Curator Georg Bak from the Museum of Contemporary Digital Art interviews Gretchen Andrew about her 2020 projects.
Interview by Georg Bak
I decided that the internet could make me into anything and I decided that I would be an artist.
Gretchen Andrew makes vision boards about the life, career, and political future she wants and then programs her desires into being by hacking Google and the associated power structures of big tech, the art world, and most recently the 2020 American presidential election. Georg Bak spoke with Gretchen about her last few months.
You were working in technology in Silicon Valley before you began learning how to paint and becoming an apprentice of Billy Childish. Your artworks can be classified as figurative paintings or assemblages. Can you tell us how your background as a former Google employee has influenced your conceptual approach in painting and your strategy on how to enter the art market?
Net art, performance art, painting, drawing, assemblage, conceptual art. These are not mutually exclusive categories. My art practice is all of these things, but the physical outputs are the canvas works I refer to as vision boards. My vision boards hold the visual and collectable identity of my practice and connect my practice to the other plastic traditions.
I am always a little hesitant to talk about my 18 months at Google because I worry it gives a misleading impression of me as a Silicon Valley insider. While it was no doubt an accomplishment to land a job at Google in 2010, I worked in a much-despised corner of Google that developed products and processes around employee data, most notoriously performance reviews. After the banking crash of 2008, Wall Street fled to the tech industry and Madison Avenue was hot on its heels. I was there when Google had the outward persona of a cool place but internally felt more and more like any other big company, and it was a big company that made its money almost entirely from advertising.
More than anything, my time at Google set the basis for my attitude towards technology and Silicon Valley culture which, at its worst, can be sexist and self-congratulatory. All this clashed with my techno-utopianism. I decided that the internet could make me into anything and I decided that I would be an artist. So I quit my job with enough money to live illegally in my art studio and eat meals out of a rice cooker. I started watching YouTube videos on how to stretch a canvas, how to draw hands, how to paint clouds. I took an online class at Stanford in Practice Based Research. I took showers at a 24-hour gym. I made a lot of really bad art. Yet, people supported me. My friends fed me from big tech’s free lunch buffets and let me drink at their almost daily happy hours. They bought some of my really bad art and I got to keep on going. This tension will never leave my work. That is, my proximity to the power that it critiques.
Regarding my conceptual approach to entering the art market, I look at the art market and the art world the same way I do the internet; as a system with rules that can be navigated in new ways.
The artworld is a very exclusive circle and it is very difficult to break in as a young emerging artist. Nevertheless, you managed to hack Frieze Los Angeles in 2019 and some other prestigious art events and create some virtual presence. How did you proceed and what was your strategy?
Honestly, I knew that what I was doing with search results was brilliant but you’re right, at first I couldn’t break in. Even as I got my work in front of powerful art world people, I was mostly sidelined. I had this imposter syndrome thing where I was sure that the traction I got was just because people liked that I was pretty and polite. It wasn’t that long ago but I look at my figurative oil painting and am like damn, I did know what I was doing, but it never felt that way.
I was working with and surrounded by people who I let make me feel a certain way about my competence. So I had a lot to do internally before I could be ready for the insane amount of traction I am getting now. But then also I needed what in tech they call “the killer app.” Once I turned my process on the art world, hacked and critiqued art world institutions and not just tech power, all the lights went on. I started to call my work Vision Boards and lean into every cliché I felt had limited the perceptions of what I was capable of.
I also realised that I needed to build my own team and not rely on a gallery or dealer to take care of my story and my market. I guess I used to work in an HR organisation, but I’ve thought a lot about the job description of everyone involved in my work; gallerists, curators, and even collectors. I tell everyone I work with or am considering working with that my career is a table, a rustic dining table that hosts 3-hour dinners with lots of wine. If you’re not going to thrive in that environment, you’re probably not the right person for me and my work. Having the confidence to say “no” is imperative. In my practice, I accrue and use power in a nontraditional way, and in my career I do the same thing. The vision I am working towards on my canvases is as firm as the one I am making for my market and community. I’m so pleased that right now my table includes Annka Kultys and Gazelli Art House.
How does the audience typically react to your online performances? Are there fruitful interactions?
Lately, I’ve been meeting a lot of people through press and Instagram. For example, you and I met because you posted my Monopol article on LinkedIn and my friend Nimrod from Arebyte saw it and sent me a screenshot. I then found you on Instagram and thanked you for sharing my work. My hope is that once we can all meet up at art fairs and exhibitions again the art world is going to feel like a small and friendly place. If you, reader, see me out and about, do say hello.
Your artistic approach is particularly interesting in the realm of fake news and the upcoming US elections. In your exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art, you are presenting a show titled Future News. In your vision boards, you are painting possible future covers of the art forum magazine. Can you lead us through your whole process and how you allow the fake to become true?
There is a great deal of space between our hopes, our aspirations, our desires, and what can be reported in the New York Times. The same goes for our fears. Linguistically, when humans talk about our desires we understand there to be separation between what we want and what we have but technology only understands relevance.
By making a net art vision board where I write about my desire to be on the cover of Artforum someday, Google learns only that Gretchen Andrew is relevant to the cover of Artforum. Google’s inability to parse desire makes my vision boards come up as top search results for the query “Cover of Artforum.” These vision boards are not at all confusing to people. They are clearly not real covers of Artforum. They aren’t even fake covers of Artforum. They are aspirational covers of Artforum.
Another series is called The Next American President. This implies a cyber-feminist Cambridge Analytica method combined with a guerilla marketing strategy for your own degree of brand awareness as an artist. How has this artwork been received so far and which kind of analytics do you use to leverage your performance?
Take the most famous pop culture spies, James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Jack Ryan. They aren’t women with a glue gun and a refurbished laptop. The narrative of power around Cambridge Analytica and Russian cyber tolls was being told as if it came from one of these action movies, as if what they achieved was technically impressive when, really, these methods are within reach of, well, me. It’s something that happens often in tech; things are made to seem more complicated than they really are which discourages women and outsiders from putting up with the cultural hurdles to being accepted within the industry.
Analytically, with these vision boards at the top of the search results internationally, and when you do a reverse image search, Google identifies these as “The Next American President.” What this also means is that Google’s artificial intelligence is learning that the next American president could be something very different than either current candidate.
Visually, they exist both as vision boards with gems and ribbons and as serious art objects with a charcoal drawing on canvas which is similar to how they operate online. They are punking the system and we all get to have a good laugh, but they are also changing the way Google thinks.
You wrote a book on Search Engine Art with the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Digital Futures platform in 2018. Is it important to preserve the algorithms as part of the artwork and how do artists approach this problem?
Search Engine Art was a look at other artists who use the search engine as a medium in an effort to find and collect peers and practices. Personally, I use Rhizome’s web recorder, now called Conifer, to show a change in search results over time.
Due to the COVID-19 situation, your art exhibition at the Monterey Museum couldn’t be opened offline. You also sent out a magazine-like studio visit via post. How do you reach and interact with your audience amidst social distancing and restricted public events?
I break my responsibilities as an artist into three categories: making the work, making the work financially and culturally valuable, and building the community. I try to bring as much creativity to each responsibility as the others. That’s where my studio-visit-via-post idea came from.
Then in Monterey, between Zoom, Instagram Live, and YouTube, we’ve welcomed more than 3,500 people into the closed exhibition, enabling the Monterey Museum of Art to achieve record “attendance” during closure. Guests spanned from local, long-time supporters of the museum to those in London, Cape Town, Los Angeles, Paris, New York, and Hong Kong.
Gretchen Andrew (born in Los Angeles, 1988) is a search engine and internet imperialist artist. Her Vision Boards appeared on the cover of some of the most iconic art and fashion magazines. Gretchen’s art is daring, thought-provoking and experimental. She defined her own style, establishing her presence on the internet and in the art scene with determination. Gretchen’s work is inspiring a new generation of new media artists looking at social media with a sense of power and playfulness. Her practice is described by critic Jonathan Griffin in LALA Magazine as alluding to “the Wild West possibilities of the Internet and to the scale of her artistic ambition.” She trained in London with the artist Billy Childish from 2012-2017. In 2018 the V&A Museum released her book Search Engine Art. Starting in 2019 she became known for her vision boards and associated performative internet manipulations of art world institutions of Frieze Los Angeles, The Whitney Biennial, The Turner Prize, and The Cover of Artforum. Gretchen’s work has recently been featured in The Washington Post, Fortune Magazine, Monopol, Wirtschaftswoche, The Los Angeles Times, and The Financial Times. Her exhibition Future News is on display at The Monterey Museum of Art through Jan 3, 2021. You can find her work with Gazelli Art House and Annka Kultys Gallery, who will be hosting her next exhibition in February 2021.
Link to the interview →