art projects
The Fussy Eye: Have You Got a Minute?

Seattle Weekly, Sept 22, 2015

General Intellect

Courtesy James Coupe/Aktionsart

“It’s very voyeuristic. It’s very weirdly intimate,” says artist and UW professor James Coupe of his new storefront video installation in the heart of Amazonland. At the opening last week, on a very rainy Thursday evening, few of the passing tech workers paused to inspect the 18 screens, which are playing a selection from a database of 3,000 videos measuring 60 seconds each. They won’t see any familiar faces on those monitors. Yet General Intellect was created, Coupe explains, using an Amazon service: Mechanical Turk, launched in 2005, which matches up menial but intelligent tasks—such that a computer couldn’t do—with a global pool of pieceworkers. “It’s about making them visible. Ingrained in the system is exploitation. Most of them are extremely low-paid,” he says of these anonymous contractors. (Many, no surprise, are in India.)

To create this piece, he designed a list of jobs—or “human intelligence tasks,” aka HITs in Amazon-speak—to be performed at a flat fee of $3 for eight one-minute videos. (Other task masters pay much less.) “Relatively speaking, $3 adds up to more than minimum wage,” he notes—roughly $24 per hour. And Coupe’s 13 “database queries” are deliberately simple and domestic, consonant with what his subjects would ordinarily be doing with their downtime. Examples include date night, eBay, boredom, and reading.

Thus we see parents with children, cats being fed, toothbrushing, and other familiar household scenes. The video quality is poor, but General Intellect gives us a privileged, discomfiting view into the global sweatshop economy, like going home with a Foxconn or maquiladora worker after their shift. We see “a kind of diaristic quality,” says Coupe, an exploration “of what makes us human, which no algorithm can generate. In a somewhat Marxist tradition, he’s assigning a market value to this at-home surplus labor. But the same question applies to us all: What’s our time really worth? (The gallery is housed in an old building soon to become apartments filled with Amazonians. “It’s basically going to run until they tear down the building,” says Coupe of his installation.) Aktionsart, 201 Westlake Ave. N., aktionsart.org. Free. Noon–5 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. Ends Oct. 3 (or later).

Brian Miller is Arts Editor for Seattle Weekly (bmiller@seattleweekly.com, 206-467-4372).