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Hacked & Burned: Art in a time of recession

From finance bots to algorithm art, here's how artists have responded to austerity times

Last week I contended that topics tackled by media and digital artists are early outliers against the intrusion of surveillance state apparatuses. Given that this week marks both the five year anniversary of the Lehman crash and the two year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, it seems as good a time as any to surmise how media and digital art have responded to the changed socioeconomic landscape.


The anonymous French art collective RYBN have engaged with data mining and financial systems since 2006. Their corpus of work in years since the crash can be considered as tackling two of the most insidious systems the average citizen faces. This year they exhibited The Algorithmic Trading Freak Show in Hungary: “a collection of uncommon, unnatural, shocking and scandalous specimens of speculative trading algorithms”. One of the collective's own financial trading bots ADM will feature at the German Requim for a Bank exhibition.

Paolo Cirio – Loophole for All 

Paolo Cirio's Loophole for All aspires to democratize offshore tax havens. The work is a canny exploit of said havens' principal feature: anonymity. Cirio hacked the identities of the 200,000 companies registered on the Caymans by transferring their snail mail addresses to his Caymans mailbox. From there, he was able to issue counterfeit certificates of incorporation (a snip at $99!) to anyone who wishes to impersonate the companies in question.

Parasitic Robin Hood Algorithms

In the spirit of Paolo's chimera of business and art provocation comes a new combatant in the post-crash era: the Robin Hood Minor Asset Management firm. In what appears to be a performance art riff on the Robin Hood Tax movement  (I've not seen many asset firms namecheck Michael Serres's Parasite), the Finnish venture positions themselves as a “counter investment cooperative of the precariat”. Central to the institutions success is a 'parasite algorithm' which “identifies successful transactions by riding the coattails of successful investors”. Ambiguity is carefully cultivated by the organisation so file this under one to watch.

Algo Fetishisation

The events of 2008 and subsequent aftershock have helped elevate the algorithm to an object of cultural fascination, if not all out fetishisation (spawning conferences, portentous tomes and more than a few Tumblrs – Algopop is still our favourite). Kevin Slavin's TED talk on the matter was a milestone moment towards 'algorithm' becoming part of our vernacular. Therein he noted both the 2010 flash crash (above) and HFT algorithms ability to occupy entire buildings in NYC. Both the Superstitious Fund and Algorithmic Architecture artistically mediate on those (respective) concepts.

Transparent Data Visualisations

At it's best, data visualisation art can unveil the power structures which lay beyond the realms of apprehension. Such revalations are sorely needed given the increased consolidation of wealth among the top earners in the period that's followed 2008. The pre-crash (but ongoing) work they rule remains a higher watermark of such data-vis art: allowing users to visualise the sticky web of connections among the top brass of numerous corporations. Occupy George is a tacit reminder that potent data visualisation need not be confined to the screen. By stamping widely circulated 1 dollar notes with infographics suppporting the “99%” ideology data viz went agitprop.

Displaced Mechanical Turk labour

The most dystopic end game of an M-turking workforce (aka the crowdsourced TaskRabbit economy that has blossomed since 2008) was enthusiastically forecasted by Max Levchin (of Paypal fame) in this speech from DLD 2013: “We will definitely see dynamically-priced queues for confession-taking priests, and therapists! ... How about dynamic pricing for brain cycles? Your brain plug firmware will earn you a little extra cash while you sleep, by being remotely programmed to solve hard problems."

With evangelical proclamations like that, art hardly needs to comment! But data visionary Aaron Koblin & Takashi Kawashima already articulated the economic problematics of this workforce paradigm with Ten Thousand Cents: the artistic aggregation of 10000 m-turkers. each paid $.01 for their labour.

The Maker Economy

Lest this article be guilty of arguing that fine art and media art are the only creative endeavours that reflect upon the game changer of 2008, it's worth noting that the growth of the maker scene (Arduino, Makerbot and Raspberry Pi) has made merry weather of the post-crisis economic landscape. That being said a measure of criticism is always welcome and the Critical Making zines of Garnet Hertz are an essential reading companions to this field.

Cryptocurrency Background Noise

The bitcoin protocol first surfaced on the internet in November of 2008. The cryptocurrency is pegged to no existing currency or natural resource: its value is a product of scarcity hardcoded into the bitcoin hashing algorithm. As a concept, I'd consider it provocative enough to be considered art but as of August this year its also a unit of account (at least as far German banks are concerned). It's also inspired some novel artistic forays and one of our favourites is tuning into the currency's volatile price fluctuations through Bitcoin Radio.

Infrastructure is Interesting

Heightened attention to the aesthetic dimensions of boring infrastructure has been on the rise lately, indicative perhaps that the dull but essential scaffolding of everyday life merits artistic attention. A curiosity cabinet exhibition of 'grey media' and thoughtful meditations on 'infrastructure fictions' both figure as strategems for making invisible systems strange and curious again. The Mind the System, Find the Gap (2012) exhibition at Z33 was a potent exposition of those themes, and chronicled a wide ranging history of art that exploits the “loopholes, leaks and ambiguities” of the systems undergirding modern life. 

Risk Aesthetics

If we've had one thing drilled into us over the last 5 years its that our elected representatives are wholly at the mercy of 'the market'. Risk, or the perception of risk, is a huge spectre guiding the invisible hand that can send entire countries into economic freefall. Articulating how risk moves each one of us in our day to day lives should be a concern of more practitioners and it's refreshing to see Ilona Gaynoir explore just that with her 'risk choreography' concept: “Risk Choreography is the nature in which people and objects maneuver in space and time in order to minimize impact of danger”. Under Black Carpets, Ilona's ongoing work, is an immersive design fiction experience that stages a bank heist.