We have the strong sense that we are in control of our thoughts and actions. Yet, as we learn more about the human brain, free will begins to look like an illusion. Our thoughts and actions are manipulated like the hands and arms of the Mechanical Turk, the 18th century automaton that was in fact operated by a concealed human chess master within. Smartphones, and specifically the social media platforms installed on them, give political organisations, technology, retail and marketing companies unparalleled access to personal data which can be used to stimulate, manipulate and exploit us. In return we receive the illusion of a free unlimited network of communication and a ceaseless supply of dopamine. If the internet were a brain, then social media would be the amygdala; the deep brain structure responsible for processing emotion.
The artworks in this exhibition reflect on human perception distorted through the dark, manipulative lens of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.
In Insilico, a life-sized animatronic stag flounders, its movements dictated by the intensity of abuse directed at individuals on Twitter. Bespoke software designed by sentiment and hate-speech analysts trawls Twitter to establish who is presently the most abused person on the platform. The software then rates the incoming tweets depending on the intensity of this abuse.
A monitor at the back of the artwork displays the live Twitter feed and the code engaged in determining the results. This data is fed to the mechanisms which control the movements of the animatronic stag.
The original images featured in the Palantír paintings are night vision photographs. This series of works emerged early during lockdown when everything fell silent outside and the noise moved online. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram became forums for attack. A primal herd instinct reared its beastly head as these digital platforms were exploited to hunt and take people down.
The paintings, like our online records, capture a fleeting, furtive moment of disquiet; a shadowy record of predator and prey, briefly blinded in the glare.
A Palantír is a magical artefact used as a communication device to see events in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Middle Earth. They were often unreliable guides, particularly when seized by enemy hands and manipulated for diabolical ends.
The Machine Zone is inspired by the historic behavioural experiments of the psychologist B.F. Skinner that explored the idea of random reward. Skinner’s work has been widely referenced in relation to the algorithms which drive interactions on social media, tapping into a subconscious primal side of the brain which is involved in motivated behaviours, thus exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. Skinner’s ‘operant conditioning chambers’ demonstrated that random reward created a constant uncertainty that encouraged a behavioural loop. Skinner’s ghost has persisted into the modern day, a quiet spectre among our statuses, likes, comments, and shares.
Optical illusions such as the zoetrope function by utilising sleight of hand and misdirection, powerful techniques designed to influence without us knowing how we are being deceived. All Things Fall is based on the Biblical story of the Massacre of the Innocents. It combines old technology in the form of a zoetrope with stroboscopes and 3D printing. Lacking a focal point, the viewers’ eyes constantly move across the artwork, mirroring the unrest within the scene. The zoetrope enhances the cornucopia of savagery in the original paintings with its multiple characters, heaving in a mass of kaleidoscopic brutality. The repetition of the scene means they are forever trapped in a frenzied purgatory of violence. This exuberant carousel of cruelty engages and seduces; human suffering as spectacle.