Art Project at East London Train Station Tweets Speculative Headlines to Affect Stock Market Algorithms. No, Really.
In April 2013 the Associated Press’ Twitter account was hacked, and announced the false report to the world that President Obama had been injured. The offending tweet was immediately removed, but with today’s nanosecond-accurate high-frequency trading algorithms, ‘immediately’ now comprises enough time for a 143 point downturn on the Dow Jones, a ‘flash crash’ that only lasted minutes.
Although the stock market recovered quickly, the event spurned concern about the worrying algorithmic link between news in the age of social media and the financial markets. What are our responsibilities over our words typed into social media and news outlets? How can we understand the markets when the systems they work on are so complex, fast and irrevocably intertwined with the language on the web?
On show until 30 November at Banner Repeater, a project space and reading room situated on platform 1 of Hackney Downs station, is Low Animal Spirits, a mixed media exhibition of work by Ami Clarke and Richard Cochrane that directly addresses these questions.
The exhibition comprises a video, a projection of the program Low Animal Spirits running above a slab of dark Perspex, a metal sculptural relief of the 2013 flash crash graph, a print of the offending tweet and a text compiled by Ami Clarke called 'In the Pull of Time'. The Twitter account @LowAnimalSpirit tweets new headlines generated by the program, some of which almost attempt sense, such as 'wind to capture farms for David Cameron'.
Together the works generate a number of complex questions around algorithms, value and language and our human versus machine understanding and responsibilities. Accompanying the exhibition is a really worthwhile series of talks.
The phrase ‘low animal spirits’ refers to mass mentality and the confidence that when lost en masse sends the financial markets into chaos. Visually the projected program is enthralling: what at first appears to be a word cloud begins to move erratically. Sometimes giant words grow and crowd over each other, making them illegible. 'Thick', 'molten', 'peanuts', 'rethinks', 'cosmonaut'. It’s clear that it is doing something, but unclear what. Because it is made of words we want to read it, but the scattershot arrival of new words overwhelms any attempt to draw direct meaning from the text. The algorithm mines hundreds of constantly updating online news feeds. Like a financial trading algorithm it is looking for profit margins by examining rareness. Here, news as words with certain values act as expressions of world confidence and concerns—a visualization of global activity and events as they are reported, repeated, liked and linked to. Interestingly, its rhythm tells you more than the words that comprise it.
With so much going on the project as a whole is difficult to get a handle on, but I sense deliberately so. The programs Low Animal Spirits mimic are dangerously complex, and their financial effect on us only amplifies this. This exhibition creates a rare glimpse of the phenomenon at work. It produces a way to visualize all that activity, and attempts the difficult task of allowing us to observe a phenomenon we contribute to in minute ways.
Ami Clarke, The Slots; Photo by Tomas Rydin
The multiple modes of display in the exhibition address how we visualize information. Ami Clarke’s sculpture, Breaking News - Flash Crash (2014) in contrast to Low Animal Spirits neatly presents a mass of information simply. The system by which news affects trading is impossible to convey in few words, and yet the graph’s drastic v shape articulates it perfectly.
The exhibition scratches the surface of many ideas related to algorithmic trading. Clarke’s video has all of the visual tropes of the gambling world. Her text is compiled from fiction, theoretical and informational texts, and remixed like much of the internet’s news content. The Breaking News - Flash Crash works as a signifier for something much larger.
Before I leave the room the text in Low Animal Spirits slows. 'Hindu' appears. 'Separatism' stays constant for a time. Weirdly the word 'Isis' appears only small – and vanishes quickly – while the word 'Revels' is huge and remains fixed. There is no direct meaning generated by Low Animal Spirits but instead the works point at and indulge in the web’s complexity to delightfully poetic ends. You leave the exhibition with a thirst for information about the weird world of algorithms.
(Image on top: Ami Clarke, Breaking News: Flash Crash (detail); Photo by Tomas Rydin)