W3FI, created in 2011 by artists Laleh Mehran and Chris Coleman, is a digital, multimedia exhibition where a physical representation of the world is blended with real-time information of the digital world and projected onto the exhibition space for viewers to interact with. In each exhibition, W3FI is altered to be specific to the location. Typically, twenty white blocks are scattered across the space that light up according to a boids flocking algorithm where light flows from cube to cube, trying to move in the same direction. Through gathering information from locals in the area of the exhibition, black vinyl silhouettes of local landscapes and cultural sites are created and attached to the walls. White light is projected onto the walls, and glides along the black vinyl or projects graph like formations of information related to local wifi or cell tower usage while also displaying messages regarding the loss of anonymity and the consequences of being a part of the online culture. A section of the installation shows tweets that include the word “I” in real time, and in another part, tweets that include the word “we” are shown. In the end of the exhibit, visitors can have a picture of their face taken, which is then shown amongst other pictures of visitors in a web-like design.
The concept of W3FI resembles a Buddhist philosophy, where the viewer first awakens to their identity as a “self” in the online world, how their self is affected by the online world, and then how their self affects a bigger population as a whole. The purpose is then to understand how the viewer can apply their online “self” to a collective of other online identities in a harmonizing way.
The online self is represented as “S3LF” in the piece: the word “self” written in an internet slang called l33t, where letters are replaced with numbers. Similarly, the internet community is represented as W3–the word “we.” Part of W3FI seems to be critical of a loss of control in the way that personal information is given away. Further on through the exhibition, W3FI presents another common phenomenon found online: because communication online seems anonymous, people often forget that other identities are also valid human beings. It then challenges the viewer to be conscious of how they affect not only other human presences online, but the online community as a whole.
“It’s pretty clear that next time you feel like shaving your genitals and opening up the topic for public debate, you should probably think twice, but what about more insidious uses of technology? What about the security cameras in your office building? What about the recent admission by New York police that they were actively tracking and recording the actions of Muslim students? Maybe it’s time to rethink the definition of privacy.” Pafe, Rachel (December 10, 2012). W3FI Exhibition @ Artisphere
Something close to anonymity can be achieved through using privacy-preserving systems like The Onion Router, and in fact, these systems literally save lives in countries where it is against the law to speak out against a totalitarian government (William Turton (April 24, 2016) The Kernel Magazine). Unfortunately, the average user instead uses what they believe to be anonymity for being cruel to other people - as a way to bully without being caught. “Too much anonymity” and “too little anonymity” are often put in a negative perspective. However, perhaps by following the philosophy of W3FI, the interpersonal problems of both could be fixed by becoming more aware of how one affects the online community.
Seattle Crime Cams, created in 2015 by Dries Depoorter, is an installation of TVs that show crime scenes happening in real-time, along with 911 phone calls and police radio. When the software used by this installation detects that a crime is occurring via police scanners, it then locates the closest surveillance camera in the area and displays it on one of the displays. Furthermore, 911 phone calls are streamed over speakers throughout the crime. This is similar to W3FI in that it displays real-time data gathered from online sources over the internet and furthermore serves as a commentary on privacy and anonymity online and in real life. All of the video and audio displayed in Seattle Crime Cams is publicly available online, which demonstrates the loss of real-life anonymity due to the pervasive streaming of information on the internet. In addition, similar to W3FI, Seattle Crime Cams helps us understand our role as an online collective and questions whether we should be passive observers instead of working to build a better society.
Anonymity online is also discussed in The Stranger, created by Maxence Parache in 2013. This piece is also an interactive space, where the viewer can download an app and enter a name to search for. Then, information about the person is displayed while a large white head watches the viewer, moving its gaze in response to the viewer’s position. As the viewer physically moves their arms and hands, the information changes, displaying names and status updates that have been gathered from online sources. As they physically get closer to the displays, more detailed information is revealed while the image of the head becomes clearer. This work is similar to W3FI because it dynamically gathers online information and displays it in real-time while also demonstrating how little anonymity people have because of the pervasive amount of sharing being done through social networking.
W3FI was displayed at the following Exhibitions:
Currents New Media Festival, 2012 (New Mexico)
404 Festival, October 2012 (Rosario, Argentina)
Artisphere Dome, December 6, 2012 (Arlington, Virginia)
Simms, June (January 10, 2013) Oscar Nominees Named; New 'Les Mis' Soundtrack Climbs the Charts; Art Exhibit Explores Our Digital Selves
BYT Staff (December 10, 2012) W3FI Exhibition @ Artisphere
Haeusslein, Allie (September 10, 2011) Fan Mail: W3FI
- Baugher, Krystal (July 7, 2011) Shades of White: BMoCA exhibit explores diversity in the community