I have been using Google “reCAPTCHA” images as a source material for an ongoing series of collages. One usually encountered these narrowly cropped, lo-res JPEGs, which were sourced from Google Street View, in the process of creating an online profile. Between May and July of 2016, just prior to their becoming obsolete and all but vanishing from the Internet, I had manually downloaded over 2000 of them. These ostensibly mundane, yet nonetheless operative images, served as the most conspicuous element of an automated gatekeeping system designed to prevent bots from simulating human agents: “Prove you’re not a robot.”
I print the images on a vinyl mesh material, which is typically used to obscure construction sites, because its perforated surface evokes the shimmer of a computer monitor. I was initially drawn to the generic sense of “placelessness” that imbued these odd pictures of the world, which, more or less uniformly, displayed street addresses. However, other features from the domain of humans and nature occasionally infiltrated their frames: flowerpots, tree branches, curtains, sedans, and other things that robots would have little use for. Yet beyond these incidental encroachments and their peculiar status as documentary images, I also became increasingly fascinated by the ways in which these images figured into digital labor and automation; cultural production and corporate hegemony; mass surveillance and the erosion of privacy; and AI. In this latter context, where the reCAPTCHA images interface with society, culture, and technology, they acquire an artifact-like quality and the folder that I store them resembles a digital excavation site.