Stephen Wolf | Open and Connected

Stephen Wolf

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Open and Connected


Statement

You fit ... hook eye

You fit into me like a hook through an eye, 2018, archival inkjet, 99" x 48" (253 cm x 123 cm)


Crowdsourced

Because You Have This Preference, 2018, archival inkjet, 30" x 32.5" (76 cm x 82.5 cm)


Dreaming

The Space Between Dreaming and Living, 2018, archival inkjet, 96" x 48" (244 cm x 122 cm)


Enjoy

Enjoy, 2018, archival inkjet, 48" x 60" (122 cm x 152 cm)



Spoils (red margin), 2019, VR experience. Video grab; details.


Calm down

Calm down. Breathe. We hear you., 2018, archival inkjet, 40" x 40" (102 cm x 102 cm) on Breathing Color Optica archival paper; also 90" x 90" (228 cm x 228 cm) on 13 oz. polyester vinyl.


Dark Posts

Dark Posts, 2019, video projection, wood, enamel, thermoplastic, 96" x 80" (244 cm x 203 cm)


Bicameral

Bicameral, 2019, video projection, 72" x 84" (189 cm x 213 cm)


Quadrille

Quadrille (Don't Look Now), 2019, archival inkjet, 48" x 72" (122 cm x 183 cm)


Click/Wait

Click/Wait, 2019, needlepoint (acrylic on polyester mesh), 51" x 9" (130 cm x 23 cm)


About Open and Connected

There is no denying the impact of electronic communications, and particularly social media, on human society and endeavor. Our individual reach and connectedness has expanded exponentially, while the emotional engines of human behavior -- the powerful motivators of hope, fear and ambition -- remain unscathed. Our newly-enhanced ability to touch each other's minds and lives has only heightened both our best and worst tendencies, at least in the digital realm. And, for better or worse, it is in this realm that more and more of us are spending more and more of our lives.

Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have become the most powerful marketing enterprises ever to have existed, not just by creating useful products, but by growing supremely adept at harvesting a golden egg long prized by marketers: consumers' personal, demographic data.

This is not news. Nor is the notion that the term "marketers" includes not just purveyors of for-profit goods and services, but also social causes, political campaigns and ideologies. However, it's one thing for these so-called Hidden Persuaders to influence our choice of laundry soap. It's quite another when our (persuaded) choices have dire consequences -- for minorities, the disenfranchised, the environment -- that adversely affect millions of lives worldwide.

"Open and connected" is the phrase repeatedly uttered by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in media interviews, employee pep rallies and in congressional hearings. It describes their vision of a world where information is free, and forges ties that bind us in our common humanity. However, despite this lofty and noble ambition, the engine of Facebook is profit. For Facebook, the single product driving its profitability is the personal data of its users, a powerful marketing weapon in the hands of its advertiser clients. But if there is a marketing gun pointed at Facebook users' heads, their own fingers are on the triggers.

As Tom Bissell writes in the NY Times: "A tech company founded on creating human connection is now ripping American society apart and compromising our civic foundation, though not because it has overtly wicked intent. As [early Facebook investor Roger] McNamee elucidates, our 'democracy has been undermined because of design choices.' Choices including the platform's pleasurable, frictionless interface, which encourages users to stay and return. It's no stretch to posit that because human neurotransmitters respond to the platform's iconic use of a certain shade of blue, and spark with dopamine upon receiving a 'like' or 'tag' notification, desperate children are now living in cages and a raving madman occupies the Oval Office."

This project illuminates this phenomenon through images drawn from online and consumer culture, juxtaposed in ways that encourage viewers to question their own complicity in this process. Dense imagery reflects the visceral online experience, wherein users are bombarded with visual and written messages at a rate unprecedented in human history. Picture scale mimics the immersive sensation of device screens that suck energy through our visual cortices and effectively remove us from our physical environs. Scant verbiage and apparently dissonant image pairings force the viewer to consider image source, meaning and context.

In The Space Between Dreaming and Living, for example, the viewer is confronted with an apparent visual cacophony. Dissecting its elements yields a familiar, and disturbing, dynamic, in which a glowing blue Rolodex (an archaic device for cataloguing individuals' contact information) is the center of focus. Close inspection reveals its tab dividers are labeled with zip codes of voting districts key in overturning a Democratic victory in America's 2016 election, via targeted Facebook ads known as "dark posts." Embossed on the side of the device is the logo of the data-collection firm Cambridge Analytica. Below the Rolodex is the prone face of a woman sleeping -- the "dreamer" of the title. Hovering above her are a series of images (arranged in the format of Apple's "coverflow" interface) all of which are the central images of a variety of Facebook personality quizzes. Overwhelmingly targeted to young women, these quizzes employ images that elicit feelings of hope, romance, fear, and aspiration; many of them are drawn from Disney movies. A field of blue-green dots in the background is a pattern used in color-blindness tests. Behind it, a 5,000-square grid refers to the 5,000 personality data points, generated through techniques such as Facebook quizzes, which Cambridge Analytica claims is all the firm requires to change that individual's opinion about anything. A large, pixellated image of couture footwear is a proxy for the dreamer's ultimate fantasy of consumer fulfillment. Finally, in the lower right corner, is an image, degraded as if through ink-transfer, of two "real world" women enjoying a day at Disneyland.

In fact, Disneyland (aka "The Happiest Place on Earth"), an icon of consumer aspiration, is a relative constant in this series: The viewer will find images similarly-degraded (in relation to the highly-saturated images that represent the digital world) throughout. These provide connective tissue to the artist's prior series, "Happiest Place," and relate thematically to his ongoing concerns of identity, consciousness and culture.