The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City was subject to an anti-capitalist protest which came in the form of an internet-based hack during a long-awaited retrospective of the work of a leading conceptual artist. The show at the New Museum, which closed in January, focussed on the often pioneering work of the German-born artist, Hans Haacke. Part of the exhibition included an iPad installation which was supposed to record the reactions of attendees, rather like a feedback questionnaire you might find at a municipal service centre. However, an artist and a graduate student at the New School in the city managed to hack into the software that the work of art used in order to stage a protest.
It was only a few days before the Haacke retrospective was due to close that the New Museum realised that it had been hacked. Specifically, the gallery was forced to admit that a digitised visitor poll available to attendees on the fifth floor of the institution had been interfered with. Visitors polls have long been used in Haacke’s work. For over half a century, the conceptual artist has asked his audience about a wide range of issues, usually focussing on political, economic or social questions. At the retrospective, Haacke created a piece called ‘New Museum Visitors Poll’ which featured a number of questions displayed on tablets that visitors could interact with directly. This piece was created for the New Museum’s show, called ‘All Connected’. However, the hack meant that altered results were displayed in the installation, often with satirical comments.
A Prank or a Protest?
The hack was pulled off by two New York-based activists who wanted to highlight the museum’s approach to commercialism rather than to criticise Haacke, or his art, directly. The internet attack was carried out by Grayson Earle, an adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design in New York and an artist in his own right, as well as an anonymous collaborator who is simply known as M. The pair said that they wanted to draw attention to the “complacency in capitalism” that, in their view, the gallery displayed. One of the ways that the duo was able to address these issues was to alter the results of Haacke’s carefully planned survey so that responses to questions about income inequality would be highlighted.
One of the questions posed in the poll asked attendees to respond to a global wealth report put together the Credit Suisse in 2013. According to that survey, the bottom half of the global population owns only a tiny proportion of global wealth, while the wealthiest ten per cent of adults own almost ninety per cent of all wealth. When the hack took place, the response to this question was amplified. For example, the statement that the accumulation of wealth should not be interfered with received an actual response of eight per cent at the exhibition but the hackers altered it to a much larger figure of 85 per cent. Other responses, such as that inequality needs to be corrected somehow were similarly altered to make the respondents seem much less progressive on their ideas about wealth distribution.
According to the hackers, their decision to alter the results of the survey “expresses the political stance of American galleries like the New Museum better.” However, some have pointed out that by altering the results of the survey to make respondents seem less engaged with wealth inequality than they actually are, the pair only highlighted how progressive visitors’ views really were. Nevertheless, in an email, the activists said that the New Museum’s attitude to staff unionisation showed which side they were on. The pair also justified their actions by pointing out how such activism can work, for instance by forcing the tear gas manufacturer, William B Kanders, to step down from the Whitney Museum’s board.
The Museum’s Response
The management team at the New Museum confirmed that its show had been hacked in a statement. It said that the gallery was aware that an external server hosting Hans Haacke’s New Museum Visitors Poll was attacked during the show. “[This generated]… ongoing irregularities in the reporting of poll results and we are striving to correct and resolve the issue.” Later, the New Museum confirmed that the breach had, indeed, been fixed by the programmer who had originally worked with Haacke on the poll. “The work has now been returned to the artist’s intent,” it said.
“Our action might be seen as unethical,” the activists responded, “but we don’t think this applies only to us.” Indeed, the pair went on to ask whether the closing of technological loopholes in another artist’s work and ‘fixing’ the answers, what had been really achieved. “Are we being any less unethical than the institution is by trying to validate the exhibition while continuing with business-as-usual?” they demanded.