Trapped in the Presence

In 2008, the New York-based artist Andrew Norman Wilson lost his job at Google after he had started to interview the yellow-badged scanner workers charged with the task of scanning countless pages for the Google Books project. They were mostly people of color and had no access to the Google privileges, the Google bikes, or Google meals, which the white, red, or green-badged workers enjoy. Leaving at the same time each day, their departure from the Google campus formed a movement of its own, which Wilson captured in his film Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011). The artist also collected »anomalies« from the scanning process, in which the workers hands were accidentially visible, and developed the photo series ScanOps (2012–ongoing). The works created a stir in the media, leading to much coverage on the subject.

Wilson’s work questions the structures of information, power, labor, capitalism, ownership, and a society ruled by global digital corporate elites such as Google. He presented his latest project within the framework of this topic, a lecture collage titled Movement Materials and What We Can Do (2015), at the symposium (Re-)Constructing Authorship in late 2015 at Akademie Schloss Solitude for the first time; it addresses the intertwining concerns of both Workers Leaving the Googleplex and ScanOps. – An interview published in the Schlosspost issue »Authorship«

Clara Herrmann: Your project Movement Materials and What We Can Do opens up many different layers related to questions of authorship in processes of production that are shaped by the (unfair) division of labor. What were the crucial questions you pursued while you were working on this project.

Andrew Norman Wilson: In Movement Materials and What We Can Do, I attempted to conflate corporate, academic, and artistic lecture techniques to address the intertwining concerns of my projects Workers Leaving the Googleplex and ScanOps. Considerations and various histories of film/video, photography, and publishing media are addressed, emphasizing the materiality of both analog and digital media and the labor processes they entail. The project as a whole engages with matter, matters of concern, and things excluded from mattering (in an effort to make them matter).

CH: How did you develop the material for the photographic series ScanOps? What was the process of your work production?

ANW: I have been collecting »anomalies« from Google Books for a couple of years: images in which software distortions, the imaging site, or the hands of the Google employees doing the scanning are visible. The fingers and software distortions obscure the information in the books – which complicates the notion of universally accessible knowledge.

So, production starts before I get involved. The books are photographed at the libraries where they are stored, or are shipped to the Google Books facilities to be photographed. Software auto-corrects and converts the images and uploads them online. I browse for images that fulfill my criteria, download them, convert the pages I want, and edit out the Google watermark. There’s no resizing or additional editing.

Next I have them inkjet-printed to scale, they are mounted and sent to the framers, who make a custom frame for each print. Then I bring the prints to Home Depot, and pick a color from each print for them to match. They mix up the paint in that color and I bring everything to an autobody shop, where the frames are sprayed in their respective colors.

I’m choosing materials and production processes – some of them subcontracted to other people – that allow the materiality of the work to be emphasized. There are also pre-existing conditions that communicate that for me, and I let them alone – for instance, leaving the images at their original size keeps them in direct correlation to the printed matter they came from. In a gallery or on the page of a magazine, each work occupies a unique volume of space, and so when put together their spatial/sculptural qualities are emphasized.

CH: The scanner workers, who scan books page by page for Google Books, seem to represent the lowest class in the Google empire, without the privileges of the other workers: no Google meals, no Google bikes …You were also a Google employee: What was your role at Google? How did you start your project with the ScanOps workers and what were the responses?

ANW: In 2011, I made a video called Workers Leaving the Googleplex. I worked for a year in 2007–8 on Google’s campus. While there, I wore a red badge – like most other contracted employees. The full-time Google employees wore white badges, and interns wore green badges. In the video, these »classes« of employees are seen passing by, entering, and exiting buildings at the Googleplex. Some of them ride Google loaner bikes; some are seen getting into a Google limo shuttle headed toward San Francisco. Some of them are leaving work; some may be walking to another building to exercise in one of the Google gyms or pick up their laundry; some may be just arriving at the Google campus to eat a free meal from one of the 20 gourmet cafés after a day of working at home.

But from my office, I noticed a fourth class of workers operating in the building next to where I worked; they wore yellow badges. They stood out on the Google campus because of their races – many are people of color – and their attire, which was not that of the usual tech worker. In the Workers Leaving video, the yellow-badge employees are seen leaving the one building they are allowed access to. They all leave at the same time every day – 2:15 pm – because their superiors have asked them to. It is a separate departure time from the other workers, so their exit is its own »movement.«

I started to document and talk to the ScanOps employees – but was fired rather quickly. It was intended to be a larger project, but it ended up being quite simple and limited because I wasn’t left with much more than my footage and my account of what happened. It went viral in April of 2011, and you can read a lot of the responses here, though to my knowledge only Marissa Meyer, a VP with Google at the time acknowledged the video, tweeting a link to it with the phrase »interesting perspective.«

CH: Workers Leaving the Googleplex refers to the most famous example of early cinema, the 1895 film La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon by the Lumière brothers, that shows, in 50 seconds, workers leaving the photographic Lumière factories. As well as to Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory from 1995. How do you build up a cinematic and also conceptual connection here?

ANW: In Farocki’s 1995 film Workers Leaving the Factory, he discusses how in the Lumière brothers’ film, also called Workers Leaving the Factory (1895), the primary aim was to represent motion; in particular to create an image of a work force in motion, organized by the work structure (a temporal construct), the factory gates (a spatial grouping), and the filmmakers’ choreography of this time-space relationship. But of course moving images don’t only represent movement, they can also grasp for concepts. This is what Farocki’s film is about – how signs and symbols are taken from reality, as if »the world itself wanted to tell us something.« He uses a particular motif in film history – that of workers leaving the factory – to interpret what the world is telling us.

The Lumières’ Workers and my own each present the social and technological conditions of their time. Both represent movement – but in my representation of movement, we see clearly defined tiers of workers … so the movement is »scripted« by what class they are in.

CH: You also mention the project Afterwalkerevans, which consists of re-photographed and scanned photos from the 1930s and comments on how we come to know information in the digital age. What is your statement as an artist here concerning copyright, reproduction, authorship, and ownership?

ANW: As an artist, I think that following the rules regarding all of the above will just slow me down and reduce potential impact. Lying and stealing are fine as long as you’re being intelligent about the effects.

CH: With the words »who controls the present controls the past,« you quote George Orwell in Workers Leaving the Googleplex. In what way are you referring here to the Google Books project becoming a dominant digital archive of the world’s books?

ANW: The quote is made by George Orwell in 1984. Though it’s just employed as science fiction at this point. Google is in the sole possession of the means of search and distribution for most of the books published in the United States in the twentieth century. For the first time, elements of public library collections are offered for sale through a private contractor, with additional revenue coming in from the ad space for sale next to the online books.

CH: You also address the relation between »us« and Google in your project, between work, power, information, and our performance within Google’s information environment. What is our role here »trapped in the presence« as it says in Workers Leaving the Googleplex?

ANW: Everyone who uses Gmail, Google Docs, Google Books, Blogger, YouTube, etc. becomes a knowledge worker for the company. We’re all performing freelance data entry. Where knowledge is perceived as a public good, Google gathers its income from the exchange of information and knowledge, creating additional value in this process. Google, as we know it and use it, is a factory.