Berlin

!Mediengruppe Bitnik: Is anybody home lol

Although the “lol” in the title of the exhibition at Berlin’s EIGEN + ART Lab, Is anybody home lol, might suggest that the themes of the works on view are casual and playful, the four works by !Mediengruppe Bitnik (the duo of Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo) are anything but. Each asks salient questions about contemporary human relationships in today’s increasingly digitized landscape. !Mediengruppe have been using the internet to conduct interventions within digital and physical domains since the 2000s. In their show at EIGEN + ART Lab, they expose and deploy cracks within the system to ask what kinds of power dynamics and intimacies exist through networked realities.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Solve this captcha: Is anybody home lol, 2016. Neon sign, 8mm glass tubes, transformers; exhibition view. Courtesy of the artists and EIGEN + ART Lab, Berlin. Photo: Otto Felber.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik. Solve this captcha: Is anybody home lol, 2016; neon sign, 8mm glass tubes, transformers; installation view. Courtesy of the Artists and EIGEN + ART Lab, Berlin. Photo: Otto Felber.

The juxtaposition of seriousness and playfulness is literally glaring in the neon light sculpture, Solve this captcha: Is anybody home lol (2016), from which the exhibition’s title is based. In this work, the words are spelled in a twisted and goofy typeface typical of captchas, whereby computer programs distinguish humans from computers by their ability to interpret the distorted lettering. !Mediengruppe’s captcha directly asks viewers whether they are human or machine—whether they are present and aware, or automated and mechanical, in their perceptions. The distinction may not always be so clear.

This question “Is anybody home?” is consistently posed throughout the show, with the answers varying based on the work. To achieve Opera Calling, the earliest artwork in the gallery, the artists secretly planted audio bugs in early 2007 within the auditorium of the Zurich Opera. Then, from March to May of that year, these bugs robocalled randomly selected landlines throughout the city; however, rather than attempt to sell anything to the person picking up the phone, the automated calls transmitted live opera performances to those who stayed on the line. Democratizing access to the opera, the automated voice at the start of the call would tell the listener: “You can now enjoy this, lean back. Admission is free.”

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Opera Calling, 2007. Single channel video. Full HD, 16:9, sound, loop 08:52; exhibition view. Courtesy of the artists and EIGEN + ART Lab, Berlin. Photo: Otto Felber.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik. Opera Calling, 2007; single-channel full HD video (16:9, sound; 08:52 loop); installation view. Courtesy of the Artists and EIGEN + ART Lab, Berlin. Photo: Otto Felber.

What the viewer in the gallery experiences of Opera Calling is an audio recording of the conversations among one family who chose to remain on the line. The conversation is translated into English on an otherwise blank television screen. Over the course of the roughly eight-minute recording, the telephone is passed from one family member to another as they listen to the opera, comment on it, pose questions for each other, and occasionally refer to unrelated topics. While their comments are sometimes amusing—ranging from, “Yes, this is nice!” to “I’ll hang up. What’s the point? I don’t want any opera!” and “…the acoustics are an absolute disaster!”—at other moments their conversation is more personal. At one point, a family member mutters, “I cleaned her bottom,” referring possibly to the child who is audible in the recording. Such moments emphasize the viewer’s own act of eavesdropping on the unsuspecting family.

While another video, Surveillance Chess (2012), takes on similar issues of surveillance and power, the show’s true centerpiece is the installation Ashley Madison Angels at Work in Berlin (2017), in which monitors set to eye level display the faces of animated female bots. A neon pink light illuminates and overtakes the room, the pink color at once jaunty and cloying. Referring to the online dating platform marketed to people in committed relationships with the slogan, “Life is short. Have an affair,” !Mediengruppe’s installation deploys information revealed in a high-profile 2015 hack in which the company’s source code was dumped onto the internet.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Ashley Madison Angels at Work in Berlin, 2017. Five channel video installation, Full HD, 16:9, sound, loop 10:07; LCD screens, trolley stands, cables, pink neon lights; dimensions variable; exhibition view. Courtesy of the artists and EIGEN + ART Lab, Berlin. Photo: Otto Felber.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik. Ashley Madison Angels at Work in Berlin, 2017; five-channel full HD video installation (16:9, sound; 10:07 loop); LCD screens, trolley stands, cables, pink neon lights; dimensions variable; installation view. Courtesy of the Artists and EIGEN + ART Lab, Berlin. Photo: Otto Felber.

Ashley Madison’s source code revealed, among other things, that the platform had created female bots to chat and engage with heterosexual men seeking women on the site. Taking on the identities of some of the Berlin-based bots revealed in the cyber-hack (who had names such as Femme_fatale69420, Jennibabe80, and Berlinfairy, and were associated with specific local addresses) and using transcripts of bot-to-human chats on the site, !Mediengruppe’s female bots engage the viewer in the gallery. They blink and breathe, and sporadically utter crude statements and questions such as: “I’m sexy, discreet… Does this sound intriguing?” or “I’m looking for someone to have some fun with online,” and, of course, “Is anybody home? lol.”

Although visibly cartoonish in their appearance, the bots are nevertheless mesmerizing and uncanny in their ability to engage the viewer. It is easy to want to linger and wait for them to speak, and to see how far they will go to lure the listener into a man-machine romance.

Is anybody home lol asks important questions about our engagement with and through technology. What levels of awareness do we bring to these interactions? Do we take pleasure in surveilling others, and do we care or consider that we too might be surveilled? What kind of agency do we attribute to computers, and can we have real feelings for nonhuman machines? !Mediengruppe’s show does not offer any answers or clear opinions. It is ultimately up to the viewer to decide whether she’s “home” to answer them herself. Maybe the answer is an uncomfortable “lol.”

!Mediengruppe Bitnik: Is anybody home lol will be on view through June 24, 2017.

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