Previously you asked someone to write your memoirs, The Outage, based on your digital footprint, it became a strangely personal yet distant narrative... In a way the new work builds on that, rather than asking a human person you use computer programmes to create a narrative, a history, or an archive, of your online activities. Although at first it may look random, for me, the associations that emerge between texts, image and text (from meta-data to comments), or in the juxtaposition of images, there is a subtlety, humour and self-mockery that seems natural, but being aware of the learning process behind, creates a eerie feeling or tension between human and machine agency. Asking the question, how much influence do you still have? Do you think that this is still a collaborative process – meaning working together towards a common goal, based on more or less equal terms – or does the one gain in agency over the other?

The tension between human and machine agency, and in the increasing impossibility of making a distinction between them has played an important role in many of past works. I try to explore these tensions, using processes like predictive text, or profiling at a personal level to question in broader terms what non-human perception, agency and intelligence could be. The dangers of apportioning too much agency to machines can be clearly seen in the context of warfare, where delegating responsibility to drones glosses over the entirely social, political and human logic driving their calibration, and also in things like automated forms which determine what benefits, health care or housing citizens are entitled to.

A lot of my work includes working with other people in some way, often subtly contrasting the completion of tasks by human and non-human agents. For example, in the project So Like You, while I initially used my images to search online, I then asked the people whose pictures came up as ‘similar’ to go through their own archives to find a similar image, thereby asking them to act almost like human search engines. With the Dark Archives, by inviting the writers to speculate on and imagine what is missing from a particular archive, I am similarly asking them to deduce the logic of the algorithm's operation, to work out what it includes and excludes.

You have stated elsewhere that the “devices we share so much intimate time with are actively involved in shaping what we consider to be our ‘selves,’ our identities” (Rhizome interview), reflecting back on some of your previous works and the current one for Het Nieuwe Instituut, I can imagine, even though there is a privileged position from which you are doing them, that these processes affect you, as an individual?

Yes, it's true that I've found unexpected effects come out of some of my projects, what I think of as their 'emergent phenomena' - the attributes, or outcomes, particularly at an affective or emotional level, that were not designed into the system or experiment. Of course there are wider emergent properties of a technologically-mediated world; for example, the affective responses to, let's say, being on Twitter (anxiety is a common one!) were not necessarily anticipated beforehand and only emerged through usage. Most of my work deals with these 'psychotechnical vulnerabilities', often performing of gestures of risk in relation to them. For example in The Outage, giving my private data and online presence to a ghostwriter to fashion into my fictional memoir, could be seen as enacting a wider societal fear of digital violation and identity theft, even just the fear that someone else could access your emails. But also, what emerged from this project, which I did not anticipate at all, was how self-conscious it made me feel. It was a feeling that I had been objectified, made into an image that I wasn't in control of; and as the book’s narrative involves a sort of death, there was a feeling that 'my' data body had been killed off in some way, an experience that was both exhilarating and stressful.

Also, a lot of my projects require personal involvement, which, since they often relate directly to me, create some sort of emotional stress or at least affective charge. For example, the correspondence with strangers, giving and asking them personal things, addressing them in the right way, being available over email - all these are actions whose effects cannot be accurately quantified or even directly visible, yet are crucial for projects to run smoothly. Like emotional labour, traditionally gendered as female and unpaid/ undervalued, this work tends to fall under the radar, becoming invisible. In general I'm interested in directly addressing the often unseen work of maintaining and caring for sociotechnical infrastructures.

In what ways has The Outage influenced the current project the Dark Archives?

In both projects, there is a common concern with what could be called automatic archives - the personal and public data, including photos, that we accumulate simply by being alive, and moving through digitized space. And both projects employ an outsider to speculate on and fabricate their own 'version' of my biography, reflecting my interest in life-writing as essentially performative rather than descriptive: we don't just tell the story of our lives, as if there is one singular story that exists prior to its representation in literary or photographic form, but through the telling of that particular story, make it a reality.

As explained previously, in The Outage, I gave a total stranger access to collections of my intimate data- everything from URL histories to Amazon recommendations and Facebook archives- while inviting them to use these plus any information freely available online, to fashion a portrait of me, which was then published as a paperback. In this sense they we were given control over my image, which is to give them authority over a crucial aspect of personhood- the power to fashion a profile, at a time when countless 'profiles' of everyone online exists, both intentional (e.g. a Facebook profile) or not (insurance profiles, used to determine the value of potential customers). Moving through digital space what profiles are created of us, and for what purpose? Who gets to author his or her own images, or their own profile? I gave up the agency to my own image. At the same time, the very gesture of 'giving it away' implies that I do own my image in the first place, an assumption that reflects a privileged position not shared by all members of society.

With the change to digital archives, similar to traditional archives sources may remain intact, but their existence is constantly changing and dynamic. This is something that is clearly visible in your project. So, what does this mean for one of the main tasks of an archive – a place to store memories, what happens when a memory vault, changes into something fluid and processual? In other words, what do you think it means when archives are thought of in terms of (re)production or creation systems instead of representation or memory systems?

In a sense, it may be that archives, like knowledge and autobiographies, are also potentially performative, as opposed to strictly descriptive. French philosopher Jacques Derrida suggests as much when saying “the archivisation produces as much as it records the event.” Perhaps every document creates (rather than describes or illustrates) the event; every search creates an archive, and every archive gives rise to a different reality. Search queries both create an archive and are potentially archival material in themselves, and as Derrida says, the archiving itself is productive of events, historical and otherwise. 

This also relates to my interest in intimate data, the archive of our personal information, which constantly expanding or contracting, and also mutable, depending on what search is undertaken. One thing that is obvious to search with now may not be fifty years from now: every historic era creates new search terms, new lenses with which to read the past. The cycles of music and fashion, the threads that carry through and are picked up years later attest to the unanticipated interpretation of contemporary life through the eyes of future generations. Every archive could be said to nest potentially limitless archives within it, lending it an unfinished or semi-fictional quality.

The dark archive seemed to encapsulate many of these ideas: a hidden, yet existing archive, whose contents may be retrieved at some future point but for now are inaccessible. What agency do these - and by extension, all other - unintelligible and obscured entities exert, if any? Is there a something that cannot be captured, quantified, translated? And if there is, how do we acknowledge that refusing visibility and capture is itself a privileged position, grounded in an almost Romantic/ heroic (i.e. usually coded as white, male) ideal of seeking that which can never be represented, commodified, put into words (and sold back to us as t-shirts/ adverts/ lifestyle signifiers...).

As blockchain technologies become more widespread, meaning that a permanent record exists of any transaction made, it could be that contrary to past fears of data being tampered with, new issues will arise out of the impossibility of deletion. If every digital asset or transaction - including identity - can be traced, there are obvious political implications around visibility and the right - or at least desire - to be forgotten, or unseen.

Annet Dekker