conversations – Interview by Margaret Murphy – 09.03.2023
GRETCHEN ANDREW: REMAKING THE GLOBAL INTERNET
WEB3 AND FEMALE IDENTITY
Interview by Margaret Murphy
Gretchen Andrew calls herself an Internet Imperialist. Hacking systems and corporations, breaking algorithmic rules and remaking male internet power structures are on Gretchen’s agenda when trying to make the web a more democratic and female-friendly place. All of this she does with art, code, and glitter, mixing her background in tech with her artistic approach. Gretchen Andrew talks about the intersection of art and technology, reflecting on her gender identity through her work, improving the Internet, and demystifying male-dominated knowledge with Margaret Murphy, Head of Community.
Gretchen Andrew worked as a software engineer at companies like Google, when she started to further explore technology's creative potential in a unique way. Ever since turning her back on huge corporations, Gretchen has been creating art aiming to break power structures underlying the web. In her practice, Gretchen creates mixed media collages or oil paintings using pastel colors, glitter and girly elements, in harsh contrast to the male-dominated field of technology. Hacking and manipulating algorithms in a way to show her artworks to a wider audience than the algorithm is programmed to is an integrated step in Gretchen’s practice. Watching the outcome and remaking the Internet is the final step of her artistic vision.
Margaret Murphy: You have a background in tech—you worked at companies like Intuit and Google as a product manager and software engineer. Ultimately, though, you left Silicon Valley for a world that allowed you to be yourself. Now working as an artist, how do you believe technology can benefit art and vice versa?
Gretchen Andrew: In general, people don't care about what you care about. As artists, unlike companies and politicians, I believe we are not entitled to anyone’s attention. Trust and attention are linked. Attention, like trust, has to be earned and can be disrespected. Companies like Google and Meta constantly abuse our attention and trust. I believe artists have an important role in society and that communicating in areas where the world fails us is part of our job, whether by the poverty of language or imagination. As artists, we have to extend ourselves to go where people are and take them on a journey. The starting place for a conversation about technology is set by the narratives coming out of Silicon Valley, which is where I try to meet and reach people.
MM: Do you consider your art to be a personal reflection of your identity as a woman?
GA: In my practice, I hack systems of power with art, code, and glitter. The result of my work is always a transformation of power. Through my work, I have hacked Google search results for elections, re-drawn political maps, appropriated Instagram tracking technology, and infiltrated power structures in the art world. I have also gone from someone who suffered abuses of power to someone who increasingly holds it.
My identity as a woman is essential to its origins, process, and perpetual outcome. My experiences as a woman have made me personally interested in, even obsessed with, appropriating and subverting powers I used to feel I was at the mercy of. The resulting artistic process is a bouquet of technology-based strategies to combat imbalances of power. Not all women agree with this as a creative or tactical process. I find the implication that all women should agree on the same strategy offensive and deeply limiting. Third-wave feminism was supposed to teach us that not every woman has the same experience and that a diversity of approaches and outcomes has value.
MM: As a female artist working in technology and Web3, have you encountered limitations in this male-dominated arena?
GA: As an artist, I have learned to thrive off of limitations and limiting rules. I start each of my series of works by looking at the rules, algorithms, taxes, gender, art world, politics, and legal system. I then consider how these limitations have been constructed to benefit some and disadvantage others. The fun comes in making the rules do the exact opposite of what they are intended to do, such as using Instagram tracking technology to remind ourselves that we don’t need to buy anything to be happy.
MM: Your VISION BOARDS reimagine reality with art and desire, featuring feminine, often trivialized materials. You then program them to become top internet searches to clash with the male-dominated world of AI, programming, and political control. What motivates your desire for such friction?
GA: Some artists choose to operate outside of systems of power or attack them from the outside. My vision boards interject themselves into Google’s AI data sets and influence the way it thinks and operates. This is to say, I want to get in there and influence it from the inside. I think there's a misunderstanding about how to do this, in AI and in the art world. It is true that a more diverse set of people should have power, but it is also true that to get a seat at the table, to influence AI, you do not have to be invited. One way to speak truth to power is to become powerful.
MM: Through incorporating search engines, advertising and social media platforms in your art, you frequently engage with the users of these technologies. What is the role of the audience in your art?
GA: Arebyte Gallery in London was instrumental early on in helping me identify my practice as digital performance. I call myself an Internet Imperialist because I remake the global Internet in my desired image, insisting that we already live with an Internet made in someone else’s image. Well, why not mine? I am playfully abusing my power. The verbs and actions we associate with power are important. Information is our current battleground, and information imbalances are related to power imbalances. The question of who ends up with the transformed power is important in my work. With AFFIRMATION ADS, I put the power of social media back into the hands of users, allowing them to choose to see positive messages in place of advertisements.
MM: You just mentioned your project AFFIRMATION ADS, digital in-platform advertisements featuring your paintings and inspirational text, which was a response to not wanting "our two choices to be to get off social media altogether or to accept its negative impact on ourselves and others." Do you have hope for the future of social media?
GA: We are suffering in an age where nuance is difficult to hope for in both public and private interactions. Everything computers do is built on a 1s and 0s binary way of thinking. This limitation of technology has seeped into our increasingly divided world. As our technology-based tools know no nuance, we too have dispensed with it. Art, with its endless gray zones, perspectives, and metaphors, is the savior of our current condition. It targets what technology can’t do for us; it reminds us of uncertainty as a form of knowledge, of gray zones, of contradictions that we live better with. Choosing every day not to simplify is both a personal and professional choice for me and a value that will always have its detractors.
MM: Web3 has brought a surge of interest in digital art. How does it feel to see art inspired by technology finally getting recognition?
GA: Digital art has always had its champions; I think of Christine Paul at The Whitney, Bitforms Gallery, London’s Photographer's Gallery, and Arebyte Gallery in London. A lot of us are suffering a bit of whiplash, having spent our careers carefully nurturing digital works, their markets, their display, and their criticism. I am reminded that we need to zoom back out and greet this surge of interest with openness to learn and patience for the conversations to catch up.
MM: What excites you most about NFTs from both an artistic and tech perspective?
GA: Artist resale rights are becoming a standard in all mediums.
MM: Recently, you’ve been spearheading efforts to demystify crypto and NFTs with your Crypto Mermaids project. Why is democratizing new technology important to you?
GA: When Taylor Swift was tired of being portrayed in a certain way, she decided to use the caricature of herself as a character to write about in her song BLANK SPACE. Brilliant. She turned the limiting image into art. But, of course, not everyone got the joke. My artwork takes on the performative guise of being all about me, me, me, my desires, my idea of the future, and what I want. I change global technology systems to make MY dreams come true. Women are taught to make it about others, and I think it's an important feminist stance to play with rejecting this narrative.
But of course, it isn’t all about me, and the Crypto Mermaids were created with my entire studio team (Mia Stern, Imogen Hare, Monique Leong, Maria Peguero, and Eliza Blakemore) to demystify male-dominated knowledge topics, starting with crypto.
There is a good chance we are in the midst of rewriting how the financial system works. And, for the time being, I don't believe that this change will have an impact on who the financial system works best for. Understanding it is our best hope of being empowered by this change.
MM: What do you hope viewers take away from your art?
GA: One of my goals in my art is to be subversively mission-driven and reclaim technology as a positive and more inclusive space. I think the best outcome is that someone feels inspired to use perceived limitations as sources of power.
Gretchen Andrew hacks systems of power with art, code, and glitter. Upon hacking the Frieze Art Fair in 2019 Andrew was catapulted to art world notoriety with international coverage, solo museum exhibitions, prestigious residences, and major acquisitions. She made her first VISION BOARDS in 2020 as part of gazell.io and had subsequent solo exhibitions in California, London, Austria, Germany, and Dubai.