Under the Calculative Gaze

Project

The excesses of Artificial Intelligence and digital surveillance have long been romanticised, subject of the most famous dystopian works of science fiction, as a warning of what our society could be in for. Today, there is no longer any doubt. We have well and truly turned a corner, so much so that regulating the use of algorithms in professional recruitment will be on the agenda for the next European elections in June 2024. In practical terms, this means that the systems have already been developed and put in place by public institutions. Given these circumstances, it is no longer a question of establishing the limits of what an AI can achieve or how, but rather of knowing what we are prepared to accept individually and collectively. What will tomorrow’s norm be? This is a question that artist Sanela Jahić has been asking herself for some time. Her project Under the Calculative Gaze shows how algorithmic systems contribute to widening existing social gaps and represent a danger to our civil rights and individual freedoms. Somewhere between sociology, art and activism, Sanela tells us very real stories.

For the artist, this is nothing new; the application of AI in various public spheres and its impact are battle horses. As she continues her research, one day in 2020, she receives an e-mail from a young researcher who develops an algorithm that is supposed to assist the unemployed, for an institute as part of an European project that deals with the labour market. Only it actually won’t ; it will just predict who might get a job sooner and rank the candidates. But the problems associated with unemployment are multiple and complex, and require social restructuring. So when public and private institutions entrust the power to decide on the future of human beings to a machine, in reality they are absolving themselves of any responsibility. 

These systems may be created by the government or by companies, but generally, the public and private sectors work hand in hand. The political authorities agree on the measures to be put in place, often with the underlying idea of ensuring the safety of citizens, and determine what they consider to represent a threat. Companies, on the other hand, provide consultancy and expertise. But the way they operate and the criteria they apply are not clear, which makes the task of identifying injustice more difficult. What is certain, however, is that minorities and marginalised groups are very often the unwitting guinea pigs of these systems. Political science researcher Virginia Eubanks is no stranger to these practices; in a 2014 article she was already describing and alerting us to the dangers of their normalisation for populations considered ‘at risk’ by the American state. Her interviewee at the time, a young mother on welfare, warned “…you should pay attention to what happens to us. You’re next.”

These issues are of great concern to Sanela; she is deeply opposed to the idea of building a system that reinforces existing power dynamics and deepens societal gaps based on exclusionary values and attribution criteria that originates from an ideology. Shaken in her convictions, she decides to start her project. In 2021, she is approached by Aksioma – Institute of Contemporary Art in Ljubljana, with whom she has collaborated in the past, and presents them with her project. They are going to support the research and production via konS ≡ Platform for Contemporary Investigative Art, a funding platform created on the initiative of independent Slovenian cultural organisations, dedicated to artistic research and interdisciplinary creation. The collaboration with Aksioma is as fluid as usual, the artist feels encouraged and supported throughout the process, and feels grateful to their team.

She first contacts Dan McQuillan, whose article Mental Health and Artificial Intelligence: Losing your voice strikes the exact right chord. At the time, the expert in creative and social computing is writing Resisting AI, but still takes the time to respond to Sanela. He agrees to collaborate on a video that will be part of the final art installation. She flies to London to record Dan and spontaneously makes contact with 56a infoshop, a DIY social centre that she considers to be a space of resistance and of which she makes 3D scans of. She later will be in touch with Extinction Rebellion as well, who will give her permission to use some of their video contents for her project.

The artist then sets her sights on communities active in the fight against injustice in the workplace. She comes across a unionised Amazon warehouse worker based in Chicago whom she contacts, not as an artist, but as a creative industry worker facing difficulties in her country. He shares with her his experiences of collective organising, his own difficulties, but also the need to synchronise trade union movements around the world. Sanela is inspired; beyond laws, social measures, geographical and cultural differences, all these people, all over the world, have in common that they are fighting for better working conditions. She re-reads the interview a dozen times, feeling the power behind his ideas and words that reinforce her own beliefs, not just in this battle, but in the ability to change her own situation.

When she looks for similar actions in other countries, she finds Magda Malinowska, who was illegally fired by Amazon for speaking out about a coworker’s death due to poor working conditions. Being part of the Polish trade union Inicjatywa Pracownicza, she took a stand by taking the case further to the court, and encouraging workers to assert their rights. It’s not the company itself that interests Sanela – Amazon is a coincidence – but rather what the basic principles of such an organisation are, and how to restore workers’ confidence and belief in a better future. So the artist, attentive, films the testimonies of experiences and stories; the way in which the workers are separated, the control of their conversation time, their break time and their location in the warehouse, the slide towards automation of the body but also and above all their actions of resistance.

In 2023, the installation takes the form of several videos, a series of posters and hammock-like structures. The video No to AI, Yes to a Non-fascist Apparatus alternates between extracts from Extinction Rebellion during a demonstration on an Amazon site during Black Friday and photogrammetries of places where resistance is being organised. Photogrammetry is a technique for measuring an object or scene using photographs taken from several points of view, resembling a 3D scan. Here, there are imperfections, intended by Sanela to counter the illusion of perfection generated by the machine. The video is narrated by Dan McQuillan, who wrote the text specifically for the work, and describes the fascist tendencies of AI. The other videos feature interviews the artist conducted and footage collected inside various Amazon warehouses by union workers who secretly filmed their workplaces prior to the project. She also creates a highly systematised and informational environment with a series of posters entitled, 1s and 0s, haves and have-nots, created using the Carbon Design System, an open source product design platform launched by IBM. These refer to a classic marketing model: a stock image of a satisfied, smiling customer, accompanied by a text describing their experience. Here, Sanela uses these codes, but shatters the illusion by featuring a short description of a concrete example of how and where the application of probabilistic algorithms has led to discriminatory and harmful practices. Although the artist has collected over 200 examples, her selection is designed to enable the public to identify with them, so she diversifies the social, professional and geographical contexts, physical appearance, gender, etc., making the system the common denominator for all visitors. 

Lastly, the structures on display in the installation are based on the design of the bamboo protest towers used by Extinction Rebellion during their demonstrations; they are tensegrity structures, a self supported structure made up of isolated components within a network of chords that are under continuous tension. Made from very light materials, they are easy to transport, and are quick and simple to assemble. They can be used to block entrances or to take refuge high up during police raids on intervention sites. In Sanela’s installation, they allow the public to connect with the other pieces by taking a seat on it, while counterbalancing the omnipresence of digital technology.

When she receives an invitation to exhibit her work at Art Meets Radical Openness, Sanela doesn’t hesitate. The event is dedicated to resisting the economic, social and ideological monopoly of the digital industry giants, by creating spaces for artistic expression, sharing and learning, in a spirit of benevolence. This year’s theme, Dancing at the Crossroads, invites us to imagine alternatives for a desirable future where technological decolonisation, civic resilience and the defence of nature are on the agenda. The project can be seen between 8th and 11th of May 2024 at the MAERZ gallery in Linz.

Science fiction writers portrayed futuristic societies already firmly established in technological dictatorship, but gave us little indication of the path towards it. Engaged artists such as Sanela Jahić show us a concrete way forward and warn us against the gradual political shift. 

Under the Calculative Gaze highlights, on one hand, the indiscreet way in which AI looks at our lives and how we are exposed to it, and on the other hand, the potential change in our behaviour to meet the future new norm that it will end up imposing on us. But let’s not forget to trust in our ability to organise ourselves collectively and take action against injustice.

Artist : 
Sanela Jahić
Under the Calculative Gaze

Collaborations : 
Technical director : Andrej Primožič
Author of the essay : ‘No to AI, Yes to a Non-fascist Apparatus’: Dan McQuillan
Visual image and graphic design : Jaka Neon
3D animation : Toni Mlakar
Audio post-production : Julij Zornik
Image post-production : Art Rebel 9
Production: Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art / konS ≡ Platform for Contemporary Investigative Art

Artist

“I reach out because I want to learn, I want to see other perspectives, I want to include other stories. The collaborative process has been very close to my heart. It allows me to connect with people, to get to know and enter different working environments, to incorporate knowledge from other fields of work, to experience the interplay and fusion of disciplines and how they can challenge each other. […] I get my motivation from this.” The preconceived idea that artists work cloistered in their studios still has a firm hold on the general public. Yet collaborative practices are widespread in the field, with or without interdisciplinarity. Many artists draw their inspiration from dialogue with communities of individuals, which involves building relationships of trust and research based on endurance. The work of art then becomes a powerful message carried by a collective testimony. Sanela Jahić places the individual and the community at the centre of her practice; with her own story as a starting point, she gives us a glimpse into that of others.

Born in Slovenia, Sanela grows up in a double culture. Her parents are working class and Muslim, and they come from a small town in Bosnia that they left behind. She remembers feeling perceived differently as a child, particularly in the school system. At primary school, she gets good grades and already notices the difference in tone of the teachers between pupils with good and bad grades. Since good grades are synonymous with success, she surprises everyone when she decides to study art later on, perhaps in a spirit of rebellion. However, the academy is the first place where she starts to tie in with her origins. She is surrounded by people from all over with different backgrounds and understands that these backgrounds bring about various personal experiences. They give shape to our ideas, and clues to how we function and what interests us. And what provokes Sanela are the injustices resulting from power dynamics. 

She studies painting at first, but then begins to question the very notion of painting and its limitations. She then builds machines, and soon integrates technology into her work. She collaborates with specialists in programming and electronics, is interested in automation, but also opens conversations with people about their work, only to realise that these discussions are as important as the work itself. She wants to highlight these points of view in her work. She seeks out information about workplaces, how technology is used, and how workers are treated. Sanela uses her art to connect with others and unveil their stories. This is the driving force behind her motivation.

Photo credit : Tanja Kanazir – Drugo more

Moreover, she is no stranger to working-class life, not only because of her family background, but also because of her regular summer jobs. And some of her experiences there stay with her; while working in a factory in the textile industry, she has to place the threads in a machine that runs continuously. It is difficult to synchronise all the components with the machine and sometimes the fragility of certain threads jeopardises its smooth operation, and the machine stops. Sanela remembers the stress, so much so that she dreams about it at night. We’re all familiar with this feeling. So, to put an end to the nightmare, she develops a strategy and stops taking breaks. But it’s not the stress that she takes away from this experience; it’s the workers who leave their machines to help her, and then the conversation with this colleague: if the management realises that a young student is capable of working as fast as the workers who have been here for several years, they’ll raise the standard of work for everyone. It’s in the collective interest to take breaks and stop focusing on the machine. 

Sanela collects many of these stories over time, and not only incorporates them into her art, but also learns from them. She meets communities of workers as a person, not as an artist, and builds relationships of trust. For her, this is a priority; like a journalist, she invites people to share their stories, seeks out background information to contextualise them, takes a stand, and then thinks about the best way to communicate her message to the public through an installation. Up to this point, her own observations and those of others do not seem very optimistic; from an early age, individuals are projected into a standardised system through inadequate evaluation grids, and their belief in the idea of being able to go beyond this system is shattered, only to restrict the scope for individual thought and autonomy later on in the workplace.

The problem for factory workers is that nobody is irreplaceable. And this is getting worse with the rapid and increasing integration of new technologies into work processes. Under Sanela’s critical gaze, the subject increasingly takes centre stage in her works, highlighting the essential need for humanness. In 2018, her project Uncertainty in the Loop denounces the generalisation of automation in the organisation of work, the use of predictive algorithms and their risks, and the gradual elimination of essential human qualities in certain fields, such as creativity or empathy. The systematisation of tasks is 120 years old (or at least the theorisation of Taylorism), and bosses have always modified work standards by pushing workers’ physical and psychological capacities in the name of productivity. And what happens when the machine algorithm is applied to the production of artworks? Sanela explores the machine’s capacity to conceive works of art once it has integrated the artist’s creative processes. As with Under the Calculative Gaze, here she highlights her concern about the gradual shift towards algorithmically-guided decision-making in relation to workers. She does not hesitate to draw a parallel between the advantage of institutions in positions of power and a legislative framework that is sufficiently imprecise to push workers to create their own legal organisations to protect themselves. 

But as at the textile factory, Sanela sees humanity, solidarity and resilience, and seeks to highlight them. She also campaigns for better working conditions, and joins Zasuk (of which she is no longer a part of), a Slovenian organisation for self-employed workers in various industries in the cultural and creative sector. By determining the direction of the organisation and establishing links between the different problems faced by workers, they will be able to support each other better. And they don’t hesitate to connect with other unions based in other European countries. The cultural sector has its own specific problems, although they are common to all cultural sectors at a global level: artists are continually paid by visibility, organisations are pitted against each other in the race for public funding, and often it’s only at a certain point in our careers that we start to see ourselves as workers, because our passion for the job eventually wears us out. Yet we know all too well that passion and visibility have never paid anyone’s bills. 

So when it comes to choosing where to show her work, Sanela prefers organisations that she feels are in line with her ethics and values, regardless of their size or reputation, and the same goes for her publications. This year, Under the Calculative Gaze has been exhibited by Drugo More in Croatia, and will be the subject of a solo show as part of the Art Meets Radical Openness festival in Linz (8-11 May 2024), in which the artist will be taking part. The exhibition opens on the evening of 7 May at the MAERZ gallery, and will be on view until 29 May, before moving on to Verona in Italy, at the Fondazione Spazio Vitale.

Photo credit : Katja Goljat & Matjaž Rušt – konS

Sanela Jahić is deeply concerned by the situation of workers, and offers us a vision of the future that awaits us if we don’t act now.

But she also takes care to include a great deal of hope in the message of her artworks, a hope that is visceral and resolutely human.