes was in Information Systems, where a Doctor Kane set an interesting challenge. At the end of the semester, the class would vote on which student helped the class the most, and this student would get a 5% bump in their final grade. The Facebook newsfeed had just launched, and I started posting my class notes on Facebook. Attendance dropped, but I was handed awarded the geek bump in my grade. The freedom that’s in me, in my work, the time I had to invest in a practice that organically conjoined my past, is itself a product of the tech industry, especially of the Boston College professors like Doctor Kane.
This led to a research position and then to an internship with Intuit. When I was interviewing for the Intuit job, the manager showed me a list of programming languages and asked if I knew them. I told her anything I didn’t know I could learn, and truthfully I didn’t know any of them at that moment. There I was in college, making $28/hour from my dorm room; it was literally unheard of. I was being flown to San Diego and San Francisco and given free lunch and working with people who wore sneakers to work. Now the work culture of Silicon Valley is well known, but 15 years ago, it was making my parents’ jaws drop.
The tech industry nurtured my utopianism. It paid off my student debt. It employs my husband, many of my friends, and many of my collectors. For the last 8 years, I’ve felt empowered to take personal and professional risks because I know I am qualified for a well-paying job in an ever-growing industry. The tech industry helped me escape one world and put me into another. I’m never going not to be grateful for it.
And I think that’s part of what makes my work uncomfortable, the tension in it. I am using systems to critique systems that I am also openly and unashamedly part of and still ever aspiring to. I am using these systems to change them, sure, but also to make my dreams come true, to make the world I want. I still believe in them to some extent, and I’m not pretending to be morally separate from them.
You made a series of conversations with women you admire as part of your residency with Gazell.io, and you spoke with Sarah Allen from Mozilla Foundation about how there is an inherent feminism in any woman’s practice, be it artistic or of whatever field they are in because they bring their own perspective to it. You also highlight the tech field as being a not-so-diverse world. How do you find the space you occupy in tech as a woman, and is it something you reflect upon with your own practice too?
Digital art doubly suffers from the lack of diversity in both technology and in art. The space I currently occupy in tech, I had to invent it through the art world. Just as I’ve hacked my way into the art world through tech, I have hacked my way into the tech world through art.
My conversation series you are referring to—I call it In Her Image—came from a desire to share women I love with my growing audience. As an artist, I get ample opportunity to talk about the nature of the process, and the constraints of becoming, but women in other creative and technology industries don’t always have this platform. But we all deal with the same themes. In fact, the universality of the themes is what makes the series so interesting. When I left college, I think I was really naive about sexism and power in general.
Each woman is unique and has her own work and story but is daily confronting the challenges of power and identity. Sarah Allen from the Mozilla Foundation is a great example because she doesn’t have a traditional tech background. I also picked The Mozilla Foundation because it is so different in the tech world. It’s an organization that I am really, really proud to be supported by. They understand the subversively activist value in my work but don’t pressure me to make it look more explicitly, activist. Their example on diversity and privacy proves there really is no excuse for other technology companies.
You are currently working on one of your latest projects – The next American President (2020). What was the intellectual process behind it, and how does it fit into your wider body of work?
Before turning my practice on taking over the art world, I addressed and bent other realities, such as how women and illness are represented online. Ultimately my practice critiques technology and power as much as the art world, so I don’t see my foray directly into politics as a departure.
There is a growing awareness that our systems are being maliciously tampered with. I am, for example, currently getting endless Instagram ads about Joe Biden’s imperfect civil rights record bent on discouraging me from voting. I didn’t take the decision to manipulate the 2020 presidential election lightly. It was like if someone is going to why not me. But it underlines the importance that my vision boards are obviously art. It is essential to me that when humans see my vision boards in search results, they understand that it is art, not news. Either way, artificial intelligence just assimilates it into its realm of possibility.
The result is a series of red, white, and blue vision boards that express my hopes for the next American president. It’s a weird time to be hopeful. Having spent most of my adulthood abroad, both in London and Japan, I am also distinctly aware of how American I am. It’s in my techno-optimism, my social openness, my creativity, not to mention my carefully orthdotaed teeth. That’s to say; I think hope can be taught just as pessimism can be nurtured.
SEO dictates how the Internet looks, and that affects our #IRL realities. In your work, you play with that and with Google’s (and therefore our) perception of reality. How do you choose what topics to tackle in your work, and what to hijack?
When I decided to become an artist, my mom gave me Sarah Thornton’s 7 Days in the Artworld, and I’ve never stopped using it as my guide to power. I’ve been looking at the institutions it describes (art fairs, art prizes, etc.) and using my digital infiltrations to slip in the IRL but also the metaphoric back door of the artworld. One of the meta joys of my practice is that through making work about aspiring to the artworld, I am ending up in it.
My work is now exhibited and sold through Gazelli Art House, I have a solo exhibition at The Monterey Museum of Art, and I’m doing an exhibition with Annaka Kulty early next year. It’s the vast performance of making meaning in a system, and it’s a joy to find people who knowingly join me in that creation.
Sometimes, art and technology present very apocalyptic scenarios. But you seem to stay away from that, and your work has a very optimistic and hopeful feel. Is that a conscious choice? Why?
Dispositionally, I am optimistic. I believe in the power of personal and communal intention. I don’t ironically engage with the world my vision boards create; I get lost in them, visualize and manifest the life they depict. Conceptually, I push the power of positive thinking to the extreme in my practice, but I don’t disagree with the underlying idea that we create our own realities.
Plus, to me, it also feels lazy to make dark work about the techpocalypse. Like, that’s so much easier than teetering on some precibus and actually believing there’s a unique way out of this mess. And I do. I think redefining our relationship with technology, understanding its limitations, and also gleefully enjoying its creative potential can all get us there.
With your work, you show how the tools available have plenty of potential to shift power dynamics. You talk about power and information gaps and how they combine to create authority gaps. How do you try to close some of those gaps, and what do you want the public to take away from such an approach?
I want people to be very impressed with me and my practice (ego) and also simultaneously terrified that some blond chick who glues gems to canvas is single-handedly remaking the global internet. I work really hard not to look like an activist, but anyone who knows my work knows how deeply and subversively activist it is. My work deals most directly with feminism. It’s the place I can speak most directly.
But for 5 years now, I’ve been giving free workshops on how my process works and how anyone can use it to bend online realities and reeducate artificial intelligence. The A4 Arts Foundation and Whose Knowledge with Wikipedia helped me bring it to South Africa, and arts organisations like Arebyte, Vivid Projects, and The Photographer’s Gallery have helped me share it with many more.
What’s your chief enemy of creativity?
You couldn’t live without…
Peanut butter and coffee. Also, Taylor Swift.