Process: Caroline Sinders On Expanded Documentary
How an artist informs her process with critical design, research, and data
By tywen kelly
Process is a new series that builds on the the themes of the Gray Area Festival 2020: Radical Simulation, using immersive worldbuilding to reimagine adjacent possible presents. Process asks artists to narrate the chronology of specific works, from inspirations to iterations to incarnations. By telling the story of how new media art is made, Process spotlights the side of it which is soft, ever in flux, and most importantly, made by people.
How do you make art across many mediums, delve into a range of motifs, and come out the other side with a cohesive oeuvre? Caroline Sinders knows how. Sinders is a cross-disciplinary artist of many talents: she writes research papers, creates data sculptures (Between Systems and Selves), installs interactive experiences (Higher Resolutions), and hosts long-running conversations (Feminist Data Set). She engages with topics like artificial intelligence, human rights centered design, and online harassment. Despite the range of themes and materials, Sinders treats each with the same degree of rigor. Behind every piece is devotion to thoroughness. No stone is left unturned.
Caroline Sinders is both a practicing artist and a researcher at Convocation Design + Research, an agency she founded which focuses on the intersections of machine learning, user research, designing for public good, and solving difficult communication problems. She will share her knowledge across these fields in her new course at Gray Area on Ethics In UX: Human Rights & Privacy starting on April 17th. I spoke with Caroline to discuss her artistic process and its roots.
For some artists it’s easy to say, “they’re a sculptor,” or “they’re a writer,” or “they’re a teacher.” I feel like your work spans everything. If you had to put a label to it, what would you say you do?
I’m pretty medium agnostic. I describe or think of my work as either translating or telling stories about really complex things. I started my career off as a photojournalist, and then I got a master’s in interactive technology. I like to use aspects or rubrics of research and journalism and apply them to tech art. A good friend of mine, Anna Riddler, describes my work as “expanded documentary,” which I think is a very, very eloquent way to describe what I do.
What does “expanded documentary” mean?
All my projects are really constrained by data. They’re really constrained by research. And I think a lot of my work is sort of direct in a way because it’s really constrained by data, but I want it to be constrained. I feel like a lot of the more traditional art or fine art, even if it’s like tech based art, ends up being a poetic interpretation of an idea. And I feel like my work doesn’t want to be a poetic interpretation. It wants to be a poetic analogy of data, or rather, it wants to be closely tied to data.
This is where expanded documentary is a really good framing for my work, because I want to have a conversation, and I want to have that conversation under the auspices of research driven critical design. So if a lot of poetic art is a sentence, or a tweet about a subject, I’m much more interested in writing an essay about that subject. As an artist I’m interested in not just making work about research, I’m interested in generating the research and then making artistic interpretations about it.
I have a solo show coming up with Telematic in San Francisco called Architectures of Violence, and it’s on harassment, harm, and protests. A lot of the pieces are focused on white supremacy in digital spaces.
Another example in the project Higher Resolution with Hyphen Labs, we were having really specific conversations about policy. A lot of the text we were using was referencing policy discussions that were happening in the UK and in the US. We discussed facial recognition and emotion recognition. We were getting people to talk about and vote on why these features should be banned. And so the work was a bit more advocacy-based and had a call to action.
How did you get interested in technology?
I have always really liked technology. In high school, I didn’t want to build websites, but I was interested in the people who decided things about LiveJournal. There was this moment when I got into this weird internet argument with this girl who was a friend of my best friends, and she was kind of a bully. I wrote about her bullying me on my LiveJournal, and she read it, and showed her mom. And then her mom told our mutual friend’s mom and they called my mom and they sat us all down and we’re trying to talk about why you shouldn’t talk about people on the internet.
Except the problem we were facing was that I had described her bullying me. I just remember looking at all of the parents, really struggling to talk about LiveJournal, and realizing, oh, our parents literally have no idea what’s going on with technology. And I just remember thinking at age 16, well, that’s really fascinating. Is there a way that I could work on this, helping people understand technology?
You also worked with photography and photojournalism before going into research and art.
I went to NYU Tisch undergrad for photography. My photo work in undergrad was very inspired by Tina Barney. She would photograph her family in ways that were very evocative of casual wealth. But the photographs themselves looked like they could be photojournalistic photos. They were photographed in a way where they looked almost like 18th century paintings. Everything was too perfect, and also too casual. That aesthetically had a really big impact on my work. And so my senior thesis in undergrad was a meditation on my family surviving Hurricane Katrina — my whole family’s from the Gulf Coast of the American South. I made 12 photographs that I arranged in a specific formation on a wall, and it was called Foundations. The photographs were of my family reenacting the casual moments we had, but in our new homes that we moved into after Katrina. I think all of that really shaped how I saw image making and how I saw truth reporting and the manifestation of facts. And I still lean back on a lot of stuff I learned in undergrad.
How do you bring that process of truth reporting to your process today?
If I’m engaging with a subject, it’s because I find it so interesting that I’m going to spend months or even years on it, and I’m going to research many different sides of it. When I decide to manifest it into an art project usually what happens is I’ll first write something. So it’ll be an essay, it’ll be an article, it’ll be a research paper. Then I think about, well, do I have an advocacy or an activist role there. Usually, I’m looking at something related to harm — something that’s problematic or something to be solved. So then I have that lens as well, where I have an idea of what I would want to see different or changed. Then out of all that I make art.
All of those steps are really important to me. Because I’m interested in change, and I’m interested in documentation, but I’m also interested in future imaginaries and advocacy based speculation.
Right, when I look at your work I don’t think it’s this pure cynicism of the tech world. There’s something beyond that.
I’m interested in criticism in the way I’m interested in investigative journalism or breaking news — I’m more interested in the “Yes, and.” When people say, “Here are the problems with misinformation.” I say, “Great, what are the experiments we can try right now? What is the alternative to this if we could completely start over?” With Feminist Dataset, for example, that asks: what is an equitable way to create a dataset together? How do you make a feminist Mechanical Turk, without augmenting Amazon? What would a cooperative look like if we rebuilt it totally from scratch? Those kinds of conversations are the ones I’m really interested in having, and they’re very difficult conversations to have, because it’s asking people to think in a purely imaginative way by recognizing the faults of where we are, right now.
And so for me, I am really hopeful about the internet. And I don’t know if that’s a form of self preservation. For me to keep doing the research work that I do, which is about human rights, technology, and research, I have to be hopeful that something is better that we are improving, or I don’t know if I’d be able to do this work. But I am hopeful, I am hopeful that we can build aspects of the web we want.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Caroline Sinders is a critical designer and artist. For the past few years, she has been examining the intersections of artificial intelligence, abuse, and politics in digital conversational spaces. She has worked with the United Nations, Amnesty International, IBM Watson, the Wikimedia Foundation and others. Sinders has held fellowships with the Harvard Kennedy School, Google’s PAIR (People and Artificial Intelligence Research group), the Mozilla Foundation, Pioneer Works, Eyebeam, Ars Electronica, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Sci Art Resonances program with the European Commission, and the International Center of Photography. Currently, she is a fellow with Ars Electronica AI Lab with the Edinburgh Futures Institute and a visiting fellow with the Weizenbaum Institute looking at labor and systems in AI and platforms. Her work has been featured in the Tate Exchange in Tate Modern, Victoria and Albert Museum, MoMA PS1, LABoral, Wired, Slate, Quartz, the Channels Festival and others. Sinders holds a Masters from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.