[ISEA2016] Artist Talk: Xtine Burrough — Vigil for Some Bodies

Artist Statement

Project Description
Vigil For Some Bodies is a participatory exhibit that can be experienced in a traditional gallery; however, it would be even more at home in a warehouse, delivery truck, factory environment, or other location relating to factory or warehouse labor. The exhibition stems from a social intervention played out between Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk website and an Amazon Fulfillment Center located near Dallas.

As a series of humanist, solidarity projects, I have been hiring digital laborers on Mechanical Turk since 2008 to realize their embodied selves in jobs where they are paid to perform athletic events (as in my previous project, Mechanical Olympics), meditate (in my participatory exhibit Mediations in Digital Labor), or chant “Om” for an ongoing video project, Endless Om. The project began as a Mechanical Turk job request for the workers to light a candle in memory of a lost loved one. Fifty workers responded to my job by sharing details and memories with me by way of Amazon’s virtual job platform. This interaction took place during the weekend of Halloween (2015). Shortly thereafter, Amazon advertised temporary job positions in their Fulfillment Centers during the November-December holiday season. I took my virtual crowd-sourced vigil and transformed it into a series of modified battery operated candles (purchased from Amazon.com, naturally) labeled with the names of those lost and remembered and the worker IDs of the Turkers who shared their memories with me. Then I applied for a job in a Dallas-area Amazon Fulfillment Center (AFC). I photographed the candles throughout the hiring process inside and outside the two AFCs I visited.

As a participatory exhibit, Vigil For Some Bodies includes the labeled candles, artificially lit by battery, a symbol of the “artificial artificial” labor performed by the Turkers (according to the Amazon Mechanical Turk tagline) — their metaphoric current only as strong as the battery fueling the flame. Framed photographs of the candles at the AFCs and artificial flowers will also be present in the exhibition space (there are no live flames in this installation). Viewers/participants will be invited to label additional battery-operated candles on view in the installation and/or provide a name to be added to an ongoing virtual flame on a web page dedicated to this project.

Thematic Statement: The New Geopolitics of (Art-)Making: D.I.Y. Ontologies & (De)institutionalization
This project utilizes D.I.Y. practices—hiring my own workforce and modifying store-bought battery-lit candles to memorialize the crowd. The geopolitical challenges common to crowd work on a site like Amazon’s is tempered by the act of remembering and creating a space for participating in a humanist ritual, albeit with fabricated candles and flowers and a virtual flame constructed by code. (De)institutionalization is present in this project in the circular attempt to bring the Turkers’ memories back to Amazon itself, seen in the photographs of the AFCs where, behind the scenes, physical laborers are boxing and shipping products that include the battery-operated candles used as part of the intervention.

This exhibition is flexible in terms of scale and its possible location. The primary elements are modified LED candles, candles with blank areas for participant modification, photographs cheaply framed (and supported in a standing position), artificial flowers as a decorative embellishment. The online/virtual flame (and call for participation in this part of the exhibit) can appear on a screen within the exhibition space or a link to the virtual portion of the project can simply be shared in the wall text.

The idea of the project is to bring humanity into a technical assemblage of crowd work, the cloud, big-box online retail, and D.I.Y. practices. missconceptions.net/vigil

  • xtine burrough is a new media artist and educator. She has authored or edited several books including Foundations of Digital Art and Design, Net Works: Case Studies in Web Art and Design, and The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies. Informed by the history of conceptual art, she uses social networking, databases, search engines, blogs, and applications in combination with popular sites like Facebook, YouTube, or Mechanical Turk, to create web communities promoting interpretation and autonomy. xtine is passionate about creating works using digital tools to translate common experiences into personal arenas for discovery. She is a Webby Honoree, has received a Terminal commission and an award from the UK Big Lottery fund. With her co-PI, xtine is currently working on a site-specific iOS app funded by the California Humanities program, “Community Stories”. An associate professor in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at The University of Texas at Dallas, USA, xtine bridges the gap between histories, theories, and production in new media education.