Performance art piece spends four days trying to 'reverse Brexit'
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An artist who has set up an installation in a central London gallery with the aim of “reversing Brexit” hopes the performance art piece will help people understand and navigate the murky world of online manipulation.
Swedish multimedia artist Jonas Lund has set up Operation Earnest Voice, a “fully functioning propaganda office”, at the Photographers Gallery with a singular but playful aim: to use the technology and devices that were utilised during the Brexit referendum debate to stop it from happening.
“As we’ve seen with the different Brexit campaigns, the use of targeted ads and companies like Cambridge Analytica have manufactured consent,” says Lund.
“Our aim is to develop toolkits and see what’s available to us in terms of technology. We have the option of doing detailed individual advertisement through Facebook, [we can] build networks of fake news websites: aggregating articles and spinning meaning.”
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The four-day project, which ends on Sunday and takes its name from an astroturfing campaign run by the US government, is run by Lund and his team of 12 volunteers or “employees”, who applied to take part in the work and include former Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaign photographer Alan Mozes.
They have taken over a whole floor of the gallery and the general public are encouraged to engage and learn about how technology and politics work together to influence them. The installation looks every bit the modern political campaign headquarters, with bold logo, open-plan office and sessions including “mindfulness” breaks for the staff.
“With this piece you either program or you are programmed,” says Lund. “You need to learn how different algorithms can get your attention, or how Instagram is deeply manipulative in its reward system by triggering dopamine.”
Lund believes that in the current climate, with the UK poised to leave the EU after a referendum dominated by misinformation and falsehoods, we have a stark choice: either “inform yourself or become a slave to the systems that control us”.
“The level of profiling and modelling that Facebook and other data-gathering operations enable I find deeply problematic,” says Lund. “It would make George Orwell turn in his grave because it’s far more dystopian than 1984. How much data have we been tricked to give up? Facebook is the greatest surveillance apparatus ever made.”
But can a work like this be relevant when it’s based in a pro-remain area of the country and run by what pro-Brexit voices might call “liberal elites”? “The physical aspect of the campaign is here [in central London] but the tools can be used anywhere,” says Lund. “Like we see with the Russian influence in decisions made in the EU and America. So location is slightly irrelevant.”
What about the idea that this is the cultural elite trying to spread its leftist views? “I’d say it’s not that,” he counters. “It’s trying to unmask the mechanisms that are being used and abused by both sides – left and right. Also, if you had a problem with that, wouldn’t you have a problem with the Leave campaign using actual illegal strategies to win a campaign?”
The somewhat tongue-in-cheek conceit masks the true aim of Lund’s work, which is to provoke questions about and interrogate the ways the British public was manipulated during the campaign and in the two years since the referendum.
“There’s a risk of coming off as arrogant, as the person who is going to fix it all. The defence is, it’s not necessarily about Brexit, it’s about the tools and mechanisms. And these are available to everybody.”
As the vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal approaches next week and the repercussions of the UK’s divorce from the EU start to be realised, perhaps there’s no better time to get to grips with the technology that made it possible.
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