The Data and the Sovereign
Installation of Hasan Elahi »Steale«
Thu, January 16, 2020 – Sun, February 09, 2020

Data is measured, collected, analyzed, interpreted, mined, sent up to the cloud, and stored. Data is considered »big« if it is virtually uncountable, and has often been described as the »oil« of the twenty-first century. Data is a resource, but not a natural one, although the dealings with it have a significant ecological footprint and are currently forming various landscapes.

Data’s increasing ubiquity is dependent on the planetary scale of computation, and vice versa. Digitization and the ongoing development of data storage techniques increase its presence, use, and as a direct consequence, its abuse.

One of legendary feminist conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s Truisms (1977–1979) was displayed on the streets of New York in the late 1970s. These political messages, such as »Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise«, appeared on T-shirts or billboards; intentionally popped up in public spaces, not in institutional art contexts. Holzer produced numerous variations of Truisms, or one could say a large dataset of phrases, which are now being processed by designer algorithms and put on T-shirts or jumpers, and made available on online retail platforms. The variations are countless; the software agents welcome appropriations and paraphrases and they accumulate and disseminate endless possible patterns. Thus it is easy to get a piece of clothing bearing variations of Truisms, like the slogan »Abuse of Data Comes as No Surprise« coined by Kate Crawford and Maral Pourkazemi, after Jenny Holzer.
We tend to think of data as neutral and objective raw material produced to categorize, measure, and model the world we inhabit. However, data has always been shaped by interpretive frameworks and by the gathering processes and techniques employed. Who creates the input mechanism and frameworks, and who controls the database matters.

On the side of the users, monitoring and quantification of the self is regarded as an absolutely normal activity. Fitness, health, and sleep tracking has been pushed by tech companies, and supported by obsessive self–optimization tendencies, despite the fact that fitness trackers measure exactly the same metrics as polygraphs did. The measured data is sent directly to private companies, who could very well copy and share this information with others, and use the data for their own benefit.

Abuse of data without the consent of its source is not a surprise any more. Various scandalous cases have attracted considerable media attention and have proved examples of misuse, both in the public and the private sector. The most well-known incidents in Europe stem from English-speaking countries, above all from the United States. The 2013 revelations of Edward Snowden about the practices and protocols of the National Security Agency post-9/11 still influence public opinion, and have left many people unsure as to whether they can trust governmental intelligence apparatuses’ handling of their personal data. And if we thought that now this public institution had been identified as the enemy of privacy, we had a rude awakening when it came to light that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica had collaborated to influence voters using targeted marketing on social media. Needless to say, without the recipients’ consent. 

The Data and the Sovereign is an associated project of the 26th Biennial of Design Ljubljana »BIO26 – Common Knowledge«

Participating Artists

Kim Albrecht, DISNOVATION.ORG, Hasan Elahi, Geraldine Juárez, Maral Pourkazemi and Kate Crawford (in cooperation with Deep Lab)

Organization / Institution
»The Data and the Sovereign« is a co-production of ZKM | Karlsruhe and Goethe-Institut Ljubljana and BIO 26| Common Knowledge. The exhibition is supported by City of Ljubljana, Kresija Gallery.