With its Jubilee bathing pool and views over the historic St Michael’s Mount, Penzance isn’t the first place you might expect to encounter online culture. However, as the Exchange’s “Outside the Algorithm” exhibition highlights, the internet is both nowhere and everywhere, even in the furthest reaches of the UK’s most southern county. Although only a short experience, if you’re visiting Penzance there’s no real reason not to have a look around, especially as students are permitted free entry.
A recurring motif of the exhibition is the use of analog technology to depict digital spaces. One of the first exhibits you might notice is a display of a film called “The Age of Misinformation” which according to the Exchange’s website “explores how technology alters our senses”. Shot with grainy film effects and featuring vintage urban landscapes, Chez Conversations, an all-female art collective, mediate the complexity of the psychological consequences of the internet through an aesthetic of an antecedent culture. The effect of the juxtaposition is curious: are we meant to feel nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time, or is the point that regardless of the technologies that shape us, the human mind remains fractured and at times unknowable?
In my opinion, less successful in its use of vintage aesthetics is Martin Vargic’s maps of the internet. Presented in the style of an old-world atlas, Vargic depicts the websites, forums, and social media platforms that make up the internet as countries, grouped into continents depending on their type or category. While it is interesting to compare Vargic’s 2014 map with the 2021 edition, if in Marshall McLuhan’s words “the medium is the message”, Vargic doesn’t convey any new ideas about how we relate to digital spaces through his use of traditional cartography. Although categorising the internet in this way is a fun and visually pleasing novelty, the exhibit doesn’t break any new ground.
On the other end of the digital/analog spectrum, the exhibition also shows how artists such as Rhiannon Armstrong and Damjanski exist as artists “living in a browser”. Armstrong’s contribution is The Slow Gif Movement, which is projected into the gallery as an hour-long loop of GIFS that “bubble up, disappear, and re-emerge in different locations”. In response to the hostile use of GIFS in online spaces, and the difficulty that neurodivergent people experience as a result of the internet’s barrage of stimulus, Armstrong created these moving images, which include relaxing footage of nature and sentences being filled in with words. They can also be accessed on any smartphone by typing #slowgifs into a smartphone’s GIF search bar. Damjanski, meanwhile, uses the Bye Bye Camera app to edit human presence out of his photography while leaving their shadows intact. The result is an ambiguous looping video showing the ghostly presence of a person that both does and does not exist, a reminder of the liminality of our online existence.
Finally, though, at the end of the exhibition is IYOIYO’s “Infinite Bad Guy”, which captures in a fully realised way both the cold distance and startling intimacy of social media. Using machine learning, the exhibit plays a randomly selected series of clips from fan covers of Billie Eilish’s pop hit “Bad Guy”, which are stringed together so that the different clips complete the full song. According to the exhibit’s panel, if all combinations were played back to back it would last longer than the lifespan of the universe. As well as being a reminder of the sheer scale of content released on social media every day, it is strangely touching seeing Eilish’s fan’s earnest covers united into one song, a reminder that as much as social media is blamed for separating us, it also connects people in ways that are sometimes difficult to describe. However, you can only imagine the shock of one of the small artists walking into a gallery one day and finding themselves part of the exhibition.