It's James Coupe's chilling work of art generated by hiring workers on Amazon's Mechanical Turk online market, where there is no minimum wage and no legal authority to enforce payments—and where an estimated 500,000 people in 190 countries work for pennies. Haven't heard of it? You're not alone. mTurk is the quiet Amazon labor force, and Coupe's work of art was displayed publicly just blocks from the white-collar Amazon in Seattle last month.
Here's how it works: Because Coupe hired the makers of the videos on the Mechanical Turk site, Amazon automatically got 20 percent of each of their pay. Coupe paid them $3 each for a total of eight videos that are one minute long each—sweet pay on mTurk.
But now there's a twist. Coupe's General Intellect has now become the first work of new media art for sale on Amazon Art. Seattle curator Julia Fryett applied to Amazon to become "the first gallery on Amazon Art to sell new media art." Her gallery is the same name as her Seattle-based nonprofit, Aktionsart, which produced Black Box, the fantastic new video/digital-art festival this spring in Seattle.
The fact that General Intellect is now for sale on Amazon Art means that now, if a collector buys it, Amazon will take a cut of the sale (Amazon takes 10 percent of any sales up to $10,000, and 5 percent after that, Fryett said). That's in addition to the cut Amazon took of the mTurk worker's pay for making the videos. Amazon made money on the front end of this project and stands to make money on the back end.
Coupe was naive enough to believe that Amazon would not want a chance at that money.
"I said, 'Oh, they're never going to go for that,'" he said.
But Amazon Art has approved Fryett's application for Aktionsart to sell General Intellect.
Does Amazon register the irony? Are they playing along?
"Yeah," Fryett said. "They came over, and they have some interesting people on their team who just started working there who came from New York—Ann Priftis and some other people. They love it. They're super excited. They want to start doing more with new media... They want to support the arts community, and figure out how to sell new media art."
There are layers of conflicts here, and the decision to sell General Intellect on Amazon Art adds another one. General Intellect becomes a slightly different work of art given the added complexity.
I wonder when the conflicts become too clever, too entertaining, to be conflicts anymore.
In my original review, I described the experience of watching mTurk workers overshare as "chilling" and "tender." To review my review, I'd like to add that the impulse to describe the videos in those subjective, emotional terms is part of what's gross about General Intellect. It aestheticizes a labor transaction, turning the terms of someone's employ into a work of art in which that person didn't consent to participate.
The development that Amazon Art would want to host General Intellect is the predictable twist in any work of institutional critique. When the institution begins to benefit from the art that critiques it, you've got an ethical ouroboros on your hands.
Many works of contemporary art change meanings when they change settings. General Intellect had its debut at an academic gallery: Bath Spa University in the UK. Relatively few people would see it in that environment. The same relative obscurity held when the work was on view temporarily in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood.
The distinguishing feature of last month's exhibition was its close proximity to Amazon's headquarters. Coupe said he hoped Amazon workers and execs would come to see it.
Some of the Amazon Art group did, Fryett said. She applied through the regular online channels, but when Amazon Art contacted her to get more information, she brought those people to the exhibition to see it for themselves, which apparently tipped the scales.
Let me try to break this down, if only for myself.
1. General Intellect underscores that workers on mTurk are blind to how their work is used. They have no idea that they're part of an artwork. In this case, workers on mTurk exposed themselves without knowing it to a small art audience.
2. Now the workers at another branch of Amazon have taken the Amazon mTurkers even more public, by promoting their exposure on Amazon Art.
Will one of the workers who made one of the videos on Amazon Mechanical Turk see her/himself being transformed into and sold as a work of art on Amazon Art?
"It makes the workers visible back inside the system that made them invisible in the first place," Coupe said.
(Nobody from Amazon PR responded to my request to interview someone from Amazon Art.)
People are questioning the ethics of General Intellect, "and they're right to," Coupe said.
Four people are conducting a conversation about legal and ethical implications via email. Fryett will publish the conversation soon—including Coupe, Fryett, Susan Surface (Design in Public director), and Sean O'Connor (UW School of Law expert in intellectual property)—on Aktionsart's blog.
General Intellect still has no collectors. Its selling conditions are deliberately unusual. The piece comes in segments that are $5,000 each. That money is fed back into mTurk to hire more workers to make more videos, which then are directed to collectors' homes. One payment of $5,000 means you get a feed for a year. You become another layer of boss, and now the bosses are you, Coupe, Amazon mTurk, and Amazon Art. You're a middle manager. Nobody, including middle management, likes middle managers.