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Polling (2016)

Collaboration with Mark Grimm
PdCon16~ 5th International Pure Data Convention at NYU.

“Polling” is a networked artwork that uses the visual programming language Puredata (Pd) and anachronistic hardware to depict images of political identities. A Pd patch randomly launches one of 12 defined search queries that the artists have set prior to installation. These search terms can be defined to suit the current political circumstance that the work is exhibited in, therefore the work can adapt to any country or political climate. Once the search query has been sent, the software polls the relevant folder and randomly selects an image to use as a mask. Each of these images corresponds with the political identity used in the search query – for example if the search term is ‘sanders’ or ‘republican’ then the software is directed to the folder containing the relevant images. The search query returns all the google search results for that query (e.g., ‘sanders’) and converts the xml data to plain text. This allows the work to articulate – in this case- the bias in Google’s algorithm.

These images, which we think of as drawings, are then formed using an ascii script, and finally printed out of a hacked Oki dot matrix printer in the space. The drawings are likenesses of political candidates and their surrogates, but because each likeness is rendered with timestamped news data related to their identity, the resulting prints cannot be described as portraits, nor do they conform to any standards of figuration. These images sit between the recognizable image and the interiority of data.

When using software, there is a strong desire to create a patch that executes instructions and let the results be what they are. This process is at the heart of generative art, and has an important place in the development of new media art. For this piece, we thought it is important to avoid attempting to create a truly ‘neutral’ rendering of a polling machine. Effectively, this would have produced a tautology. Instead, we have made a work that uses images that we have selected and processed, in order to make the system run. This itself is actually a much closer description to the operational imperatives of pollsters and their systems. The images are all news media photographs that have already been associated with the keyword search terms. In this work, we have curated the images that will be used, or in pollsters language, prejudiced the results. While this seems to be a twisting away from the purity of the ‘random’ potential of the algorithm, or software choice, we think it is actually much closer to the truth of polling as an activity.

The printer is mounted on what appears to be an improvised swing. This is consciously intended to embody the double entendre, and assert that our democracy is far less secure than we may think. This is a plywood platform, suspended with long red bungee cording. The platform is held in place with rubber blocks that are color coded to reflect both Google’s brand ID and political party affiliations. As the dot matrix printer works, it moves aggressively, and the energy is amplified by the elasticated buggy cord, making the platform swing. These formal elements are as paired down as possible, and reflect the technique used to render the portraits. They are minimally informative because there is such a density of information presented in the prints. The colors are precisely chosen to align with the political environment that the text is articulating in this instance.

The act of polling is central to how we understand the world. It is a system of assessment that we use on near to constant basis to find and choose the environment or object that we desire, or ensure our safety, or elect a person to public office. I use the word function here specifically, because many actions that are functionally the same as polling are recategorized, and summarily renominated. We want polling to be reliable. We want it to be impartial, non-partisan, neutral. Part of the reason for this is that we use the function of polling on a near constant basis. If you walk into a waiting room to find a seat, you ‘poll’ the environment and make a choice. When you go to a market to buy apples, you survey the piles. choose the type you like, and then select from that grouping exactly the size, shape, color, density of apple that you like most, or you compromise as little as possible. Anyone who has ever been to a store has engaged in an act of individuated polling. In perhaps the most common instance of polling, we re-describe the activity as ‘shopping’ or perhaps ‘browsing’.

The idea of polling is tightly related to voting, for polls of voters are taken at regular intervals through any election, in order to provide the perception of a neutral assessment, or expression of the general public’s opinion about any particular issue or political candidate. Because polling uses the pretense of neutrality, pollsters have assumed the mantle of authority in regard to popular opinion. In doing so, polling organizations have gained an extraordinary amount of influence upon popular opinions, despite their supposed neutral praxis. One would think that his conundrum plagues the activity and reputation of polls and pollsters. But instead, polls and whatever effects they generate, are simply brushed aside, much in the same way that we treat the meteorologists who tell us the weather for the week ahead; this information, which oscillates between crucial and trivial, is simply tolerated as so much pink noise.

Polling of course, has another definition – it also describes the activity of software monitoring – the readiness of a network or device it is connected to, for output. It is the structural logic of i/o. This latter, lesser known definition of polling is functionally identical to the polling that plays out within the political theatre.

This artwork is made to specifically exploit the interstice of this semiotic overlap, and assert that the rather simplistic operation of polling is a vehicle, ripe for propaganda and abuse. As professionalism and specialisms have continued to proliferate in every field alongside the development of the hyper-capitalistic state, the meaning of information has consistently become more remote, abstract and momentary. Therefore, as the functional organizing principle of our democracy, polling is an inadequate tool. These ideas will become apparent to the viewer through the blend of anachronistic hardware, handmade elements, and contemporary software.

The exact details of the installation change with the environment of exhibition, and may include other elements, as appropriate.