Primarily known for her digital hacks of the art world and political institutions, Gretchen creates mixed-media “vision board” paintings about the life, career, and political future she wants. She then programs her desires into being by manipulating natural language processes and internet AI to turn her physical artwork into top search engine results online. For instance, if you search “Contemporary Art Auction Records” or “Cover of Artforum” in Google images, you can see her vision boards appear as the top results.
1. Can you discuss your earliest memory of making art?
What separates art from lucky beauty is intention.
Anyone can take a great photo but building a practice of taking great photos is another thing entirely. By this belief system, which is my own, my earliest memory of making art was the moment I decided to become an artist when I set the intention to make art. For me, this came in my mid-twenties.
It’s an important genesis of my career, that as an adult who had found myself more or less capable or other things I decided to become something else, an artist, without any training or evidence that I could succeed.
What followed was years of making really bad art. Online classes. Youtube videos. I believed that the internet could make me into the person I aspired to be. That belief has been central to my practice ever since, that technology can be used to transform us. It certainly does not happen without intention though.
2. Can you define search engine art for those who don’t know?
Search Engine Art is a term I more or less invented in a book I wrote with the V&A Museum in 2008 as artworks that are in some way co-authored by search engines, where the design and will of the search engine or the companies that make them somehow influence the outcome.
For me, this takes the form of manipulated search results. In my practice, I make physical artworks called Vision Boards that visualize something I want in my future. For example, to have my artwork sold for a contemporary art auction record.
This artwork at Unit Gallery London visualizes what it will look and feel like when my artwork sells for a contemporary art auction record.
I then reverse engineer the algorithms of Google and Facebook using natural language processing, AI, metadata, and some search engine optimization (SEO) to convince Google to exhibit my artworks at the top search results for, in this instance, “contemporary art auction record.”
3. What inspires your exploration of search engine art?
I am really interested in power and how it operates and gets distorted through technology. I am able to achieve my search engine manipulations/manifestations because the internet can be seen as a global subconscious, and, much like our own subconscious, it cannot tell the difference between a hoped-for future intensely imagined through art and what has, in fact, already occurred.
This is because the internet cannot parse desire. To parse is to divide into parts and identify the parts’ relations with each other. When humans read, “I am really hoping that someday my work sells for a contemporary art auction record,” it is understood that the relationship between me and the object of my desire is one of separation. By contrast, the internet essentially understands only that I am “relevant” to the most expensive contemporary art ever sold. Now, when anyone anywhere in the world Googles “Contemporary art auction record,” my vision boards come up as the top results.
4. In your exhibition, Trust Boundary at the Francisco Carolinum, your search engine hack of “Contemporary Art Auction Record” reveals that women only make up 2% of the contemporary art market. How do we reverse this?
Because my work (and therefore my collectors) deals with power in politics and big tech, both known to be very male-dominated power centers, people are often shocked to learn that the art world is significantly less equal. There are no doubt systemic issues that can be revealed and addressed. My approach has focused, as is inherent within all my work, on actively creating the world I want to live in, which means elevating my work, insisting on getting rewarded for its value, hacking my way into places I believe I deserve to be in as well as accepting with grace the invitations that are starting to flood in, bringing other women with me and personally collecting female artists.
5. What is your process like working in both physical and digital formats?
I’m a Digital Monist, a fancy way of saying that I believe the contemporary human world is inseparably digital and non-digital, online and ofﬂine, or, in obsolete terms, virtual and real. The medium I am most obsessed with is that of power, of reality itself. I use both the digital and physical forms of reality to make the world that I want to live in, personally, professionally, politically.
6. Can you explain the use of bright pastels and objects in your works?
I create serious work. It manipulates and reforms the global internet. It makes a fool of big technology companies. It exposes the ease of information warfare. A couple of years ago, I gave up trying to be taken seriously and dared people to dismiss me and the work I do. By making work that is visually grounded in craft, femininity, and the perceived triviality of luxury, glitter, butterflies, and sewing, my work reminds us that power can look and be created in new ways.
7. What do you want viewers/readers to take away from your work?
When readers see that I can manipulate Google and Facebook, I want them to initially be amazed and then quickly shift to concern. “Oh wow how did you do that!!?!?” to “Wait, YOU did that? That’s terrifying.” The internet is used to manipulate us every day into becoming the consumers and voters someone else wants us to be. My artwork shows a way of transforming that same power into one that we can control and therefore one we can use to create the life and world we aspire to.