HERE & THERE | January 2021

Here & There Magazine interviews Gretchen Andrew about debunking power structures.

Gretchen Andrew Debunks Power Structure

By Alexa Bouhelier-Ruelle

Los Angeles native Gretchen Andrew is a Search Engine Artist and Internet Imperialist who programs her vision boards to manipulate the internet with art and desire. Prior to becoming an artist and having an apprenticeship with British painter Billy Childish, Andrew studied information systems in college and began her career at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. She would later combine both backgrounds to infiltrate the art world, targeting career-making awards and shows. Indeed, she fooled the internet into thinking she received the prestigious Turner Prize, exhibited in the Whitney Biennial and appeared on the cover of Artforum. In 2018, she collaborated with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London on her book Search Engine Art in which she highlights how digital and net art practices can be understood. The publication documents nine artists whose works are in some way co-authored by search engines. Her story as a woman in tech who carved her own path into the art world is unique, and while her practice does involve the element of manipulating artificial intelligence to make her work appear as top search results online, her body of work is still rooted in her physical art vision boards. Vision boards are often seen as “silly, girly things”, noting that by incorporating them she is giving weight to something typically perceived as inherently feminine and trivial.

Were you always aiming to become an artist?

​I wasn’t and I was at the same time because I was always very involved creatively as a kid. But then — and this is what happens to most of us — as we grow older, we get worried about very reasonable stuff like financial security and our ability to have the life we want. I’m not saying that it was a conscious thought, throughout my teenage and early college years, but I did fall in love with technology as a sort of utopian promise and as a means that could be very interesting and creatively used. The relationship that I developed with technology, in retrospect, is much more unique than just an industry. To me, there’s no such thing as two different worlds between technology and art; both are creating value in the world. What keeps them separate is the artificial aspect. They are both very honestly integrated inside of me. There are definitely challenges in trying to exist in both worlds, but there are also a lot of opportunities as people usually don’t use both lenses at the same time. 

(…) There were parts of working in Silicon Valley that were crazy and wonderful. But in retrospect, I was there yet I had this impostor syndrome feeling because I didn’t see a lot of other women who were considered to be innovative or visionary. There were definitely women in the industry, but a lot of them worked in sales, operations or HR. Whereas the way my mind works, it was much more about technologies’ implications and applications. I was brushing up against how an artist would work, compared to how an employee functionary would work. I knew I wanted a life’s work, instead of a work/life balance and it wasn’t easy to be in my early 20s, having this sort of energy, with these sort of beliefs in myself and being in a system that wasn’t inherently supportive of those things for women.

​What made you use the internet as a tool of expression?

​Initially, I kept the internet out of my work, even though I was still experimenting with it a little. I spent a lot of time becoming an accomplished figurative oil painter–beginning with the classical style added to the foundation of the work I’m doing today; paying my dues to an industry and history – maybe excessively to be honest – but at the same time having the practice that I do now helped me build a certain amount of confidence. The reason why I wanted to use technology as well is that it is a creative tool and also, the way I grew up. It is a system and a structure where there is so much opportunity for expression and that’s just the way I was trained, the way I studied. Those are things I see the possibilities of. I wanted to make something that was very current, but also very integrated and honest to myself.  

Can we use “manifesting” to describe your art?

I don’t use irony in my process or in my work at all. I adopt the law of attraction and manifestation culture in a way that I do it quite sincerely on the canvas, as I do those vision boards, and then I also go and program them into being. So it’s not just hoping that the universe takes care of it, I’m taking care of it myself. The relationship I have with this very Californian culture: affirmation, visualisation, manifestation, is that I believe it’s something that is making me successful right now as there’s a lot of energy in admitting what you want and going after it. I’m using the internet to make it work, I’m also using the art world and capitalism to make it work. I’m using those existing systems but the clarity of how I’m getting there is still a little bit magical to me.

Could you take us through your creation process? 

I just finished this piece in my studio and it’s called “Map of the EU”. It’s one of the projects I’m just starting now– a sort of Brexit reversal situation–where the map of the EU continues to include the UK. My point of view is from someone who lived in Great Britain and who very much believes in the European project. It’s not even so much about Brexit or the UK but about the world with fewer ideas of nationalism, something more fluid and people being less afraid. I made this quite personal vision board, there are these other things in my life that I want: symbols of love, of compassion, a view out the window of the Barbican Tower in London’s City – which is one of my favourite buildings. But also, on this desk, is a map of the EU that includes the UK. I’m going to take this vision board and a handful of others and create a bunch of websites, do my programming process so that in a couple of months when you google “Map of the EU” my vision boards will come up as the top search results, similar to “The Next American President”.

My previous works dealt with power in the art world. My whole body of work revolves around power, the structure of power, how you make yourself seen and heard, especially as a woman on the internet. So when I went from doing primarily art world focused critics to “The Next American President”, it seemed very natural to me as I was still looking at power and how power operates online, and how within some information and some unique structure that I developed, I could claim that power for myself and how I could move that power to make it be mine. Moving on to this EU project was again very personal to me as I was living in London when Brexit got voted. I believe in Europe politically, but I also know that I believe in it very much personally. I think we vote with our senses of our personal self. It’s quite cliché to say that the political is personal, and the personal is political, but it is. I wanted to show that this whole mess of Brexit breaks down to each of our personal fears, hopes and desires, and it is a big system and a lot of political power. Behind that, there are individual people either being hopeful or afraid. 

​How would you define your style?

My work centres around the vision boards as on canvas traditional art objects that allude to everything else that ever happened in a white wall gallery. My practice is performance art, net art and computer art. But by making the centre of my practice these vision boards, by putting them on canvas and hanging in galleries in traditional ways, I’m also very intentionally grounding them in an art historical practice of painting, collage, and assemblage. You go to the Louvre and you see those paintings hung in a certain way, then you see perspective in an interesting way, so much of what I’m doing is intentionally traditional. Even though it’s life in a world, and on the internet, that is quite contemporary and non-traditional. I think a lot of net art doesn’t acknowledge to connect itself to art history and a lot can be lost because of that. That’s why I’m very intentionally looking to build the bridge between what I do and what you can see in the Louvre or the Prado.

Link to the interview →