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Can art help us think harder about technology?

One of the exciting things about working at the intersection between art and technology is the opportunity to translate ideas between the two domains. So many vital debates and paradigm-shifting developments are taking place within the technology world. Developments in AI and the IoT will change the future in currently unimaginable ways. However, the technical complexity of these ideas can limit opportunities for debate around these changes, outside the rarified world of technologists and engineers.

As an artist who has spent many years working in the software industry, I have made it a core part of my artistic practice to work with these kinds of ideas and hopefully make them more generally accessible, as well as bringing new perspectives.

Working within this space has its challenges, artistically and otherwise. From an artistic perspective a piece of work which is simply didactic or ‘raising awareness’ is unlikely to be good art. And making artwork which exposes serious issues to the public can have dramatic consequences - as I discovered when I began my project Backdoored, which explores surveillance and inherent security risks within the Internet of Things.

For some years I'd been interested in the IoT and the impact it's having in our lives - particularly in the ‘hidden’ costs of all these convenient connected gadgets. The challenge was that very few people in the art world - or the general public - had heard of the IoT or were aware of the how it would impact them. When I read an article back in 2016 about an IoT search engine that was capturing screenshots from unsecured webcams, I realised that this gave me an opportunity to make art exploring these issues by actually using images produced by the IoT. By using these images I could talk about these ideas in a powerful and direct way. The viewer didn't need to understand the finer details of IT security to grasp the issues.  

The project generated interest quite quickly and by summer of 2016 I'd secured a solo show in a small London gallery. The gallery hired a PR agency to generate a bit of publicity, but none of us were expecting the scale of what followed.


Filming with Spencer Kelly for BBC Click. "Backdoored.io" at Bank Gallery, 2016.

Within a few days of the show opening my exhibition had become international clickbait. By the end of the following week, I'd been interviewed on national TV twice, written about in news stories and blog posts all over the world, and my work had been the subject of a formal complaint by a major government. As an artist, it can be difficult to reach audiences beyond the regular gallery visitors. But with this work, I'd gone way beyond that and reached literally millions all over the world.

Interestingly, just a few weeks later the FBI issued a statement recommending people cover their webcams while not in use. I'd like to think I played some small part in that.

Many of you will also remember the Mirai botnet which hit the headlines in October 2016. It was predominantly formed of the IP webcams which are the source of the images in Backdoored. I featured one of the most commonly infected webcams in the humansbeingdigital exhibition. It's backstory and cutesy design make it very interesting object.


IP Camera from manufacturer Dahua whose cameras made up much of the Mirai botnet. "humansbeingdigital" The Lowry, 2017-18.

My new project The Seeker addresses the development of the ‘machine gaze’. Machines are being trained to see. They are learning to evaluate, judge and make decisions which will affect us all. What are the machines learning to find worthy (or unworthy) of their visual attention?

I'll be sharing more about this project with you soon. In the meantime, I'll be discussing my work in progress at the V&A Museum on 17 Feb.

Backdoored is on show in "humansbeingdigital" at The Lowry until 25 Feb.

Artist turned software designer turned artist again.

16 Jan 2018, 9:59