Playful experiments on the serious business of data

Aidan Dunne: Kennedy Browne’s guide to a digital, neoliberal world

Kennedy Browne, The Wonder Years

Kennedy Browne, The Wonder Years

 

THE REDACTION TRILOGY

★★★★
Kennedy Browne. The Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, Parnell Square North, Dublin. Until January 26th, 2020

In their Redaction Trilogy, Kennedy Browne (Gareth Kennedy and Sarah Browne) presumably use the term redaction in a double-edged way: redaction as a process of combining and editing disparate sources to produce a coherent whole, and editing a text or body of information to withhold what might be considered sensitive or secret. The latter usage has become commonplace in news reporting, as in “heavily redacted” when, for example, a contentious confidential document is made publicly available but largely obscured and reduced to a few anodyne phrases.   

In one sense, Kennedy Browne surely have in mind a reversal of the latter process. They’ve been sifting through masses of documentation, “research threads from specialised and marginal business materials”, with the apparent aim of  constituting an accurate picture of “unfolding neoliberal systems of labour, technology and politics”. Neoliberalism is a catch-all term but at its core is the idea, given axiomatic weight, that the market, free of all restraint and impediment, knows best. Neoliberalism’s emergence is linked to the Thatcher-Reagan era.

Before, in other words, the advent of hugely disruptive digital technologies. Though not a product of neoliberalism, digital technologies and platforms, growing commercially within the climate they have created, have heightened the effects of neoliberal doctrine to an exponential degree, in ways people are still struggling to comprehend, never mind influence. Numerous areas of concern, such as communications (both personal and public), inequality, dumbing down, employment and workers’ rights, political discourse, transport, and much more, have been significantly effected.

Kennedy Browne’s trilogy delves into a number of issues. Data protection is one, approached via a virtual reality visit to the Portarlington office of the Irish Data Protection Commission. A midland town is perhaps an incongruous location for a commission of such sweeping – and international – contemporary relevance, but Kennedy Browne are drawn to incongruities (the commission does also have a central Dublin office). Also, it highlights the way technology collapses distance; it doesn’t matter where you are, your digital trail can be traced.

As in the case of the Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems, the subject of one small installation, Max Schrems’ Retrieved Facebook Data, essentially a stack of 811 printed pages. Uneasy about the way private corporations were acquiring and retaining personal information, Schrems initiated a civil complaint, via the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, with the aim of establishing how much data on him Facebook had. It turned out to be quite a lot. The pages, as we see them, courtesy of Schrems, are shorn of personal information.

Kennedy Browne, Real World Harm (Act 1)
Kennedy Browne, Real World Harm (Act 1)

Throughout the trilogy, Kennedy Browne’s recurrent strategy is to create composite characters, or avatars, as they put it, one in relation to each piece, who act out scripted packages of redacted material, an approach that inescapably, and mostly interestingly, recalls Gerard Byrne’s various re-enactment works. In The Myth of the Many in the One, the avatar is drawn from sections covering the boyhood years in the biographies of tech entrepreneurs. The avatar is a kind of archetypal genius-in-the-making and significance is attached to even banal childhood episodes. This is amplified in an accompanying work, The Wonder Years, which marshals relevant, influential archive exhibits – a rocking horse, a disturbing Life magazine cover – with museological gravity.

The two pieces combined, video and artefacts, form an elaborate installation, but on even a moment’s reflection its import is significantly weakened in that the subject matter is not unique to tech visionaries in a neoliberal context. Business biographies, like political and celebrity biographies, are a long-thriving genre, all built on the same armature and usually read by people looking expectantly for the secret ingredients that enabled success, plus perhaps gossip. So much so that Orson Welles played brilliantly on the idea in Citizen Kane nearly 80 years ago.

Kennedy Browne, The Wonder Years
Kennedy Browne, The Wonder Years

In How Capital Moves the avatar performs six monologues. The subject here is the controversial relocation of Dell’s computer manufacturing facility from Limerick to Lodz in Poland in 2009, the culmination of a three-year process and a sobering reminder of the utter ruthlessness of the market. The loss of 1,900 jobs in Limerick was traumatic, to say the least. The less than ecstatic reaction of the Lodz workers was sensibly based on the realisation that their position was likely to be just as precarious as that of the supplanted Limerick workers, and in fact that proved to be the case.

The Avatar in How Capital Moves not only performs six monologues derived from relevant online forums but also draws on an entirely separate source. The monologues articulate varying views on the experiences of the workers. Whatever opinions emerge, there is no mistaking an underlying helplessness and powerlessness. Labour is at the whim of the corporation, and the market. The avatar is, bizarrely, garbed in a pyjama costume, an allusion to quite a different instance of the operation of market ruthlessness when, in 2007, 200 employees of the same company were dismissed on “Pyjama Day” in Oregon.

This detail touches on a fascinating aspect of the tech revolution which is, essentially, a blurring of the boundaries between the personal and the corporate, with tech HQs routinely, and misleadingly, fitted out like adult playpens. Such a blurring has seeped insidiously into the workings of modern life, including transport, accommodation and communication. Kennedy Browne’s trilogy is an attempt to keep abreast of a rapidly changing environment.

A series of workshops accompanying the exhibition deal with practical aspects of living in the big-tech world.

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