Interview with Micheal Do


The Invisible Hand considers how digital platform technologies are exploiting technological convenience to co-opt personal data in an uncertain zero-sum game. With work from Australia, New Zealand, Korea and Japan, this exhibition explores current and projected complications and contradictions in the digital realm that increasingly oscillate between technological evangelism and scepticism.

Curated by Micheal Do, with the curatorial assistance of Isabel Rouch.

What processes or moments for you led to the conceptualisation of The Invisible Hand?

The exhibition The Invisible Hand borrows its name from 18th-century economist Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. Smith’s well-known theory holds that unintended consequences of human intervention in a market economy can create seismic shifts in history and human development. Smith’s invisible hand rests on two foundational premises: that economic actors are self-determined in pursuing their own goals, and that these goals are necessarily self-centered and self-interested. When thinking about global digital platform companies, the self-interest in which they operate is highly analogous to Smith’s concept of the invisible hand. In this way, I wanted to use this economic theory as a springboard to provide context to the modern-day phenomenon of the digital platform company. This is how I conceptualised the title of the exhibition. 

The Invisible Hand, installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, July 2019. Left Wall Front: Sunwoo Hoon, Flat is the new deep, 2018, digital drawing, dimensions variable. Commissioned by the Gwangju Biennale, 2018 with support from Christina H. Kang. Courtesy the artist. Left Wall Far: Sunwoo Hoon and Mijoon Pak,Flat Earth, 2019, digital drawing, dimensions variable. Commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, Australia. Courtesy the artists. Back Wall: Baden Pailthorpe, One and Three PCs, 2019. Commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, Australia. Supported by In-win. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney. Image: Kai Wasikowski

Our era has been described as the era of Big Data by some.  In this ‘deluge of data’, every click, scroll and swipe is collected– connecting individuals across both time and space. There is a kind of intimacy in these moments of hyper-connection, which are at times useful, but also potentially dubious. In ‘Big Data as Drama’, Wendy Chun describes this close proximity as a “wonderful creepiness of networks”. 

You have written that “everyday our connected devices generate some 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, creating a rapidly expanding field of human communication and providing unparalleled insights into our lives.”

In what ways do you see Big Data linking ourselves to the world, and to others?

In our post-digital-platform age, the course of economics, politics and social relations can be changed in a matter of keystrokes. Against this information landscape, global platform companies hold extraordinary influence while not bearing the same oversight, accountability and responsibility as traditional decision-makers. Big Data has revolutionised and continues to revolutionise in which we—as citizens and users — and nation states—both as jurisdictions and users— are engaging with one another. 

In the exhibition, there are a range of projects that present a wide spectrum of perspectives on the role and function of platform technology companies. Some artists touch on the idea of the surveillance economy; other artists explore pressing the issues of artificial intelligence and machine learning, while other artists take a more macro approach, unpacking the productive and dystopic aspects to the technology. 

The Invisible Hand, installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, July 2019. Baden Pailthorpe, One and Three PCs, 2019, digital imagery produced by a DCGAN machine learning algorithm, various LED screens, In-Win Z Tower, Threadripper 2970WX, ASUS RGB 64GB, 2 x AMD Radeon VII, 2 x WD Black 1TB NVMe, ASIS ROG Thor 1200W Platinum, Themaltake Ring Trio, CableMod Pro Sleeved Cables, Custom 7”screen (running Aida64). PC build: Stuart Tonks, GGF LAN Party; AI assistance Dr Charles Gretton, ANU; Kieran Browne, ANU; Network architecture by Radford et al., 2015. Code: Commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, Australia. Supported by In-win. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney. Image: Kai Wasikowski

By way of example, we’ve commissioned Australian artist Baden Pailthorpe’s One and Three PCs (2019). The installation comprises an elaborate computer system whose sole purpose is to self-generate an image of itself. Using an image-generating AI program, Deep Convolutional General Adversarial Network, Palithorpe’s simulacra is a humorous take on the infinite loop of self-referential behavior and a portentous look into a future where the capabilities of AI will surpass human control and understanding. Seducing us with the sheen of its metallic exoskeleton and warm glow of coloured lights, One and Three PCs gives external form to its internal programming architecture and in so doing invites probing examination. 

There is a sense of precarity and ambivalence in the way that The Invisible Hand wavers between ‘technological evangelism and scepticism’, innovation and unease. The exhibition is quite nuanced and complex in the way it negotiates conversations around technology. 

Often, conversations around technology are positioned in two camps- on the one hand, a kind of techno-utopia or optimism that favours progress and innovation, and on the other techno-pessimism, concerned with questions of surveillance, control, and information inequity. 

How do you position The Invisible Hand  in relation to this discourse?

I asked each of the artists to exhibit works that are subtly subversive investigations into the potential risks and rewards of the platform technology companies. I wanted to offer a delicate and nuanced interpretation of these platforms, documenting the different ways in which users are engaging with them. While I personally have a position, I wanted to offer our audiences the catalyst to inform their own opinions a little further. Ultimately as users, whether we choose to uncritically adapt or challenge the limits of their value is the central question of our age. How we confront this issue is at the heart of the exhibition and at the heart of each artist’s discussion of the issue. 

The Invisible Hand, installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, July 2019. Front: Simon Denny, Shenzen Mass Entrepeneurial Huaqiangbei Market Counter in OCT Theme Park Style – Battery, 2017, airbush on synthetic plaster, illuminated plinth, 125 x 132 x 68 cm. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts Sydney. Back wall projection: Simon Denny, Real Mass Entrepreneurship, 2017, video, 14:23. Courtesy the artist and Fine Arts, Sydney. Image: Kai Wasikowski

What points of connection (or perhaps disconnection) can you draw between the works in this exhibition, in their negotiation of the social and political implications of technology? 

I’ll explain this by example. Often when speaking of the way the internet has transformed our lives, the impact upon the very people that are involved in its functions is often obscured or ignored. For this reason, the work of New Zealand-born Simon Denny is so pertinent. In The Invisible Hand, 4A is exhibiting works from his Real Mass Entrepreneurship (2017) series. Made following a residency in Shenzhen—the first of China’s special economic zones (SEZ) — the work explores the changing world of labour relations with the rise of platform companies. With a macro focus on Huaqiangbei, a subdistrict of Shenzhen, Denny presents compelling insights into the working lives of factory employees and tech entrepreneurs alike. The installation comprises sculptural facsimiles of showcases associated with tech street vendors, alongside recorded interviews with his subjects. Real Mass Entrepreneurship draws out the human implications of increased automisation and the relentless drive for innovation that defines Shenzhen’s social fabric as a microcosm of a world to come.

The Invisble Hand is showing at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (Sydney) until 4 August 2019, featuring artists Simon Denny, exonemo, Sunwoo Hoon & Mijoon Pak, Baden Pailthorpe. 

Tanushri Saha

Author: Tanushri Saha

Tanushri Saha is a writer and visual artist based in Sydney. Her practice explores science fiction, futurism, ecologies, and questions of decolonisation. Tanushri holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Cultural Studies, and is currently undertaking a Master of Design at the University of Sydney. Her work has appeared in Pencilled In, Hermes, Melbourne Art Week, Verge Gallery, and Women of Color in Solidarity (NY).

Your thoughts?