— Super Stories #2

!Mediengruppe Bitnik
Ashley Madison Angels at Work, 2017

Super Dakota is happy to present for the second edition of Super Stories, Ashley Madison Angels at Work, 2017, an installation from the artist duo !Mediengruppe Bitnik. 

The work exposes issues emerging from our constant online presence, our need for social interactions and controversial issues subsequent to hacking of our personal data. It is a landmark piece raising fundamental questions on our relationship with technology and artificial intelligence. 

!Mediengruppe Bitnik
Ashley Madison Angels at Work, 2017
5-channel looping video installation with sound
full HD, 16:9, 8min 07sec, five 40″ LCD screens
five trolley stands, five video players, five cables and pink gel neon lights
150 x 95 x 61 cm (each fembot), 1 + 1 AP (for each city) 

Facing the installation, the viewer is drawn to question the truth behind the virtual looking avatars. Are these people on the screen real? If not, who created them? And for what purpose? Since robot activity dominates most of online traffic, the overall digital landscape is therefore constantly evolving. How much of the online scope are we really controlling? How do automated, algorithmic and artificially intelligent systems influence our reality and everyday life?

Installation view, Come Chat With Me, 2017, EPFL Artlab, Lausanne

!Mediengruppe Bitnik (read – the not mediengruppe bitnik) are the artists Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo. They live and work in Berlin. They work on and with the internet. Their practice expands from the digital to affect physical spaces, often intentionally applying loss of control to challenge established structures and mechanisms.  

Ashley Madison Angels at Work is part of a series of works researching Ashley Madison, a Canadian online dating service marketed worldwide to married people seeking for an affair. In July and August 2015, an anonymous group called The Impact Team stole and released all of Ashley Madison’s internal data – including the entire website code and functionality, customer data and the CEO’s emails. The data breach revealed that – with a disproportionate number of male subscribers and virtually no human women on the site – Ashley Madison had created an army of 75 000 female chatbots to draw the 32 million male users into (costly) conversations. (1)

Ashley Madison users data worldwide

detail, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Ashley Madison Angels at Work in San Francisco, 2017

!Mediengruppe Bitnik adapts the work to the location of each exhibition by using the data specific to the city such as Paris, San Francisco, Berlin, and Athens. Mounted on stands, viewers encounter the fembots at eye level as seductive machine-creatures with robot-technology, artificial voices, and 3-D rendered human faces based on idealized beauty standards. From the visuals of the avatars to their voices, everything was conceived to seduce male users. Their figures couldn’t be more far away from those of real women.

Self-created Facebook avatars

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Ashley Madison Angels at work, Galerie Charlot, Paris, 2018

‘Is anybody home lol?’, ‘U busy?’, ‘What brings you here?’ For Ashley Madison Angels at Work, !Mediengruppe Bitnik use the pick-up lines encoded by Ashley Madison into their bots to form a choreography within the exhibition space. The exhibition space functions as a temporary place of embodiment for the bots in the vicinity of the gallery. Under a pink neon light, the corporation’s official color, the screens are disposed on the level of the eyes under roll on wheels that allow their mobility.  

bot/avatar, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Ashley Madison Angels at Work, 2017

“The Ashley Madison story shows a specific way they can be used against humans, to trap them. The mainstream media tend to convey the understanding that an algorithm is neutral. But it's never neutral. No technology, no code ever is. It's written by humans, so there are always cultural values inscribed within the code, conscious and unconscious biases, power structures and certain ways of communicating. It's a bit like the way our European cities took shape. Our cities came out of certain understanding of public space in the 19th century, and of a certain way on moving on foot, for instance, that made them look the way they still are. In the same way, these algorithms now form an online landscape, which defines the way we move, communicate, shop and see online.”(2)

- !Mediengruppe Bitnik

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Ashley Madison Angels at Work, 2017, exhibition view, swissnex San Francisco, 2017

!Mediengruppe Bitnik use Ashley Madison as a case study to raise a critical view over questions around the current relationship between human and machine, Internet intimacy and the use of virtual platforms to disrupt physical spaces. It is widespread in the media and in common sense that the feeling of anonymity provided by the Internet facilitates the practice of illicit acts on the network. After the hack, the lives of millions of people around the world were turned upside down. Marriages broke off and there were even reported suicides as humiliation and panic hit the public eye.

Ashley Madison website

At an interview given for the Centre Culturel Suisse in Paris, Domagoj Smoljo pinpoints an important aspect of the relation between the users of Ashley Madison and the fem bots: the secret aspect of the experience. People were paying for chatting with the bots, submitting themselves to this strange relationship, which they couldn’t openly talk about. The very concept of cheating was what kept this bots under the radar for so long.

You can read more on Ashley Madison here: VENTURE BEAT | GIZMODO | WIRED | GIZMODO

Ashley Madison billboard

data diagram Ashley Madison

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Ashley Madison Angels at work, Centre Culturel Suisse, Paris, 2016

At Centre Culturel Suisse in Paris all 61 bots from Paris were present. These had tended to the 44 306 Paris-based users. At EIGEN + ART Lab Berlin 5 of the 272 angels from Berlin developed an eerie presence within the exhibition. In the exhibition at swissnex in San Francisco 51 of the 211 bots within the city limits were present, while in Athens 7 of the totally 165 which provided entertainment to users in Athens were embodied.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Ashley Madison Angels at Work, 2017, exhibition view, EIGEN + ART Lab, Berlin

“In the media and communications environment we live in today, reality is always “live”. Everything else has become really fuzzy. This “live” is producing reality, or producing reality through live media is probably the only authenticity that is possible within all these mediated communications. You may not even need proper communication to produce these moments of “live”, for example with the Ashley Madison Angels at Work, when you're in the space and are surrounded by all these bots, walking among them.”(3)

- !Mediengruppe Bitnik

chatbots in Black Mirror series, 2014

The idea that we are surrounded by bots, that we communicate with them on a daily basis and that we can hardly distinguish them from real people, is presented to viewers when they stand before large, luminous surfaces of the work series Solve This Captcha. Captchas are sequences of typographic characters only legible to people and not to robots. These online Turing tests function as gatekeepers to keep bots out of social networks – a standard that needs to be maintained with increasing efforts so that social media platforms are not flooded with machine creatures, and in order to ban spam. But these barriers, installed to keep bots out, also create work for people who must now constantly prove they are not machines. But not only that: when machines fail to get around captchas, workers in low-wage countries are used around the clock to circumvent them. People work in bot-like fashion so that bots can appear to be human.

Nam June Paik, exhibition view, The Future Is Now, 2020, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

“You could call these non-human entities bots, but that would not be very precise and also a bit misleading. The thing with bots is that there's always the image of the "other" that comes up, which is not what's important to me. It's not about the human versus robot. What matters to me are those non-human entities of any form, be they algorithms, or bots, etc., performing as humans or instead of humans. These are much more common today in technology, in our world, and they are much more formative for the digital and physical landscapes that surrounds us.”(4)

- !Mediengruppe Bitnik

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Ashley Madison Angels at Work, 2017, swissnex, San Francisco, 2017

According to recent economic analyses, we are on the verge of a technological revolution which might cause the loss of many jobs worldwide. This speculation is based of real technological experiments in which Robots and AI are already working to fulfill Amazon’s ever-increasing promises of speedy deliveries to its prime clients, driving taxis and diagnosing lung cancer. Ashley Madison is still up and running and the strange thing is that they have more subscribers nowadays than they had before the hacking, according to Forbes.

(1-4) from the publication : < script > alert(“!Mediengruppe Bitnik”);</script>, Societé des Arts, Genéve, Verlag fur moderne Kunst, 2017

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, script>alert(“!Mediengruppe Bitnik”);/script>, Societé des Arts, Genéve, Verlag fur moderne Kunst, 2017