Mirrors on the ceiling, the pink champagne on ice
And she said “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”
And in the master’s chambers, they gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast
Last thing I remember, I was running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
“Relax, ” said the night man, “We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
(The Eagles – Hotel California)
Amazon’s website Mechanical Turk launched in 2005. Named after an 18th-century fake chess playing machine that in fact hid a human in its form, Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) is a website that distributes small cognitive tasks to be completed by individual workers for a small fee. These are tasks that computers are still unable to perform, and Amazon calls this ‘artificial artificial intelligence.’ Tasks include flagging offensive images, transcribing text, checking translations, answering surveys, etc.
For Workers leaving the cloud factory, Superconductor commissioned workers on AMT to film themselves leaving the place where they work. Each worker was paid US$ 2.50 for their submission, and Amazon took a US$ 0.50 fee per worker. Since not being able to post requests on AMT any more, additional videos have been sourced through the website Microworkers.
Workers leaving the cloud factory | single-channel video loop | 2017–18
Workers leaving the cloud factory continues a long line of works that began with the Lumière brothers’ Workers leaving the Lumière factory (1895) and includes Harun Farocki’s Workers leaving the factory in eleven decades (2006) and Andrew Norman Wilson’s Workers leaving the Googleplex (2011).
One question that motivates this project is how to represent a workforce that is dispersed and atomised, humans who are working at their data machines, whose labour can be mobilised with a few lines of code coming from a requester. The videos that have been purchased show workers in a range of settings—living rooms, bed rooms, kitchens, an office, a shopping centre—and one thing that is striking is that even with all of them playing simultaneously, the sound track is eerily empty. Chairs creak, fans spin, footsteps, doors open and close—these are the kinds of sounds you only notice when you’re alone.
Another issue that is brought into play relates to the impossibility of defining a real inside or outside of the cloud factory. Usually, in works that riff off the Lumière brothers’ early film, workers leave an enclosed and delimited place of work. When working on microwork websites, this distinction disappears. In this sense, this type of work could be seen as emblematic of a much broader tendency towards a collapse of the boundaries between work and life in general, a development which has been analysed at length in theories about the social factory (Mario Tronti), the prosumer (Alvin Toffler), or biopolitical production (Hardt & Negri).
However, in contrast to artists such as Aaron Koblin, whose work with AMT was received enthusiastically by Amazon as evidenced by eulogising blog posts written by Amazon Web Services’ ‘Chief Evangelist’ Jeff Barr, Superconductor were faced with strong headwinds while using AMT for art production. A few days into Superconductor’s field work, the following message appeared on Superconductor’s requester account.
After a few days more, the following email was received by Superconductor.
Amazon are well known for suspending AMT accounts with little notice, no explanation, and no possibility for remedy. This can be very problematic for workers who rely on AMT for a significant part or all of their income. Suspension emails often arrive completely out of the blue, and getting accounts reinstated can take weeks or months of calls and emails to various Amazon departments, with no certainty of a positive outcome.