My Instagram ads have felt incredibly seamless lately.
When I first noticed them a few years ago, they evoked a sense of creeping unease (how, exactly, did they know my favourite notebook was reaching its final pages?), but now, I barely register them at all. Cat accounts I follow merge into cat accounts I don’t; pretty influencers morph into makeup ads; writers shape-shift into Insta poets. The perfect intersection of anxiety and desire, these algorithmically-targeted posts feel less like privacy violations and more like natural extensions of my digital presence; they feel like me.
Because, in a sense, they are. As I travel the internet, liking, commenting, bookmarking, shopping, reddit-spiralling, I leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs for trained algorithms to hoover up. Like a web of slime (or stardust — depending on how you see it), my data trail lights up the way for those who know where to look.
And Tara Kelton is looking.
In her show Algo-Portrait, the multimedia artist invites us into the small white space of Mumbai Art Room. Here, we first meet Data Doppelgänger: rows of black text including a long ID number and even longer lists of interests and behaviours (literature, cameras, dogs, politics, and so on). Directly opposite, on the far-side of the room, is a tiny raised square: I barely spot it, but a paper handed to me connects the two works together. I walk across and there she is, Kelton’s data double: the sum of her data points, rendered by digital artist Praveen Chandra. Her doppelgänger sits at a computer wearing a short black dress and graduation cap. The floor is an artist’s palette: on one side sits a dog; on the other, a small robot.
Crowded with numerous bright objects and ideas, the single 3x3” portrait looks like it’s part of a missing grid; in fact, like it fell right out of Instagram.
“I’ve always been interested in invisible structures,” says Kelton. “They’re such enormous forces in our lives and simultaneously so hidden.”
An Indian-American artist living in Bengaluru, Kelton uses her globally showcased work to explore what it means to be human in an increasingly digitised and automated world. In Algo-Portrait, whose collection moves from photographs to digital art to Google Maps, Kelton —with curator Skye Arundhati Thomas — brings to light the unseen algorithmic architecture of our daily lives.
As I walk around the small gallery space, the only visitor on this sunny February morning, the idea that I find myself circling around is data bodies.
For each of our physical bodies, intimacies and experiences, we have several data bodies, too. Ranging from the websites we visit to the CCTV footage we meander into, these digital bodies are not simply extractive data points, but extensions of our very selves. They paint complex portraits of who we are — or at least, who companies believe us to be. Bound up simultaneously in surveillance and agency, our data bodies are everywhere and nowhere at once: the precise space in which Algo-Portrait lives.
A small rose gold iPhone is mounted on the wall, its screen looping a video from inside Sansar, an immersive virtual reality. In The River, we enter a 3D rendering of the Yangtze River, on whose banks a kimono-clad woman paints at her easel. Large rocks, neon grass and purple trees fill the screen, and the painter’s hand rhythmically moves across her canvas. As the camera zooms in, she stares past us: she cannot feel our presence.
We, however, can always feel hers. The tiny phone is positioned in a far corner, but the slowly crescendo-ing music of Sansar forms the soundscape to the gallery. Its ethereal tempo feels natural when I listen alongside the painter, but as I backtrack to Kelton’s data double or stand in front of Black Box: portraits of Uber through the eyes of its Bengaluru-based drivers, the music starts to make me uneasy. This feeling is exacerbated when I discover I cannot film the exhibition without my own reflection, clutching a smartphone, sharing the frame. I feel like I’m part of the show — but I’m not quite sure where I stand.
In 1991, Allucquère Rosanne Stone wrote that “the last of the untouched ‘real-world’” was disappearing, and in its place, “a new and unexpected kind of ‘field’ is opening up.” I think of this while standing in front of Landscapes: childlike line-drawings on large white vinyl sheets. Scribbled flowers, vague hillsides, half-formed humans — this is Sansar reinscribed in 2D. To make the series, Kelton mounted paper on a board, wore a VR headset, and walked around Sansar while effectively drawing “blind.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about how most of our activity online leaves no trace,” the artist explains. “When historians look back at society, they won’t find diaries, letters, or even money. Everything is in our smartphones.” This six-part work acts as “a physical document of virtual reality,” with each carefully labeled drawing (for example: “Beach and fallen sunset. 3. 1. 20”) serving as a diary entry.
Landscapes is an uncanny companion to The River, which is born from the same virtual world, but whose sharp contours and bright colours render it entirely different. And that is, perhaps, the point. The aesthetic diversity of Algo-Portrait — spanning text, digital art, video, oil painting, photographs and drawings — mirrors the complexities of what it means to live in a body today. Traditionally-held ideas of bodily boundaries are giving way to more porous experiences of selfhood, in which we inhabit — and are inhabited by — several entities at the same time.
In her iconic mid-80s text A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway writes, “[In] our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.” Today, this sense of hybridisation is incredibly present in our lives: it’s difficult to tell where I stop and my phone starts, or where my body ends and my data body begins. As Haraway wrote over three decades ago: “the boundary between physical and nonphysical is very imprecise for us.” So how, then, can we paint an accurate portrait?
There’s a flat screen, the size of an iPad, sitting atop a long white stem rising from the floor. Here, I watch Guided Tours, courtesy of Google Street View and Kelton’s keen attention to what it captures. Situated at three locations — the Taj Mahal, Mysore Palace and Gateway of India — these supposedly-neutral 360° videos are physically guided by a man who leads the camera around. The monuments are crowded with hundreds of people: families, friends, children, hawkers. Google blurs their faces, but their bodies, clothes and gestures are undeniably present.
Daisy Hildyard developed a compelling concept she terms “the second body.” She writes: “Your first body is the place you live in, made out of your own personal skin. Your second body is not so solid...but much larger.” Our second bodies are inextricably entwined with the natural world, impacting it at all times. As we walk, shop, eat and make countless mundane decisions, our second bodies are actors in deep environmental destruction: the source of what writer Kyle Chayka calls “an unplaceable anxiety.”
I think about this as I sit on the cool grey floor with my notebook, alone and yet perhaps not at all. As the music from Sansar winds around me, I am acutely aware of all the bodies I’ve encountered in Algo-Portrait, and of my own body too: solid but porous, separate but even so entirely connected to a vast web of others, including the gallery assistant, who sits on a metal chair scrolling through his smartphone.
I do feel anxiety, but I also feel presence and intimacy — things I hadn’t expected to find in a show about algorithms. For Hildyard, the second body isn’t always a site of unremitting dread; it’s also a recognition that our actions and fates are deeply entangled with that of every other being on the planet. And I suppose, for better or worse, with every cyborg’s too.
I decide that after I leave the gallery, I’ll head down to the Gateway of India. I plan to sit among the tourists, families and pigeons, and visualise myself being captured on Google Street View. I’m curious to know whether I’ll feel panic or resignation.
I never find out. Instead, I get into my car, press a button that mechanically rolls up the windows, and use Google Maps to find the quickest route home. The thing is, I’ve already been to Gateway before, several times. Which means that it’s quite possible my data body is still there, a portrait I never sat for, traced forever on to a map whose terrain I cannot know.
In my mind’s eye, I give her a small wave. Her algorithmic edges make me uncomfortable, but the truth is I’ve never encountered a picture of me that doesn’t.
Richa Kaul Padte is the author of Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography (Penguin 2018)
All images courtesy Tara Kelton