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Irish artists Kennedy Browne Grapple with "Real World Harm" at Krannert Art Museum
Kennedy Browne: The Special Relationship, installation at Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, 2018. Photo by Della Perrone.

CHAMPAIGN, ILL.- Irish artists Kennedy Browne tell challenging, contemporary stories about technology and global commerce, while raising questions about individual privacy, corporate intent, and disclosure in “The Special Relationship,” an exhibition currently on view at Krannert Art Museum.

It is the first solo exhibition in the U.S. for Kennedy Browne – a collaboration of Irish artists Gareth Kennedy and Sarah Browne – and premieres “Real World Harm,” a multi-faceted critique of social media. The exhibition includes videos, sound, and sculptural installations that examine how neoliberal systems of commerce, technology, and politics affect the individual.

“The questions they are trying to grapple with are really current,” said Amy Powell, the curator of modern and contemporary art at Krannert Art Museum. “The artists are interested in questions critical to this moment: what is the technology we’re using and what are the politics of the people behind it? How can we conceive of the collective good when this technology rules the day?”

Kennedy Browne researches and gathers material from online forums, business literature, flight logs, and legal proceedings, then distills a single narrative around an artifact representing capitalism.

Kevin Hamilton, the dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts and a professor of new media in the School of Art and Design, described the exhibition as a genealogical project. It answers the question of ‘How did we get here?’ in multiple ways, he said, by looking at the myths surrounding figures of entrepreneurial genius, the consequences of relocating a business and how workers come in and out of the picture, and how corporations navigate privacy regulations.

Kennedy Browne’s work “Real World Harm” features a 360-degree video in which a character who resembles Max Schrems—an Austrian lawyer and data privacy activist known for his legal actions against technology corporations in Europe—talks to you as he walks to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s office, which is charged with protecting individuals’ rights to data privacy in the European Union, Middle East, and Africa. As he does so, he conducts a thought experiment from Plato’s Republic: Would you act in a moral way if your actions were invisible to the world? What if there was one omnipotent figure (or social media platform) that could know all your actions?

“It takes this huge, very abstract set of concerns and gets down to one person talking just to you, taking you on this tour, telling you this story in a compelling way,” Hamilton said. “It was so strange to put on this headset that promises mobility, promises moving around on your own, and then your head is stuck on the end of this selfie stick and you can’t get away. He’s got you, and he’s telling you other stories of control.”

In the gallery nearby is a stack of papers, a copy of Schrems’s personal data that he sued to obtain from Facebook, with much of his own information redacted, raising the question of the real world harm inflicted by systematic corporate collection of personal data.

The video’s narrator points out the disclaimer written on the Oculus virtual reality headsets being worn by the viewers, which tells them that their biometric data is being collected and by wearing the headset they agree not to participate in class action lawsuits and that they are subject to the laws of California, no matter where they use the headsets.

“I didn’t want to put it on,” Paul Myers, the visiting outreach coordinator for Illinois’s European Union Center – a co-sponsor of the exhibition – said of the headset. “But I know my data is out there. I willingly give it over to Google and Facebook every day.”
Also part of “Real World Harm” are recordings of people whose work involves reviewing online content and taking down or preventing the posting of harmful images such as pornography or graphic violence. The workers, who speak about being ill-prepared for the images they see, are charged with determining the “real world harm” to those who might see the images they are reviewing.

The voices indicate that there are humans behind the technology. They are invisible during its everyday use, but they change how we perceive the technology when they come into view, said Hamilton, noting the work is relevant to debates about drone warfare and about interference via social media in the last presidential election.

“Real World Harm” is the newest of the three pieces in Kennedy Browne’s “The Redaction Trilogy.” With its debut at KAM, it is the first time all three pieces of the trilogy have been shown together. The first work in the trilogy, “How Capital Moves” (2010), incorporates a script Kennedy Browne composed by distilling or “redacting” from a technology company’s online employee discussion forum, including comments about being laid off on “pajama day” when the company decided to relocate its office overseas for cheaper labor. One character, dressed in a pink bunny suit, talks about his devastation at losing his job. Although based on actual stories, each character in the video acts as an avatar, portraying different ways individuals process the same set of events.

The remaining component of the trilogy is “The Myth of the Many in the One” (2012), a video portraying the childhood myth – and a view of the privilege – surrounding a fictional entrepreneurial genius. It is distilled from the boyhood portrayed in biographies of Silicon Valley tech giants Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and others. The video stands alongside a sculptural installation titled “The Wonder Years” that presents artifacts from the myth.

The exhibition takes its name from the work “The Special Relationship” (2013), referring to the U.S. military’s use of Irish airports to transport personnel even though Ireland is a neutral country. Ireland has the lowest corporate tax rate in Europe, making it the European, African, and Middle Eastern headquarters for companies and giving it a unique perspective on capitalism, globalization, and multinational corporations and their effects on democracy.

“We’re ten years out from the last global recession. In some ways, it’s easy to forget the role that global capital played across a number of sectors,” Myers said. “For the artists, the understanding of Ireland as a sort of pass-through, greasing the wheels through its low tax rates, creates a palpable tension within the work. You have to assume that life there is tangibly affected by that.”

The work “167” takes a well-known lecture by economist Milton Friedman suggesting the pencil is the perfect example of free-market capitalism and translates the monologue from English through the 41 available languages in Google Translate in 2009 and finally back to English, at which point it has become nonsensical. An accompanying video shows an actor sharpening a pencil on a balcony overlooking Dublin; its shreds blow away in the wind.

“The grinding of the pencil is being tied to one’s life work and engagement as a worker in a capitalist system,” Myers said. “That pencil represents bodies and blood and sweat and labor that may not be willful. The artists are giving us visual metaphors for the changing nature of work.”

Part of the appeal of exploring these issues through art rather than, for example, a TED Talk, Hamilton said, is that it contradicts the idea that it is only through experts that we can really get to know the world.

“These artists never present themselves as experts. They have their eyes open, following trails. We get to see them put these things together and ask these questions,” he said. “It makes me feel it’s more possible that I can get a greater understanding about these technologies and systems. It’s empowering.”

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