Digital Labor

Stephanie Rothenberg


Stephanie Rothenberg is an interdisciplinary artist engaging participatory performance, installation and networked media to create provocative public interactions. Mixing real and virtual spaces, her work investigates new models of global, outsourced labor and the power dynamics between contemporary visions of utopian urbanization and real world economic, political and environmental factors. She has exhibited internationally in venues such as the Sundance Film Festival, MASS MoCA, LABoral, Transmediale and the Whitney Museum Artport and is a recipient of numerous awards, most recently from the Harpo Foundation and Creative Capital. Her work has been widely reviewed including Artforum, Artnet, The Brooklyn Rail and Hyperallergic. She is Associate Professor in the Department of Art at SUNY Buffalo where she teaches courses in design and emerging technologies.

Reversal of Fortune: The Garden of Virtual Kinship
For this lecture I will present my current project Reversal of Fortune: The Garden of Virtual Kinship, a telematic garden, both physical and virtual, whose lifeline directly correlates to monetary exchanges between the developed and developing world. Through the interfacing of real time data collected from socially motivated, microfinance websites and a live, organic garden installation, the project makes visible the circulation of capital from more affluent regions in the Global North to new financial markets in under accessed areas of the Global South.

The project expands on Ken Goldberg’s 1995 pioneering artwork “Telegarden” that enabled a global community of online users to “telematically” care for a live garden. The “Telegarden” not only underscored issues of sentience and dis/embodiment within online culture through its convergence of the biological/organic with the technological, but also utilized participatory models of online interaction and social engagement to meet a shared goal. These early interactions foreshadow now familiar modes of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing.

The Garden of Virtual Kinship examines the inherent contradictions within microfinance as both an economic driver to individuals and communities in under developed regions and as a form of neocolonial exploitation resulting in a new demographic of debtors. These issues are addressed through the lens of social media platforms that enable crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in conjunction with emerging mobile money systems. Through the metaphor of a garden, the complex relationships between human life and economic growth are brought to the forefront. Questions the project interrogates include: What are the underlying mechanisms that enable these new networks to emerge? How do these platforms shape the affective dimensions of empathy-at-a-distance and facilitate a virtual kinship between microfinance borrowers and lenders? In evaluating the actual impact of these systems on their borrowers, can we move closer towards a true digital commons?

Images of first prototype (2nd phase in development):