Labelling as a form of social stigma is a crucial concept in early theories of identity construction. Social media do play a role in that, thus providing a chance to materialise complex issues that require public debate. Artist Simon Boas has been working on the themes of accountability, consent, and privacy for several years, sometimes touching upon stereotype and identity as well. His works make me think of the collective definition of identity, the fact that people get entangled in wider and looser labels. With social media the moment of entanglement is clearly marked and tracked, and that is when the artist can intervene. Working with fellow artist and art director Kris Blackmore under the collective name MidGray, Boas has created a definition generator of the word “terrorist”, an art project about mugshot voyeurism (and how that plays out in the art world as well), and an ongoing research on sexual consent in male US culture, as reflected in online dating profiles. As an artist and a former journalist, Boas does feel a responsibility in terms of contributing to these conversations, but feels the platforms are also to be held accountable. We discussed how artists can use marketing techniques for social good.
Nicola Bozzi: In your project Voyeuroboros you printed several sheets of paper with the faces of all Facebook users who liked a particular mugshot page on the platform, then captured via webcam all the exhibition visitors who picked up the flyer. Where did the idea come from and what did you want to show?
Simon Boas: There are a lot of mugshot websites, which are pretty uniquely American, I think, or at least compared to Western Europe. When you get arrested, even if you’re not convicted, you get your picture taken and (as I understand it) it briefly appears on a public database – even if you get it expunged later. People make these bots, scrape the data, upload it, and make ads around them. In many cases they extort people for money, they want people to pay them to remove the mugshot. They often don’t. Some states are making it illegal, but it’s a slow process. I’ve been following Paolo Cirio and I saw his lecture about the aesthetics of information ethics and his project called Obscurity. It’s taking all these photos from these websites so you can see who it is, because it’s still a photo, but scratching out the public names on them. So it creates this noise around mugshot photos, but it’s noise that looks similar so you’re like “I don’t know what this even is anymore.” The project started this whole movement about the right to be removed and forgotten, and I was very interested in it, but I kind of wanted to do something that has more consequences for people. I’m interested in this idea of anonymity on the Internet, the fact that if nothing is ever tied to what you say then there’s no repercussion for saying or doing anything online. Voyeuroboros is about how we can try and experiment, without doing too much, but seeing where the line is. A lot of people don’t understand the subtlety that if you are arrested it doesn’t mean you are a criminal, so I was mirroring the same labeling process for the people on the Facebook page. I wanted to make a mugshot site for those who liked the photos on the mugshot page on Facebook and mirror the whole process.
Nicola Bozzi: I like that you’re kind of materialising some sort of accountability for attention, the cycle of voyeurism. Have you noticed any patterns in the people depicted?
Simon Boas: What I learned the first time I showed it is you have these layers: the police database, the mugshot site, Facebook, and finally the gallery. The gallery is a very specific middle, upper-middle class group of people, people on Facebook tend to appear socio-economically a little lower than that and the people arrested are lower than them. So it’s a comment on what’s a gross practice, but also a comment on how we separate ourselves from it, saying “oh, that’s gross,” while there are lots of disgusting things we do too. So we should think about all these things and how they work together in a system. It’s a project I very much want to do more work with. With these projects, when you’re probably violating Facebook’s API, you have to rework the code every time.
Nicola Bozzi: Which brings us to Yes in Disguise, your work on OkCupid. You collected public information from all the users who answered a set of problematic questions in a misogynistic way – e.g. “Is a woman ever obliged to have sex with you?” or “Does ‘no’ always mean ‘no’?” – and printed them out as a series of collectible cards to be shown in a gallery. How did that work?
Simon Boas: The trading cards fits in with what you’re saying with Voyeuroboros, there is a categorisation there as well. I had a whole list of questions on those cards and if they answered at least five of them in the way we’re looking for, then it would save the whole profile as text and then we would make the card. There was a kind of misogyny score, it had to break 5. It’s shockingly easy to do. I picked up Python just to do that and I found some code on Github and managed to hack it together. Now the platform has changed the whole system and people can’t contact you directly anymore, you have to like them, so I had to rewrite the code entirely. Before they would trip the wire and initiate contact, then I would background-check all of them. Now you have to like them first, so I had to write a bot that goes through and likes people. It has to be a little more aggressive.
Nicola Bozzi: With Voyeuroboros you put this voyeur class measured by one gesture, the contact with the criminal. In this case it’s more nuanced, but basically you’re using five minimal points to kind of define this figure of the OKCupid misogynist. How do you feel about your use of partial data, did you ask yourself any questions when designing this questionnaire, or was there data you excluded?
Simon Boas: That was a conscious decision. It is in many cases entirely unfair to the individuals behind it. In all those projects. There’s a thing about working in these areas, about targeting individuals who have made misogynistic statements, that surprisingly a lot of people – especially in California – would give you a pass on. In Europe it got kinda weird, like “You’re clearly violating their privacy.” In the US people are more used to it because there is much more of a neoliberal approach to privacy. The fact that I was working with people who were saying horrible stuff about women, or people who were in many cases laughing at the misfortune of other people online, you kinda get a pass on it. I’m not entirely comfortable with that, but I keep doing this because it’s interesting and worth investigating.
The OKCupid thing, the cards especially, there were people who happened to hit the score and I went and read the whole profile, so the cards feature a line quoted from there. It’s very much about how you can re-characterize someone, it’s all stripped away to the negative aspects. There are some people who don’t necessarily fit the textbook definition of misogyny, but just have some very regressive views – which is what the work is about too, that’s got to be talked about. Misogyny is not just one thing, it’s internalized and it’s a cultural issue and we’re failing ourselves for not talking about it at the right time, especially with young men. Just because you are not a rapist or you don’t hit someone or you don’t say those horrible things, it doesn’t mean that you’re not exercising misogyny. It’s kind of like that with the definition of criminal too. Even by expressing displeasure with something you’re contributing to the attention economy, you’re still promoting that and you’re making that picture be seen more. It’s kind of echoing what the data policies of these companies are – this is a computer program, we make every effort ourselves, we’ll work on it, we’ll fix it if something goes wrong… but they never really do.
Nicola Bozzi: There is also this all-or-nothing approach, you can keep your data or you can give us all your data. Also, in the questions with OK Cupid the question is often reduced to a matter of “yes” or “no”.
Simon Boas: The OkCupid questionnaire is not very carefully done. The “no means no” question… there are three answers for “not always” and one answer for “always”. Whoever wrote that might thinks it’s a reflection of the culture… but it’s also creating the world. Why not shift it towards three versions of always, with more nuances? The spread of those four answers is interesting.
Nicola Bozzi: As an artist, what do you feel your responsibility is, compared to a user or somebody who is providing a service?
Simon Boas: Good question. My view is those providing the service have all the power there, they respond to certain things and they shape the culture and the world and they could do a lot better, they should be doing a bit more. I haven’t had a situation so far that anybody whose likeness I have captured has been hurt, at least that I know of. That has been a bit by design, I’m reasonably certain that those people are not coming to our show, for example. My ideal is that all of us should talk about this. That’s why we’ve been moving away from the card project a little bit – Yes in Disguise versus No in Disguise, which is a new iteration of the project. The new one is very similar, I used a lot of the same code, but instead of having five questions I only used two, the “no means no” one and “is someone ever obligated to have sex with you”, because they’re very direct. But instead of downloading the data it would return usernames of people to talk to. Kris is pretty equipped from personal experience to talk to people about this and she would go and perform as this woman online. She’s more equipped to talk about the ethics as well, she’s not gonna bad dog anyone, it’s more like “why do you think this?”
Nicola Bozzi: So the second time around it was her reaching out to those people?
Simon Boas: Yeah, she was saying “Can I talk to you for a moment, why do you think that?”. And people said things like “You can’t force someone, but if you are in a marriage or a relationship you have default permission.” That reveals a whole set of problems as well, but it reveals more about the nuances that are happening there, and having the one answer for “No means no always” and three that say “Not always”. Everyone who talked to us we kept totally anonymous, that’s a big contrast with the cards. The idea there is there’s a lot more of those people in that stuff. The point is not the individuals, wanting people to say “this person thinks this”, there’s a whole part of US male culture that thinks this way. That’s why the new project is presented as a video installation where a collage of male faces with randomized facial features read excerpts from the chats that Kris had with this new sample of anonymous interviewees. As opposed to the first project, which was about calling someone out, the second one is about using the same tools to have a broader conversation. One person was like “I don’t know why I answered that, I don’t think that at all, I’m gonna change that, my bad.” That was interesting, too. It reveals that it’s a quiz question, there’s hundreds of them. The four people featured in the current iteration of the project, and we plan to do many more, all had long conversations about it, some of them backed off a bit and said “I don’t wanna talk about this stuff,” but they messaged her the next day. The conversations were more successful than expected.
Nicola Bozzi: Did they know eventually that they were gonna be included in this project or were they still doing a performance for someone they were eventually going to meet?
Simon Boas: No, they didn’t know. There’s been work about the same idea… Angela Washko having conversations about feminism on World of Warcraft, for example. She was saying that people would have this conversation under the anonymity of the internet. But I think anonymity makes people perform in a way too, just because you’re anonymous it doesn’t mean you’re being totally honest. I don’t believe it’s a true reflection, it shows one side of you when you think no one can see you, but we’re all being looked at almost all the time, so one is not more valid than the other. People disappear all the time on other people in online dating, there’s a different expectation involved with it. I don’t think this conversation would have happened any other way. I was working with social scientists in Amsterdam on another project about online dating and we were talking about the ethics of the project and whether we should make it explicitly a research profile. I don’t think people would speak to Kris and me if we did it that way, there would be no incentive for them to do that.
Nicola Bozzi: What would you say is the common denominator among your artworks?
Simon Boas: What it comes down to is there is this trigger or score that captures you, and then it is very much about the failures of online identity, having any kind of faith in how technology is representing you. Which is problematic at best, and dangerous at worst. The Definition of Terrorist project, for example, is another prototype work in progress. It doesn’t need anyone personally, there’s no data scraping, so it’s more about subverting and playing with the definition. Growing up in the Bush years, some friends of ours had to face charges because the FBI was acting on animal activists as well as terrorism. The whole project was also about the Muslim ban, xenophobia again. All these different definitions of terrorist were going around at the time, so we took a bunch of those to create an absurdist definition of terrorist, which clearly doesn’t mean anything anymore.
Nicola Bozzi: Do you feel there is an educational responsibility in media art or artists who work with media?
Simon Boas: Yeah. Harvey Weinstein and #metoo were the two things that helped bring discourse on sexual violence into the mainstream. That issue within the privacy discourse, that’s an exercise in taking all the tools that we created for that application and use them to do things they were not doing otherwise. The work that Kris and I do is pretty much targeting advertising techniques and using them to try and do some social good. Kris works in advertising, I worked in online news, social media news, all we did was just pretty much make things that are cheap to make and people will watch so they can put ads around them. So how can two people use these tactics, developed by huge corporations, to try and do something that is at least beneficial to other people? That’s the guiding principle: repurpose those tools to have conversations. We’re making a card game to help people talk about consent, for example, something that can be given to other people to start talking about this.