Photo: Nick Berardi

Flower Power

Artist Gretchen Andrew '10 is manipulating the internet to change the world. 

On election day last November, something strange happened if you typed the phrase "the next American president" into the Google Images search bar. The top results weren’t shots of Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or even Bernie Sanders—rather, some of the first photos to appear were of a collection of mixed-media collages, dripping with fake flowers and fabric butterflies. And when you clicked on these collages, it took you to a website where the artist behind them listed the qualities she wanted in the future leader of the free world, among them kindness, respectfulness, and curiosity.

That artist would be Gretchen Andrew ’10, a self-described "internet imperialist." She manipulates search-engine algorithms in a way that allows her whimsical artworks, which she calls vision boards, to temporarily dominate search results. Gretchen—who prefers to go by just her first name—has used the process to needle pricey art schools (search term: "best MFA") and take aim at prestigious art prizes and institutions ("Whitney Biennial"; "cover of Artforum"). "I’ve always seen what I do as a critique of power," she told me, "tech power, art power, demographic power, and economic power."

Gretchen, who grew up in New Hampshire, studied information systems at the Carroll School of Management on a partial running scholarship. Her first job out of Boston College was at Google. But after two years, she became disillusioned. "Silicon Valley’s utopian ideals were not being lived out," she said. "I wasn’t seeing a diverse set of people succeed." So, she decided to become an artist, taking YouTube lessons before moving to London, in 2012, to apprentice with the painter Billy Childish. By the time Gretchen landed in Los Angeles in 2018, her vision had crystallized: she’d blend art and tech to take the powerful to task.

I spoke with Gretchen as she was readying for an exhibit of her vision boards at the Annka Kultys Gallery in London.

How did you decide on vision boards as your medium?
I make work that doesn’t look like what it’s capable of. That’s how I’ve always felt as an artist, or as a woman in tech—that the perception of the visual surface hides the power of what is actually going on intellectually and technically. I want to be my full self and I want to represent that in a way that puts it in people’s faces. Why does this look wrong in the context of tech power? Changing my practice to make vision boards—which are on canvas and involve drawing and painting—turned up the volume on what I feel is the elephant in the room.

How do you get your artworks to the top of internet searches?
I pick the search term first and then I look at research, buy some URLs, and evaluate how easy it’s going to be for me to take over the search results from an information-systems perspective. And then I make vision boards about what I want the search term to represent, or what I want the future of it to be. I photograph them and put them on a WordPress site, where I just talk about what I want. There’s some alt text and metadata and more technical aspects, but so much of this is actually just speaking in English about what I want. Technology, being fundamentally binary, deals only in relevance. So, when I say, I want to be on the cover of Artforum, you know that I’m not there yet. That’s very obvious to us as people, but Google and Facebook only learn that I am relevant to the cover of Artforum. The collapsing of all human relationships into relevance is potentially very dark and could have some very negative implications, but it’s also this space that I can blow up, expand, and play in through my practice.

In a recent interview, you said that "human desire is stronger than any technology." How so?
The internet is this huge, powerful thing that we often feel under the thumb of. But by literally talking about what I want, I change the entire outlook of it. Most artificial intelligence is educated based on historical data, using only what has been to predict what will be. By programming a vision board into A.I., I’m programming potential futures and educating A.I. based on the world we want, instead of the world we had. And that, to me, is so important for conversations around diversity and openness and inclusion that we need in every aspect of technology.

You call yourself an internet imperialist. What does that mean?
The tools and methods I use for projecting my hopes and desires onto the global internet are very similar to the methods people use to manipulate us politically, to manipulate us into buying things. This happens all the time in ways we don’t see. My practice is intentionally quite playful and about the positive aspects of where technology fails. I want it to be fun and inclusive, but I also know that it has very dark implications. So, I use the term internet imperialist in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way, but also to acknowledge and open up the opportunity for conversations about colonization online.

How would you describe your art?
It’s playful, it’s hopeful. So much of my work isn’t about trying to fix technology—or to point a finger to the apocalypse that it might create—but to take back some of the control. Redefining our relationship with technology is a much better path forward than trying to fix it.

So, are you an activist?
There are obviously some activist aspects of what I do, but at the same time, there’s a little bit of this guise that’s sincere. This is about what I want. This is about me, as a woman, as Gretchen, as a person in tech taking power for myself, using it the way I want to use it, and creating the life that I want. It’s about me getting paid to be myself without making any compromises or fitting into a certain mold. I’m doing it in a way where it is sort of a performative cult of myself and the world I want, but it’s actually giving everyone permission to take a system and to make it work for themselves. ◽