At SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2018, more than 100 curators will feature artists and exhibitions that consider the theme: Stranger Comes to Town. It’s been said that all great literature boils down to one of two stories: a hero goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. “Who and what is this Stranger?” ask SPRING/BREAK curators and founders, Ambre Kelly and Andrew Gori. “Is their travel into the unknown always an act of heroism to some, of colonialism or contamination and infiltration to others?”
ArtSlant is exhibiting the ArtSlant Prize 2017 Winners at SPRING/BREAK. In partnership with this uniquely site-specific, curatorial fair, we’re featuring interviews with participating artists, asking them what sort of strangers they’re bringing to town.
Over the past 18 months Brett Wallace has been researching the changes Amazon has produced in the labor sector. What began as a rather simple exhibition of boxes delivered to a gallery space has since ballooned into a full-on corporate entity called AMAZING INDUSTRIES. Using tools of the startup world to interrogate its own effects, Wallace has employed surveys, SWAG with minimal branding, and poignant provocations to develop a multi-pronged research engine, an “ideological startup.”
For Wallace’s exhibition with his gallery Silas Von Morisse Gallery at SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2018, he has hired a “Turker” to work in the booth. Turkers, or people who work on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, compete for low-bid, low skill busy work that is often used to train AI systems. The average Turker makes somewhere around $2/hour: Amazon has found a way to take advantage of a precarious labor force to train its own replacement.
The centerpiece of AMAZING INDUSTRIES is a VR tour of the future of labor. Set in a virtual construction based on an actual Amazon patent for a floating drone distribution center, you, the worker, are taken through the neofactory where goods are no longer made but merely reallocated with peak price point efficiency. As the disembodied female narrator says, “the floating factory is the ultimate manifestation of capital on the internet; part distribution warehouse, part data center.” Amazon is well known for its veneration of efficiency, recently introducing tracking bracelets for warehouse employees to wear as they traverse the dozen-or-so miles of shelved corridors during a shift. The bracelet tracks how long it takes them to complete given tasks as well as providing training data for future, mechanical employees. In Wallace’s adaptation, boxes marked “culture” zoom by on rollercoaster-like conveyor belts, gesturing to the conflation of culture as material product and therefore culture as labor. “Work has spread to the home,” it states.
As labor invades the sanctuary of our homes, as our recreation becomes monetized, and marginal labor becomes necessary to live, how do we put the future of work to work for us?
Joel Kuennen: What does “Stranger Comes to Town” mean to you, and how does this artwork engage with that theme?
Brett Wallace: “Stranger Comes to Town” made me think of Marc Andreessen’s quote “software is eating the world.” To me, Amazon is the archetype of a sprawling enterprise eating its way into everything from grocery stores to web services. There is a dissonance between how a company like Amazon works and what I thought the internet would be. I’m interested in uncovering the hidden pockets of alienation and strangeness of the Amazon business model, especially the dimensions of it that we don’t see every day, as a signifier of the future of work. One example of this would be how anonymous task-based human workers on Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s online crowdsourcing platform, are filling out surveys and categorizing images, which are used to train machine learning and AI systems. It’s strange how crowd-based work, within the context of an advanced technology company, is atomized to low wage tasks to train the machines that will soon make this work obsolete.
JK: Why has your research has taken the form of a startup?
BW: The exhibition became the branded paradise of AMAZING INDUSTRIES, steeped in a research-based critique and exploration of this strangeness within accelerated capitalism, using Amazon as a jumping off point. Viewers will meet newly launched AMAZING INDUSTRIES, an ideological, research and development company I started with a mission to explore possible futures of work that are humane and equal. The ideological company is an ongoing artwork which aims to demystify the future of work and advocate for a better future for workers. Viewers will get a closer look into a floating factory, reimagined in VR and 360 video, based on an actual Amazon patent. From welcome videos to custom beanbags, the exhibition adopts the hyper-branding and counterculture language often seen in tech’s startup culture, but with a twist to amplify workers’ voices.
In constructing the work, it was important for me to leverage Amazon’s systems, such as turning Mechanical Turk inward on itself, by creating paid tasks where workers could share their experiences working in this enterprise. This creates a sort of strange reverse mirroring, reflecting the worker’s perspective back onto Amazon’s own systems which are constructed to actually hide and diminish workers’ voices. So, there’s also a strangeness to using a company’s own methods and materials to create a multi-level exploration and critique of it.
AMAZING INDUSTRIES Virtual Factory, 2018, VR game and 360 video
JK: Your work explores new forms of labor that are emerging after the largest disruption of retail distribution practices since the emergence of the internet, all through Amazon. Can you describe the new modes you are seeing and how your work confronts these nascent roles?
BW: This is an ongoing project that explores archetypes in the future of work. The specific archetypes in this show are warehouse jobs inside the fulfillment center, picking and packing goods for shipment, and workers on Mechanical Turk, who perform human intelligence tasks. While neither role is brand new, what’s interesting are some of the trends underpinning them. For example, I found it really interesting that most Turkers are employed and more than half of the workers (52 percent) hold a bachelor’s degree or higher degree. And, while the work is flexible and there is a freedom to it, many Turkers dislike the low pay and treatment from both Amazon and sketchy job requesters. A new task-level analysis revealed that workers earned a median hourly wage of only ~$2 per hour and only 4 percent earned more than $7.25 per hour. Turkers deal with the low wages to make ends meet and share best practices to optimize their workflows as best they can. A friend of mine, who is a very experienced Turker, recently worked 12 hours one day and made $56.
JK: What is a typical task for a Turker and how does an ideological startup confront existing systems?
BW: One of the most popular tasks on mTurk [the Mechanical Turk website] is image recognition, where these workers, through atomized tasks, are training machines to see like people. While this work is immaterial, it’s constructed like a Fordist factory on steroids—where workers around the world are scouring through an archaic interface for tasks worth Turking for and are pumping out as many tasks as possible for pennies.
As an artwork-as-company, the exhibition leverages the methods and materials of corporate communication to confront these systems, unveil this data and amplify the narratives of workers. As part of the show, I’m releasing a short e-zine on amazing.industries this week that shares more of this data and stories. As my inquiry continues, I plan to continue to find ways to support workers. One example would be engaging the companies requesting this work and the developers building and maintaining these systems.
Data from, “Inside the Automaton of Mechanical Turk,” Amazing.Industries, December 28, 2017
JK: You invited a Turker to be present during the exhibition and perform his work. Tell us a bit about what this type of labor is and how you view it in the context of Amazon.
BW: Amazon Mechanical Turk is an online crowdsourcing marketplace, described as “artificial artificial intelligence.” What this means is that humans are performing micro-tasks from their homes which computers cannot yet do. The name was inspired by “The Turk,” a mechanical chess playing automaton, created by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the 18th century. What Kempelen’s audience did not know is that a human chess master was hidden behind the gears of the automaton, controlling its movement.
Like Kempelen’s machine, the invisible crowd of workers on Mechanical Turk completes tasks which machines are unable to accomplish on their own. The use cases include activities such as “image recognition, audio transcription, machine learning algorithm training, sentiment analysis, data normalization, and surveys.” An example of a typical task would be showing an image to a worker and asking: “was this photo taken indoors or outdoors?”
Source: “Tutorial: How to label thousands of images using the crowd,” Amazon.com, Accessed May 21, 2017
I wanted to put a spotlight on this type of work, how it’s being done and why, which led me to invite a full time Turker to work inside the exhibition. I felt it was important to make Turking, an abstract form of work, accessible and also re-contextualize it within a space outside of the home. In the context of Amazon, I found it interesting that one of the most technically advanced companies in the world would have a system in place where humans train machines and that there was so much asymmetry in the model. For example, Turkers don’t have much of a say at all on mTurk [the Mechanical Turk website]. They are identified as standardized worker ID numbers, alienated from their identity, and their work can be rejected by a requester for no reason at all. All the while they are making ~$2-4 per hour and yet Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is now the richest person in the world. This is a signifier of the times we are living in, where 62 people in the world own as much as the poorer half of the world’s entire population. As someone who grew up in the working class alongside the internet, I felt compelled to better understand what’s holding these systems in place and how I could be an advocate for Turkers.
JK: How do these new forms of labor enforce precarious labor in your opinion?
BW: These forms of labor look for the lowest wage labor possible and treat workers like numbers. The warehouse, in this case, has almost gone back to a Fordist factory on steroids, with its accelerated repetition and governance. I revisited Harun Farocki’s film essay Workers Leaving the Factory while thinking about precarious labor. If the high quotas and intense scrutiny of warehouse employees weren’t enough, earlier this month it was revealed that employee movement would be even further optimized with trackable bracelets. All of this is leading to a huge turnover rate of warehouse employees every year. While these new technologies are rolled out, worker wages are generally stagnant and yet, worker productivity has steadily increased since the 1970s. These benefits in productivity are not making their way to workers.
There is also precarity in a system like mTurk, which has no safety net or traditional benefits, for workers. These systems continue the trend away from direct employment and the worker’s rights fought for by unions such as employment rights, unemployment benefits, the eight-hour workday, workers’ comp etc.
JK: Where does authority lie in these new labor systems?
BW: I believe authority lies with the monopoly. We are seeing a business like Amazon leverage its power, such as pricing power, to take over one category after another, all the while maintaining this hidden, darker side of the business where workers are treated poorly. The conceptual idea that a company would want to eat the world is a part of the problem. I think it’s important to ask what are we trying to solve for with these innovations? Are these innovations actually making the world a better place to live and work in or are there better things to work on? I would like to see more companies thinking about purpose when they think about the future of work. I am inspired by how many companies are rethinking their purpose and hope to see many more companies follow their lead.
Brett Wallace is an artist whose practice involves a multi-level exploration of the future of work. His work involves conceptual interventions through video, narrative storytelling and installation. He is currently represented by Silas Von Morisse gallery, where his first solo exhibition in New York took place in 2016. He is a member of NEW INC for 2017-2018, the world’s first museum-led incubator, led by the New Museum.
You can follow more of this project below:
Instagram: @amazingindustries @brettwallacenyc @mturkarchive
Joel Kuennen is the Chief Operations Officer and a Senior Editor at ArtSlant.
(Image at top: Installation view of AMAZING INDUSTRIES at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, 2018. All images: Courtesy of the artist)