Thursday, October 21—Saturday, October 23
8:00 pm—9:00 pm
Amant (East Williamsburg), 306 Maujer St, Brooklyn, NY 11206
In Amazon (Proxy), Danielle Dean combines the history of Fordlândia, a short-lived rubber plantation established in the 1920s by Henry Ford in the Brazilian rainforest, with today’s operations of the e-commerce company Amazon. Taking place both in person and live streamed online, the performance draws on the interwar historical events that Dean reinterprets to create a drama that reflects on our current modes of working and socializing remotely.
Dean came across Fordlândia while researching the archives of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. There, she discovered that in 1928, the U.S. car manufacturer founded the Brazilian settlement with the intention to extract rubber for his company’s car tires while imposing his managerial and hygienist agenda on the local workforce. In Fordlândia, Michigan factory working hours were enforced despite the tropical climate and indigenous botanical knowledge—such as sensible spacing of trees—was dismissed. Eventually, the workers rebelled and the plantation fell prey to tree blight. Facing a fiasco, the American industrialist abandoned the camp in 1934.
Simultaneously, Dean has been studying the new set of organizational and technological principles put in place by the American tech giant Amazon through its crowdsourcing marketplace of online “click workers”: the “Amazon Mechanical Turk” (AMT). Founded in 2005, the website allows individuals and businesses to outsource their jobs to a globally distributed workforce who can perform “Human Intelligence Tasks,” or HITs, at home, in their own time. In the past decade, it has increasingly become a platform on which humans train Artificial Intelligence (AI) in campaigns of data collection. Through tasks, questionnaires, and surveys, the website extracts human emotions from its “Turkers” (or “AMT workers”) to produce a “smarter,” more “sensitive” AI. By completing millions of HITs, gig workers are helping to develop a world where labor is being automated through AI.
With this website, Amazon has reconfigured the typical Fordist assembly line into a globally fragmented yet deeply intertwined system of Turkers, all working from home—a phenomenon amplified by the 2020 global lockdown. In an attempt to break this logic of individualization, Dean has brought together AMT workers from around the world, such as Brazil-born Greg living in Cantabria, Spain; Amy from Portland, Oregon; Hunter from Atlanta, Georgia; and Elizabeth from West Virginia. Together and through a series of collaborative workshops over the course of two years, they have been building a new body of work encompassing drawings, sculptures, videos, and photographs.
In Amazon (Proxy), her first large-scale live performance, Dean asks four actors to stand in for Amy, Elizabeth, Greg, and Hunter. In their assembly line enclave set up in a lush artificial forest, they are AIs in the making, seeking to learn from their human counterparts as they reenact real episodes of Fordlândia’s history. In between reboots and software upgrades, they respond to Human Intelligence Tasks or complete emotional baseline surveys and racial bias questionnaires (material Dean found on the AMT platform) to emulate each AMT worker and try to become fully individualized AIs.
Amazon Mechanical Turk workers are actively engaged in improving their working conditions. If you are interested in learning more, please visit https://blog.turkopticon.net.
Amazon Mechanical Turk (www.mturk.com) is a crowdsourcing website for businesses (known as “Requesters”) to hire remotely located "crowdworkers" to perform discrete on-demand virtual tasks that computers are currently unable to do such as identifying specific content in an image or video, writing product descriptions, or answering questions.
Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining information or input into a task or project by enlisting the services of a large number of people, either paid or unpaid, typically via the internet.
The name Mechanical Turk is inspired by an eighteenth-century chess-playing automaton known as the “Turk” or “Mechanical Turk” that toured Europe playing and defeating many human challengers. It was later revealed that this "machine" was, in fact, a human chess master hidden in the cabinet beneath the board and controlling the movements of a humanoid dummy. Likewise, the Amazon Mechanical Turk service uses remote human labor hidden behind a computer interface to help employers perform tasks that are not possible with a machine.
Crowdworkers of the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform are colloquially known as AMT workers or Turkers. They can browse among existing jobs or “HITs” (Human Intelligence Tasks) and complete them in exchange for a rate set by the employer or “Requester.” Turkers work from their homes for meager wages with no benefits. They are not employees of Amazon, but independent gig-workers.
A HIT, or Human Intelligence Task, is a single, self-contained, virtual task that a Turker can work on, submit an answer, and collect a reward for completing. HITs are created by Requesters.
A CAPTCHA, the acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart," is a type of challenge and response test used in computing to determine whether or not the user is human.
A bot or “Internet bot,” “web robot,” or “robot,” is a software application that runs automated tasks over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are simple and repetitive much faster than a person could. The most extensive use of bots is for web crawling, in which an automated script fetches, analyzes and files information from web servers. More than half of all web traffic is generated by bots.
Concept and direction: Danielle Dean
Theatrical direction: Mireya Lucio
Choreography: Sandella Malloy
With actors Emily Barkovic, Austin Davis, Ava Rose Paul, and Manik Singh Anand
Featuring Amazon Mechanical Turk workers Amy Cutler, Hunter Keels, Elizabeth Rhodes, and Greg Vendramini
Script by Danielle Dean, Mireya Lucio, and the Amazon Mechanical Turk workers
Musical performance: Mustafa Faruki
Curated by Charles Aubin, Senior Curator & Head of Publications
Producer: Sheridan Telford
Performa 2021 Biennial Fellow: steph christ
Production assistants: Michael Heinz, Kalina Winters, and Edythe Woolley
Technical direction: Andre Ferreira
Lighting designer and operator: Andre Ferreira
Assistant light designer: Dominick Chang
Lighting technician: Ed Charrette
Broadcast technical director and PTZ camera operator: Kyle Harrigan
Audio engineer: Vincent Dee
Stage manager: Madeleine Joyce
Lead stagehand: Corey Hucks
Video editing: Conrad Jones
Amazon Mechanical Turk workers cinematographer: Conrad Jones
Forest cinematographer: Luis Guizar
Sound design: John Somers
Many thanks to Lonti Ebers, Ruth Estévez, Isabella Nimmo, Nick Pilato, Vivyan Zhang, and Tony Limauro at Amant for their immediate enthusiasm for Amazon (Proxy) and wonderful support over the past year. Special thanks to Ben Hartley at the National Arts Club and LeighAnne Tucci at 28 Liberty.
The artist would like to thank Manuel Shvartzberg Carrió, Sophia Lee, Luisa Aguilar-Solis, Jamie Kenyon and Oliver Newton at 47 Canal, Kibum Kim and Young Chung at Commonwealth and Council, Alejandro Romo, Lilly Irani and turkopticon, and Wajid Mohammed.
Amazon (Proxy) by Danielle Dean is co-commissioned by Performa and Tate Britain and co-presented with Amant. It is supported by Toby Devan Lewis, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Amant.
Amazon (Proxy) is recipient of the Tomorrowland Projects Foundation Award. A second chapter will be presented at Tate Britain in a solo exhibition by Danielle Dean in January 2022.
British-American artist Danielle Dean (b.1982, @danielleadean) studied Fine Art at Central St Martins in London and received her MFA from California Institute of the Arts. She has been a Whitney Independent Study Program Fellow in New York and is an alum of the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. Dean currently teaches at the University of California San Diego. Recent solo exhibitions include “Trigger Torque” at Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen, Germany (2019), “A Portrait of True Red” at Cranbrook Art Museum in Detroit (2018), and “Bazar” at 47 Canal in New York (2018). Danielle Dean’s work was featured in recent group exhibitions such as “Freedom of Movement” at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and “Knock Knock” at the South London Gallery (both 2018). Dean lives and works in Los Angeles, California.
The land on which the Performa 2021 Biennial takes place is part of the ancestral homelands of the Lenape peoples, the Indigenous peoples of this land. Performa acknowledges the continued displacement of Indigenous peoples and pays respect to the Lenape peoples’ past, present, and future in their homelands and throughout the Lenape diaspora.