Search

Your Cookies Are Watching You: An Interview With Melanie Clemmons

Ever felt like your phone or computer is listening to you. For example, you send a private message to a friend about a particularly specific topic and, a few hours later, your Facebook is littered with ads about that very thing.


Melanie Clemmons’ new piece “I Posted About Surveillance Capitalism on Facebook So Advertisers Would Show Me Surveillance Capitalism T-shirt Ads, And It Worked!” is an online performance art piece that exposes the pervasiveness of surveillance on the Internet.


For those who are unfamiliar with your work, could you please tell us what you do?


I’m a media artist and educator interested in the effects of technology on society and the environment. Sometimes that means I work with technology conceptually, as I did with social media for “I Posted About...” and other times that means I am exploring the possibilities of new mediums and how they can reflect or reimagine our present and future worlds. I make images, sounds, videos, websites, installations, performances, and VR experiences.


Your work is extremely varied, from video art, to digital nu-poetry like "Stonehenge" or even conceptual digital performances like "I Posted About..." Where do you draw inspiration from?


I find it exceptional to be alive at this precipice in human history where internet technology is transforming current and future societies, especially as a person that grew up in a time when there was still a distinction between being online and being offline. No other beings will have the very specific experiences we are wading through now, so as an artist, I am invigorated by the opportunity to explore these experiences and share them with others through my work.


I wanted to delve into "I Posted", which I find so remarkably clever. The piece is inspired by Zuboff's concept of "Surveillance Capitalism". When did you first start to feel the transition, as a denizen of the internet, from Industrial to Surveillance Capitalism?


In 2012, after visiting some torrenting and free TV sites I started noticing and taking screenshots of the ‘hot singles in your area’/’these women desperately need boyfriends’ advertisements following me around the internet. As a woman concerned about the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies in advertising, I was struck by how wrong the advertising was for me. Not knowing enough about how all of this worked, I started using the browser extension Ghostery to learn more about tracking cookies. This was around the same time that the infamous Target predictive algorithm alerted a father that his teenage daughter was pregnant before she had told him, based on her shopping habits. Since then, I’ve kept a side-eye on these systems, noting a sizeable ramp in the last couple of years of people discussing how ‘creepy’ it is to talk to a friend about a new product and then suddenly see an advertisement for it on their feeds.


That story was a tipping point for a lot of users of the Internet. How did it make you react as an artist?


I think that it’s important to take a close look at those structures and algorithms and make art about them. They very much define our present moment. In this piece, the idea was to “poison the well” and to create a false data set. To me, the exercise was particularly interesting because we are effectively creating personas online through social media, and so, in a way, I was also creating, through my private conversations and posts, an alternate version of myself: one that is really into Surveillance Capitalism.


Being born before the millenium, I’m interested in how you transitioned from offline to online life? When you first started browsing the web, which sites were you on?


My older brother was really into computers and he was my gateway into the online life. The computer used to be a point of congregation in the house. You would have three or four kids around that big white tower looking at the screen. It was not only an IRL point of meeting but it also was online. I started with websites like AOL, Prodigy, then ICQ and ended up on MySpace.


I really like how process is nicely documented on your page. How long did it take for the ads to start appearing?


I was pretty surprised that I didn’t see an advertisement after about a week of posts and searches trying to conjure the ad until I realized that my privacy settings, having been locked down a couple of years ago in a cybersecurity workshop, were actually working. Once I returned those settings to the defaults and disabled my ad-blockers, it only took a couple of days. I haven’t changed my settings back to the more secure options yet, and I’m noticing more than ever how instantaneous the targeting has become.


The piece seems like an exercise in digital détournement. Do you think there is potential to do this on a larger scale?


Absolutely! I plan on expanding the work into an online (and hopefully IRL) exhibition which will include more social media platforms and apps manipulated to conjure products representing concepts that delve further into surveillance capitalism. I want to get a dark pattern themed phone case advertised to me next!


Most people feel they are victims of their cookies and programmatic advertising. How do you feel knowing that you are able to manipulate them at your will?


While I completely empathize with feeling vulnerable and violated due to surveillance capitalism, ultimately, I feel empowered by the awareness and subsequent agency this piece seeks to highlight. However, being aware of this constant surveillance changes my behavior, browsing and otherwise. I find myself self-censoring what I search for, text to friends and family, or even say out loud (thanks Alexa, Hey Google, Siri, Cortana, etc.), a symptom of a condition known as social cooling.


What would you say is the main impediment to people taking a more active role in the preservation of their online privacy?


Convenience and comfort are the biggest deterrent to being private. We’ve become habituated to this current state of things, and it’s especially true for folks who were born with the Internet. They haven’t seen the transition, they grew up being surveilled.


Speaking of people who grew up online, how do your students, as media or media arts majors, feel about surveillance and privacy?


They honestly don’t seem too worried.


Then, what, would you say, is the main thing they are concerned about?


Authorship. There’s always this one class in the semester when I introduce them to Richard Prince and his Instagram Series. Some of them get furious knowing that this man could steal then profit off a selfie or a post that they made. There’s definitely something interesting in the fact that I don’t get the same outrage when corporations are the ones stealing their data.


You reflect through your piece on the possible consequences that Surveillance Capitalism will have on future societies at large. What, in your opinion, will be those repercussions will be?


A very real, very terrifying consequence of surveillance capitalism that we have already experienced is Cambridge Analytica’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election using data harvested from Facebook users. Beyond that specific instance, I’m particularly concerned with how algorithms may shape our interests, desires, perceptions, and essentially our thoughts, into neat, homogeneous categories that are advantageous to capitalist or oppressive systems. This homogeneity is further perpetuated by a major lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, which is alarming as it signals a lack of diversity in the algorithms that influence us.


Did you end up buying any of the T-shirts?


I did! I bought one for the group exhibition “The Big Summer T-Shirt Show” at Ex Ovo, a gallery in Dallas run by Allison Klion.


What are you working on right, if you’re allowed to say?


My next project is about the “Digital New Age”. Basically, I’m working on a VR virtual healing / reiki platform. It’s also supposed to address the remarkable growth of Spirituality online.


I’ve definitely noticed that. Are you on Co-Star or The Pattern?


Both.


Same over here.


You can find Melanie's work online at http://melanieclemmons.com/ or even better you can enroll in one of her classes at The Meadow School of Arts in Dallas.