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Only Human

James Coupe. General Intellect (video still). 2015. Courtesy of Aktionsart.

Somewhere in rural Southeast Asia a man sits at a webcam, stoic, shirtless. Country music croons in the background: “When I’m working I curse the boss.” A rooster crows. He is recording himself, for one minute exactly, each hour on the hour, during a 9-5 workday. He appears on-screen boiling water or standing on a porch or cuddling with his wife. At one point the couple is seen waiting for an electrician because the power’s down. The woman nervously turns from the camera as her husband prods: “They’re paying $3 per hit, we have to do it.”

This scene is shown on a screen in an abandoned building on Westlake Ave, steps away from the Amazon campus in South Lake Union as part of a project called General Intellect by British-born, Seattle-based artist James Coupe. In recent years Coupe has worked with surveillance technology like facial recognition software to examine a culture steeped in exhibitionism and complicit in constant mutual observation. For this project, he commissioned one-minute videos from hundreds of workers employed by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (mTurk)—a crowdsourced Internet marketplace wherein businesses hire individuals to complete the tasks that computers can’t do. Those jobs are called HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks). Coupe has compiled commissioned videos into a generative database and is showing them in an empty South Lake Union school building. Participants have no idea their videos are part of an art project; workers at mTurk routinely don’t know where any of their HITs go. Queries to the database made of captioned keywords pull random videos and lump them together, loosely thematic.

The exhibit uses technologies most people have scant knowledge of, like custom queries and a nameless, digital labor force. It was made possible by Aktionsart, a Seattle-based organization that focuses on the intersection of new media, technology and art. Some art-tech hybrids climax with the presentation of tools, brilliant or otherwise. That's far from the case here. 

As I make my way from the drab foyer of the school building into a darkened hallway, I find myself in a large room where crayon drawings are tacked to the wall. A fading banner punctuated with stars urges DO YOUR BEST. Inside a former classroom, an inspirational message is posted on a whiteboard: “It is your job to improve yourself.” There’s a dead fly on the sill. The blinds are drawn. One monitor glows, showing a worker in India. He’s the star of “General Intellect Query II—single worker currently uploading the most videos.” Sifting through papers on a messy desk, the worker says, “Again in the afternoon I have class. I am preparing myself.”

James Coupe. General Intellect (video still). 2015. Courtesy of Aktionsart.

The third room is home to videos that turn up from a query for husbands and wives. Viewers huddled around the monitor attempt to piece together details to learn the histories and locations of the nameless subjects. One man seems clearly from the American South, living in semi-poverty; West Virginia? Eventually household products labeled with non-English text come into view, as well as a wife who doesn’t speak much English. Is he an ex-pat? Together, we crowdsource a narrative: They're the aforementioned couple in Southeast Asia.

The exhibition winds through creepy spaces. Abandoned maintenance supplies propped against walls suggest catastrophe or sudden vacancy, while nearby a video captioned with keyword “eBay” depicts a breakfast of fried eggs. Coupe’s queries reduce contemporary life to universal and clinical terms: “bored,” “cat,” “cooking,” “medication,” “white females between ages 50-59 in North America.” Nine disparate minutes in the life of an individual seem to flow forth in real-time but are actually compressed time processed live, stitched together in an artificial contiguous flow. It’s a lot like the Internet, a user-generated archive experienced in forever-present tense.

James Coupe. General Intellect (video still). 2015. Courtesy of Aktionsart.

Because Coupe solicits workers directly through mTurk’s platform, General Intellect is technically part of Amazon. Global Amazon has a reputation for labor exploitation, particularly in its warehouses outsourced through developing nations. “WORK HARD, HAVE FUN, MAKE HISTORY” cheers the company’s official employee motto, echoing the council of the classroom and disseminated to underpaid temps worldwide.

The project’s commercial future adds a troubling twist to the blurry overtones of exploitation in the service of mass voyeurism. General Intellect will continue past the life of the schoolhouse exhibit as Aktionsart offers annual subscriptions to specific queries (say, the combo of “bored” + “white females between ages 50-59 in North America”). Collectors can access digests of the videos recovered by this search. Sales fund workers, who complete further HITs specific to the purchased query and content is updated continually throughout the year. 

As the project evolves, participants will continue to relinquish privacy with the same laissez-faire of cam girls or people delivering self-exploitative performances on social media—but in this case, it’s a one-way gaze through which subjects don’t anticipate their audience. Even as it hinges on the financial transactions of mTurk, General Intellect exposes the stubborn human-ness behind the endless strings of code and the quotidian lives of people who constitute the collective, spectral workforce on the other end of a wire. The disjointedness of time and place feels natural in the exhibit’s narrative flow, a mirror of our own days, which are similarly frenetic and unreal, simultaneously split between multiple virtual spaces and jobs. Whether it's the schoolchildren whose handwriting remains on a whiteboard or the man walking by who programs next door at Amazon, the human element of General Intellect is most relatable.

General Intellect is on view tonight during the South Lake Union Art Walk, 5-8 pm, at 201 Westlake Ave N.

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