“Tapping into sophisticated mechanisms of consumer surveillance to grasp the exquisite nugget of being known …”
Personal Appeal delves into the world of intimacy and big data. The largest consumer data collector in the United States, Acxiom, holds an average of 1,500 data points on more than 700 million people. This company alone has more personal data collected on each American than the National Security Agency, and Americans born in the mid-1980s and after have had consumer data collected about them from the moment they were born.
Sophisticated Big Data gathering and analysis techniques are working to take the mystery out of who we are so that we can be known, understood, catered to, and relied on as consumers. But there’s a difference between an accumulation of personal data points and our truly feeling that we are being known.
In December 2014 I rented an Acxiom list of ten thousand names and addresses, to which I sent a generic mailing requesting participation in a free art project. Seventy people responded to my invitation. For three months I corresponded with them, leading up to an in-depth questionnaire that asked participants to share their thoughts about death, regret, love, and friendship. Their answers revealed other demographic information, including age, gender, marital status, home ownership, occupation, leisure interests, and a host of other nuances.
Privacy and security are immediate concerns that come up in any conversation about Big Data, but my interest here is the influences these practices have on our relationships to each other and their impact on our fundamental needs for intimacy, understanding, and belonging.
Rather than presenting these seventy participants as subjects through the profiles they disclosed to me, I worked with a web developer to apply online data mining tools to create an interaction that would reveal these participants through their connections to gallery visitors. In the world of this project, you have to give a little data to get a little data.
Gallery participants complete a version of the original questionnaire, then the answers are run through a research tool that analyzes such things as emotional tone and keywords. Based on a score, text is retrieved from the database of earlier responses and populates a unique script. Finally, participants read these scripts together over microphones, hearing each other’s and their own emotional tone and attitude through someone else’s words. The effect is a reassertion of ourselves as unknown and unknowable, decollapsing us as unique, complex, and contradictory, and recasting our psychological ambiguities, personal narratives of loss and joy, and constantly shifting, growing, changing selves as critical to being and feeling known.
Web Development: Lloyd Cledwyn
Production Assistance: Lauren Allen
Special thanks to 7 Corners Printing for their generous sponsorship support.
Thanks also to Valentine Cadieux, Liz Miller, Justin Schell, Sarah Peters, Ady Olson, Sarah Stengle, Andrea Steudel, Jessica Zeglin, Birdie Frietag, Kirstin Wiegmann, Michael Murnane, and Lorton Data.
Methodologies on the Verge (excerpt)
Kirsten Valentine Cadieux
Across the second gallery, Molly Balcom Raleigh’s Personal Appeal invites you into conversation. Take a seat at the table amidst mailbags worth of letters sent between Balcom Raleigh and thousands of households in a painstakingly choreographed direct mail campaign. Tapping into sophisticated mechanisms of consumer surveillance to grasp the exquisite nugget of being known, this piece asks you, personally, to extend yourself into the sea of big data to reflect on what it feels like to be known—or to feel known. You are asked to share details about yourself, and your replies are subject to the kind of linguistic analysis that drives millisecond trades to invest in whatever is trending on the Internet now. But your data provide the waymarkers that lead to the possibility of your being known. Drawing you along an algorithmic path on which your guiding stars have been identified by others, the dialogue you supplied the data to shape creates a scaffold that lets you relax into the strangeness of recognizing how much is constantly known about you and how much the choices you think you are making are already shaped by your credit history, your tracked phone, the words you use in emails.
Using the raw materials of direct marketing, Personal Appeal has built a curious network of people willing to write back to automailed junk mail. Laboriously reproducing the folds, typography, tone, and timing of personal appeals, Balcom Raleigh dares us to face the magic in the feeling of being known, even in such a mechanized way. Hybridizing the arts of playwrights and marketers, a core method of this epistolary project was the discovery and systematization of a vocabulary meaningful to the participants as they write letters and converse through Personal Appeal’s tablets and their automated dialogue script generator. Signposting the way from marketing mail to human contact, Balcom Raleigh traces a thread of voice that suggests we might flex our capacity to feel known in ways that push us to risk personal exposure. Step onto the dais. Read the mail. You might experience a conversation that tells you something about yourself.
My work is rooted in a desire to expand people’s perceptions of themselves as powerful agents within the systems that shape their lives. I do this through a hybrid of performance and installation, informed by my background as a theater director and playwright. I make situations that play out like performances, with participants as both viewers and actors. Through choirs, shared meals, card games, and conversations, my projects bring people into one another’s physical and emotional space by creating the opportunity to be daring with each other.
Molly Balcom Raleigh
b. 1976, Carlisle, Pennsylvania
Lives and works in St. Paul
Mentor: Valentine Cadeiux
Molly Balcom Raleigh makes participatory performance and installation through media including food, singing, found objects and vernacular texts. Through a widely-varied practice, she seeks to surface the places within large social systems where individual actors, working solo or collaboratively, can effect radical change and regain agency. She has presented her work at many public sites and galleries, including Northern Spark, The Soap Factory, the Walker Art Center, University of Minnesota’s Nash Gallery, and The Wormfarm Institute. She is twice a fellow of Public Art Saint Paul’s groundbreaking City Art Collaboratory and a 2014-2015 Art(ists) on the Verge fellow. Balcom Raleigh studied playwriting and directing at the University of Minnesota and holds an Individually-designed Bachelor of Arts in Performance Studies and Food Studies from Goddard College. Originally from the United States, she currently lives and works in Finland.