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Terms & Expectations

InterAccess Toronto


By Barbara Cueto and Bas Hendrikx


Although somewhat aloof from their rural surroundings, distribution centres and server farms are the sites where the internet becomes visible. Their vast and boxy architecture does not reveal much, if anything, of their interior activity. The underlying distribution chains remain somewhat ambiguous: any information about internal processes, technologies, and working conditions are sparse and fractural. This infrastructure, which determines the supply of food, fashion, and entertainment, materializes digital structures of control within our physical surroundings. Distribution centres and server farms punctuate our landscape with architectures that resemble their non-human nature—like an algorithm encoding bias, these buildings remain black-boxed to us humans. Nevertheless, they are tacitly transforming the topographies of human interaction, from urban labour to cityscapes. Even the traditional function of rural areas, connected to nature and the harvest of crops and herd cattle, is altered. They now share space and resources with vast distribution centres—those operated by companies such as Amazon, Ebay or Alibaba—which bypass long-established commercial networks that were altered at the dawn of the internet. 


The exhibition resembles a fulfillment centre, where undelivered parcels wait alongside artworks, which expose the human scale of global logistical networks. For example, in Yuri Pattison’s video outsourced views, visual economies (2013-2014), one can see a series of footage of apparently unconnected locations. The short videos are taken by Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, who perform assignments that either cannot be completed by a computer or for which human labour is still cheaper than developing an AI solution. These jobs are not only repetitive and low paid, but they also erase the worker, who is anonymized, making their labour invisible. These glimpses into workers’ lives intend to humanize the networks of production that often go unseen. Coralie Vogelaar’s performance Arranging, Moving, Rotating, Packing (2022) reveals the extreme lengths of logistic centres’ efficiency and productivity. These facilities use bin packing algorithms to configure the most compact way of arranging items within a parcel. In Vogelaar’s performance, dancers attempt to replicate these configurations with their bodies, painstakingly trying to accommodate the versatility of an algorithm that lacks human dimension. 


Terms & Expectations considers human labour as a by-product of the interconnected non-human network of production and consumption. Simon Denny’s Amazon Worker Cage shows a model the artist made of a 2016 Amazon patent for a human cage, a metal enclosure that would transport Amazon warehouse workers around the premises, allowing factory works to integrate with machinery. The image shows a prototype of an unrealized blueprint, complete with the numbers referencing the intellectual property of the patent around it. As philosopher Byung-Chul Han (2010) states, “There’s no way to form a revolutionary mass out of exhausted, depressed, isolated individuals.” Labour conditions for distribution facility workers and delivery staff are often dire. Amazon, the self-proclaimed ‘most customer centric company in the world’, applies libertarian principles, impeding staff unionization and workers’ rights. As the labour community grows, artist, filmmakers, and writers respond. Recent texts such as Ken Loach’s 2019 film Sorry We Missed You, the award-winning film Nomadland (2020) by Chloé Zhao, and Heike Geissler’s 2018 novel Seasonal Associate critically engage with workers’ experiences at these facilities. In need of an additional source of income, Geissler, a freelance writer and translator, takes a temporary job at an Amazon Order Fulfilment Center in Leipzig. Here, she is quick to learn that time is a commodity and every minute is monitored. Employee training, walks to the lunchroom, restroom breaks, and punch-out time are all controlled. While the repetitiveness of the labour renders each day on site alike, staff attempt to make shifts more bearable by learning which work desks offer better entrance and exit times, or tend to process easier cargo, and supervisors are more lenient. The same notions reverberate in Hiba Ali’s we are all living: workers liberation as environmental justice (2020), an interactive 3D environment depicting the predatory practices in warehouse and the toll on its workers. 


Terms & Expectations explores these, at times dehumanizing, conditions and the corporate chase toward fully automating distribution chains. These systems alter our surroundings, fabricating a new, more-than-human umwelt. Eva Pel’s sculptures, titled Happy Boxes (2021-ongoing), are replicas of shipping boxes distributed by famous European online retailers like Zalando and Hema, as well as Amazon. The doppelgänger parcels have tracking labels that reveal the origins of their journey through the non-human landscape defined by supply-chain routes. Pel’s heavy wooden boxes aim to camouflage between disposable cardboard boxes, raising questions about the consequences of the growing number of online retail giants and their tangible effects on the environment. An Infinite Loop in the Virtual Plaza (2019/2022) continues inquiry into the materiality of distribution networks, this time interrogating the functionality of empty architectures. In this work, artist Sophia Oppel maps the parallels between seemingly innocuous public architecture and “user-friendly” digital interfaces. The sculptural installation and video explore supposedly neutral spaces, such as airports or plazas, whose designs are optimized for Western neoliberal productivity and the surveillance of buyers-to-be. 


This exhibition is part of a longer investigation related to the political, social, and ecological affects of the digital infrastructures that influence our everyday lives. An earlier exhibition, The Dutch Savannah (2018), paid attention to the role of water as a fundamental yet usually overlooked component of the infrastructure that supports the internet. At InterAccess, Terms & Expectations continues that investigation and reveals the presence of digital infrastructure on land, and the subtle ways our landscapes are changing to adapt to digitally-driven distribution chains. In this way, the exhibition explores politics and aesthetics of these infrastructures, whose extractivism not only depletes natural resources, but also modifies social life.

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