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Review: Data Shadows

D. Eric Bookhardt on AnnieLaurie Erickson’s show at Tulane University’s Carroll Gallery



One of the more prominent artworks at the old Saturn Bar back in the day was Mike Frolich's You Are Being Watched, a cosmic, all-seeing eye luridly rendered in house paint. Frolich died, but his visionary evocation of omnipresent surveillance was decades ahead of its time, as the National Security Agency's (NSA) massive data spying exposed by Edward Snowden made clear. Yet, the NSA is a piker compared to the vast data collection efforts of private corporations like Facebook, Google and others, collectively known as Big Data. And where early cave art reflected the nature spirits that guided the fates of men and beasts, today's largely invisible data networks mimic those invisible forces to a spooky, near metaphysical extent. AnnieLaurie Erickson's Data Shadows expo explores the mostly hidden structures that facilitate Big Data's penetration into nearly every aspect of our lives.

  In the shadowy gallery, three mysteriously glowing vertical structures dominate one wall. Titled Local Servers (pictured), they are photographic replicas of computer server circuits, but mounted on eerily glowing structures they resonate an almost totemic presence. We normally don't see them because most are hidden in data centers located in the remote regions of the U.S., where armed security personnel sometimes allowed Erickson to photograph them from a distance. In her images, their minimal forms suggest monolithic prisons or temples, and her accompanying photographs of digital circuitry often recall Mayan or Nepalese fabric patterns. One such image, illuminated from within, is blurred, but as you approach it blacks out except for a sharply focused circle. Move your gaze and the circle of focus moves with your eyes. Named Data Shadows, it illustrates how digital data's "eye tracking" technology watches us even as we try to watch it. Like the nature spirits of ancient times, Big Data is the new invisible force that increasingly influences our destiny, and like the gods of yore, it is unclear whether it serves us or we serve it.

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