“Terms of Use”

I visited “Terms of Use” when the generative AI hype was reaching a crescendo. My Twitter timeline is a gridlock of Silicon Valley promises and AI ethicists debunking them. Uncoincidentally, the platform that orders the arguments is rotten to the core. It is a moment. I am feeling exhausted by tech temporality, which runs at an accelerated capitalist-calibrated pace as innovation and mass experimentation run neck-and-neck. The “glitches” will become evident through trial and error or reveal themselves to be baked-in aspects of widely used systems. Indeed, glitches, perhaps made most interesting through the texture they create in rupturing the sleekness of functionality, are central points of interrogation and play in this exhibition that considers the role of art as a challenge to or extension of technology. To illustrate what they identify as a re-generative potential in contemporary technology, making a space that invites us to “begin again,” co-curators Cheryl Sim and Daniel Fiset carefully selected a diverse group of artists whose approaches range from techno-enthusiasm to digital despair, a spectrum that likely describes the typical love/ hate relationship between users and the ubiquitous technologies with which they are all but obliged to engage.

Installation view, “Terms of Use,” PHI Foundation, Montreal, 2023. Artwork Nico Williams, Special Delivery, 2023. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay. © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art.

The speed at which technology is produced, marketed and applied has the ability to make the events of last week look archaic. This aspect creates challenges when curating an exhibition of art as an expression of technological power or a resistance to it. Recognizing this, I approached the show with caution, as the issues that were salient at the time of curation are not quite the same as those at the time of its viewing, which happens to be one rife with emerging concerns about artificial intelligence in the context of art and beyond. There will be constants, however, and in seeing a range of works that include pieces that span decades, including Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978–1979, a 5-minute, 30-second video featuring Wonder Woman’s alter ego, Diana Prince, repetitively spinning into her hero form, we can begin to chart the media-driven trend of sexualized persona commodification. The video potentializes transformation, inspiring today’s influencer industry of makeup tutorials or luxury-label-clad performances of the curated life.

Ilana Yacine Harris-Babou’s YouTube-style video Decision Fatigue, 2020 (which, for me, was the discreet star of the show), also comments on the influencer in the context of the white-aestheticized wellness culture. She seemingly questions what it is to be “well” and who gets to achieve this state. Harris-Babou claims that many of her ideas revolve around the notion of “taste” as both a sensory experience and a set of opinions or attractions, and that her work often mimics spaces where taste is enacted, such as beauty tutorials, cooking shows or home improvement. Decision Fatigue offers a sampling of each, demonstrated by the artist’s mother, who uses advertisement-industry lexicon to patiently walk the viewer through a number of absurd rituals such as a daily routine for not breastfeeding (this involves chocolate chip soap sourced from the Amazon—“very very pure and natural”); rolling your face before having a TV dinner (“it’s part of a relaxation process”); and preparing and applying a Cheeto face mask (“Cheeto mask: best thing you could do”).

“Terms of Use” also illustrates the slow but steady erosion of consent achieved through the seductive power of novelty that motivates the Internet as both a site of mass surveillance and a dragnet of data collection. Digital mobility, in the sense of moving from site to site, increasingly obliges users to give their email address or accept the parameters of the cookies being used before gaining access to content, and who doesn’t feel the despair-induced fatigue in parsing the difference between “yes” or “no” when the Internet as a whole has been designed as a means of exploitative data brokering. On an occasion in which real-life mobility came to mimic that of virtual life, I was asked for my email and phone number by a staff member at the entrance of the exhibition at the 451 Saint-Jean PHI space. Taken aback by the request (why is this imposition more easily metabolized online?), which I had overheard made of the guests in front of me as well, I asked if everyone was being asked for this information. “Yes” was the response, as though it were the most normal thing ever. I did not ask for what purpose the information would be used or where it would be stored. I accepted the cookies; I entered the space (but not unaffected by the terms of entrance/use).

Installation view, “Terms of Use,” PHI Foundation, 2023. Artwork Mara Eagle, Unholy Ghost, 2023. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay. © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art.

Installation view, “Terms of Use,” 2023, PHI Foundation. Artwork left: Francisco González- Rosas, Dismembered Fixations, 2023. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay. © PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art.

It could be because of this rough passage (this glitch) in which I witnessed my transformation from body to data or one in possession of data (it’s difficult to divide the container from the contents these days), coupled with my fear of entering a labyrinth of screens at a time in my life when I feel particularly screen-averse, that I was so thankful to immediately come upon Special Delivery, 2023, a hand-beaded replica of a small Amazon shipping box by Nico Williams, an Ojibwe artist from Aamjiwnaang First Nation. It made a delightful yet poignant statement on the invisible labour of production and a virtual marketplace that facilitates an economy that simultaneously depends on and devalues humans, while enabling a “no-contact” exchange of money for goods. I also appreciated the texture of the beaded sculpture, which interrupted the smoothness of the many screen-based works, their flat displays serving as both a reflective and projective threshold between the real and the virtual, whose degrees of separation became increasingly incremental. Contemplating such divisions brought upon by the “remote” demands of the pandemic, Brendan Fernandes’s ongoing The Left Space, 2020–, a choreographed webcam performance arranged in the grid formation of Zoom, which in its original iteration connected dancers in their homes around the world, reflects on the limits and possibility of community building beyond physical gathering spaces at a time when solidarity is much needed.

There were many ambitious works in “Terms of Use,” which, rather than operating in conversation, seemed at times to be in competition with one another (not unlike the Internet). Each piece required considerable effort to process, so that at a certain point my “internal drive” was full. Some rooms filled me with impatience as I fiddled with virtual reality goggles or struggled to remain still long enough to take in a video that would grant me sufficient understanding of its global context (I found myself compelled to “scroll”). I felt a little dejected by the end of it. Rather than intending this comment as a criticism, it is rather a mark of the show’s efficacy in recreating a physical space that mimics digital characteristics and evokes human responses to those features. My relationship with art and technology is often described by impatience, loneliness, a deficit of attention or lack of understanding. The show made me consider more deeply why that is. Finally, I felt that the exhibition worked best as a hybrid model, with the physical site serving as an introductory catalogue that inspired further research. Following my visit, I sourced most of the works on the Internet and revisited them at home on my own terms and took note of how some pieces actually worked better on a smaller, more intimate screen. As such, “Terms of Use” provokes another important aspect of technology—as an elastic bridge between public and private spaces. It reminds us that fast-paced tech offers more than a sleek surface when appreciated in slow time. ❚

“Terms of Use/Conditions d’utilisation” was exhibited at PHI Foundation, Montreal, from March 9, 2023, to July 9, 2023.

Tracy Valcourt lives and writes in Montreal.