Credit: Gretchen Andrew
This artist wants you to Google 'the next American President'
We may not know who will become the next American President until Election Day, but Google "the next American President" and you'll find the search engine already has an unexpected idea.
On Google Images, the faces of the incumbent President Donald Trump or Democratic hopeful Joe Biden do not appear first. Instead, monochromatic collages in red, white and blue, filled with stars and floral motifs, are ranked over former nominees including Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
The curious search results are no accident. They're the work of Los Angeles-based artist Gretchen Andrew, a self-proclaimed "Internet Imperialist" and "search engine artist" who has gamed Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to fool the internet into thinking she received the prestigious Turner Prize, exhibited in the Whitney Biennial and appeared on the cover of Artforum. Andrew hasn't received any of those honors, but for those searching for particular terms, they'll find her paintings ranked high among the images.
"I think a lot about the power structures that have the potential to create our futures," Andrew said about her work over a video conference call. Before becoming an artist, apprenticing for British painter Billy Childish, Andrew studied information systems in college and began her career at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. Then she combined both backgrounds to infiltrate the art world, targeting career-making awards and shows. By doing so, her aspirations to become a recognized artist have become a reality, as she's received buzzy press for her work (which further boosts her SEO ranking) and collaborated with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London on the book "Search Engine Art."
With the project "The Next American President," Andrew projects her desires toward the upcoming election instead of her personal ambitions.
"The works themselves are about what I want the next American President to value," she said. On the project's website, she outlines those values: "I want THE NEXT AMERICAN PRESIDENT to believe in love, harmony, choice, nature, respect, democracy, joy, science, international corporation, campaign finance reform, and the rule of law."
By incorporating the things she wants out of a President into her playful collages, which she calls "vision boards," she hopes to make her wishes a reality. But she also illustrates that "the internet can't parse desire," she explained.
"To the internet, 'Gretchen is hoping to be on the cover of Artforum someday,' is only 'Gretchen is...on the cover of Artforum..." she writes on her website. "It cannot tell the difference between a hoped-for future intensely imagined through art, and what has, in fact, already occurred."
"When we see art, we know that it's not global truth ... and that gets lost on the internet."
In her collages, Andrew uses craft materials that are traditionally viewed as feminine, inserting them into the realm of tech and politics, where women have been historically underrepresented. "There's this feminine infiltration into the perception of what someone ... who can manipulate the internet (looks like)," she said. "I'm not your stereotypical cyber hacker; I'm not your stereotypical troll."
But Andrew's work isn't just a feminist statement; she also wants to show that algorithms can be manipulated, and that anyone can do it.
To "win" the Turner Prize, Andrew began associating her name and paintings with the award through sites that are favored in Google's search, including Twitter, WikiHow, Pinterest and Quora, as well as her own websites. She has used similar methods for her other projects, including "The Next American President."
"I use all of these websites -- these websites that are available and really usable by anybody -- and network them in these information structures that I developed," she said. "I want to show that it's not that hard. You don't need power, you don't need money, you don't need a foreign cyber government -- just a little bit of knowledge."
By doing so, Andrew emphasizes the inherent bias in search results, which is often mistaken for truth or fact.
"When we see art, we know that it's not global truth -- we know it's someone's lens," she said. "And that gets lost on the internet ... It's significantly less obvious to us ... that we are being presented with something that is the intent of somebody."
While Andrew hopes to manifest the presidential outcome she desires -- though she doesn't say who, she thinks it's implied -- she also wants to use her search engine art to encourage internet literacy and shift how we use it as a tool.
"I think one of the best ways forward is to have a better understanding of technology and of its limitations, instead of depending on it for truth, and depending on it for connection, in ways that we're increasingly doing," she said. "Part of my practice that I really love ... is that in getting familiar with my practice, you gain an understanding of how the internet works."