Anyone out there read 1984, George Orwell’s chillingly dystopian novel about a world in which our thoughts and behavior are controlled by a Big Brother figure?
It was published in 1949 but, to the ordinary bloke on the street, did not appear to be at all relevant by the time the titular year came around. But, what about now? How much freedom of choice do we really have in this Internet era?
Everything seems to be so accessible, so readily available when, for example, at the click of a computer mouse button you can order a great looking pair of shoes from an Australian company, or cover hoods for your bicycle handlebars from China.
While that facility is pretty nifty, many of us may not be fully cognizant of the two-way street downside of the online commercial relationship.
Lior Zalmanson certainly is, and is doing his best to convey the constraints surreptitiously placed on our freedom of thought and action by giant multinationals that feed us what they feel we should know and, hopefully for them, we end up purchasing, at the click of a mouse button.
Zalmanson, who is described as an “artist and technology researcher,” currently has an exhibition, called NewSpeak, running at the Artists Residence in Herzliya and curated by Ran Kasmy-Ilan. It is Zalmanson’s inaugural artistic public airing.
The name of the show comes from the language of the fictional totalitarian state, Oceania, portrayed in 1984.
The ruling party of Oceania created NewSpeak, with a pared down vocabulary, as a means of restricting freedom of thought by allowing its subjects to use only a limited amount of words and grammar.
It stands to reason that, if you don’t have a word for something you can’t communicate its sense to anyone, or even ponder it yourself for too long. The less thinking ability exercised by the people, the less the authorities need to exert control.
Zalmanson’s art is his way of speaking out, and as loudly as he can, against what he sees as the public being sucked into an unhealthy relationship of almost total dependence on the wares of all-powerful large scale commercial bodies that condition us to shell out our hard-earned cash on all manner of products designed to make us feel good, and well pampered.
“The question is, OK, now we use all sorts of user-friendly and sexy and beautiful products, and wonderful user interfaces, and all those words,” he notes. “But they have used that to shut us up, and disarm us. They have turned our engagement into something which is token, token participation only.”
Everything, he says, is about turnover, and what is in it for the companies. We might think we are savvy, and more in control than ever, with the whole “global village” seemingly at our behest, but that simply isn’t the case.
“I think there are, today, all sorts of things going on on the Internet designed to make us ‘actively engaged,’ or to feel we are actively engaged. But, at the end of the day, you have to see who gains from what we do, and when. Are we really free on all these platforms? And how these platforms change us, change our discourse, our access to the world.”
BUT, SURELY, that’s the way the world of commercials has always worked. Zalmanson says he believes there is something far more insidious about online marketing: “Broadcast commercials were not individually targeted. They were aimed at the greatest common denominator. But sometimes you don’t know how much the [web] environment you have entered is personalized, tailored to you and to what they already know about you. You think you are in a free, objective environment but, the fact is, that it is very much engineered based on what the machine knows about you. It can be a filter bubble, or an echo chamber.”
Hence the design of one of NewSpeak’s three components, the most analog-fashioned of the triad, called “Image May Contain.” To get the full effect of the work, you stand in the center of a bunch of metal boards which are arranged in a circle. The boards contain images which alternate as you change your angle of view.
The rotund arrangement has an intentionally pretty industrialized, common or garden, feel to it. “From the outside it looks just like scaffolding,” says Zalmanson. But, appearances can be deceptive, in all kinds of senses, and the layout has an ulterior intention to it. “I want people to stand in the center and feel trapped,” the artist explains. “I want them to feel that it’s a bit of a circus.” That may imply a sense of fun, but Zalmanson infers a spirit of mayhem or, possibly, a loss of control over the proceedings – our daily lives.
“Image May Contain” feeds off something called AAT, or Automatic Alternative Text, which also features front and center in the “Excess Ability” video work.
The idea behind AAT was to work on the basis of the logical context of the vocabulary used in a videoed session or event, and to provide an approximation of the spoken words in written form. This was conceived as service to hearing impaired viewers.
“Excess Ability” is a fun case in point. The name of the work comes from the technologically, and ludicrously, misinterpreted rendering of “accessibility.”
Meanwhile, the visual offerings in “Image May Contain” may afford us some meager sense of being in charge.
We can, as noted earlier, change what we see by adopting a different trajectory.
Each board contains a number of printed images which all, more or less, suit a rudimentary description of the action therein.
One may, for example, be précised as “10 people and a car,” which would then reference a widely variegated bunch of pictures which have absolutely nothing in common, other than the fact that they contain exactly the same number of people and vehicles. Vive la différence.
THE FAILINGS of the best efforts of humankind to homogenize the way we deal with the more mundane aspects of everyday life are hung out to dry, for all to see, in the most blatant manner imaginable, in the “Basic Basic English” section of the exhibition.
The name of this slot references an English-based controlled language created by British linguist and philosopher Charles Kay Ogden in the 1920s.
It contained just 850 words which, Ogden felt, was all non-English speakers would require to communicate in English. It was said that there were dark political undertones to the whole exercise, whereby inhabitants of colonies across the then-vast British Empire could be Westernized.
Zalmanson went a step further, asking people from different parts of the former British empire to read Ogden’s 1930 tome Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar, naturally incorporating various accents.
He then ran all of these recordings through Silicon Valley’s speech recognition algorithms and, if the algorithm failed to understand a word in at least a third of the cases, the word was skipped.
That was one the grounds that there is no use for words that digital beings cannot understand. One such digital figure, with a nondescript accent itself, appears in “Basic Basic English.”
Zalmanson ended up with a trim, “Basic Basic English” vocabulary of just 648 words which, he says, is “the first language to be spoken by digital and biological persons and understood by both.”
Through the humanoid centerpiece of the work, Zalmanson calls that “the first step towards post-humanistic understanding, toward entities like you [humans] and [digital] entities like me living in harmony!”
The gulf between actual English, and the algorithm-filtered version, is unmissably accentuated by a farcical rendition of the lyrics of British pop Police’s 1983 hit “Every Breath You Take.”
Consider the opening lines, intoned so tellingly by trio bassist-vocalist Sting: “Every breath you take. Every move you make. Every bond you break. Every step you take. I will be watching you.”
In Zalmanson’s overly shrunken vocabulary-based reading, that becomes a skeletal: “Every take. Every move make. Every. Every step take. I be.” Not sure that would have sold too many records.NewSpeak closes on July 5. For more information: (09) 951-0601 and www.theartistsresidence.org/en/exhibitions/
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