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Lick an iPad and meet your dream bot at exhibition on digital desire

15:34 05/11/2021

Would you care to have a kinky conversation with several attractive young women? How about licking the screen of an iPad? Or perhaps you prefer to spin around a dance floor, staring deeply into your lover’s eyes, via your smartphone?

It’s all possible at Swipe Right! Data, Dating, Desire. The exhibition is being staged at iMal, the art centre for digital cultures and technology in Molenbeek.

About that iPad. It is inside a wooden booth, accessible through a black curtain. You enter to make use of a very special app developed by Dutch artist Dani Ploeger. But you don’t click or swipe with your fingers; you must lick the screen from bottom to top to activate the app, which illuminates the screen. The faster you lick, the brighter it gets.

If the act itself does not made Ploeger’s point clear, the title should help. ‘Fetish’ points out not only our obsession with our digital devices (how many times a day do you look at your smartphone?) but the artificiality of online dating platforms.

Montreal-based artist Adam Basanta’s ‘A Truly Magical Moment’Stare into each other’s eyes 21st century style in Montreal-based artist Adam Basanta’s ‘A Truly Magical Moment’

“It’s a contemporary peep show experience, related to a cryptic technology and our fetishism of that technology,” explains Valentina Peri, who curated Swipe Right! “This piece is a real trigger for visitors, even if they don’t try it. Just the idea of it, and this critical way of seeing the devices that we use every day.”

Peri curated a similar show in Paris three years ago, following it up with a book of essays by academics with insight into how digital applications are affecting our personal relationships. And nothing puts this quite into focus like dating apps.

One of the exhibition’s most intriguing installations is ‘Ashley Madison Angels at Work’ by the Berlin co-operative !Mediengruppe Bitnik. “It’s about the dating website Ashley Madison, which is targeted to people who are married, who are looking to have an affair,” says Peri.

Six years ago a group of hackers hacked the site and published all the data online – chats, names, literally everything. “What was most surprising at the time – this was 2015 – was that most of the female users were fake. They were bots. They were using scripts operating according to algorithms. Their function was to keep the male users online, because Ashley Madison’s business model is to keep users on the website as long as possible.”

‘Ashley Madison Angels at Work’  by !Mediengruppe BitnikTake your pick from the ‘Ashley Madison Angels at Work’  ©!Mediengruppe Bitnik

Ashley Madison’s bots were clever, dropping hints that suggested they were in the user’s hometown. “They appear to be real women, they have names,” says Peri. “And they are saying things like ‘hey, are you online, do you want to talk? Do you want to have a kinky chat?’”

‘Angels at Work’ sees five of these “women in Brussels” on screens that are mounted on pedestals. “They form a group, a chorus. You can walk among them. They are just synthetic faces on a screen, but they are human at the same time. Sometimes only one is talking, sometimes they all are. It’s kind of freaky. It is at once sexy and dark.”

And that is Swipe Right! in a nutshell. “While these websites and apps offer us a lot of freedom,” says Peri, “with the ability to reach people easily and experiment with new intimacies and sexualities, if you like, at the same time, there is a dark side. There is no moral judgement in this exhibition, but I am trying to show the two sides of this process, of this reality.”

Swipe Right! Data, Dating, Desire: Until 9 January, iMal, Quai des Charbonnages 30 (Molenbeek)

(Note: there is a bottle of disinfectant provided at the ‘Fetish’ installation)

Photo top: ‘VR Hug’ by Belgian artist Tom Galle. All photos provided by iMal

Written by Lisa Bradshaw