Arts exhibit review

Art of the Internet scam

New MIT List exhiit explores deception in the virtual world

“I Must First Apologize...”

Joana Hajithomas and Khalil Joreige

MIT List Visual Arts Center

February 19 to April 17

While waiting for the train back to Boston last Thanksgiving, I was approached by a fellow traveler with a tragic story. He had lost his wallet through a recently-discovered hole in his pocket. Now he was stranded in the station with nothing. Would I be able to spare anything? Sure, no problem. I had $5. I would be glad to help out. Sitting on the train a few minutes later, I was kicking myself. Why did I fall for such an obvious scam? How could I have been so gullible? Weeks later, at an art exhibit, I found some answers. In the MIT List Center’s most recent installation, “I Must First Apologize…,” Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige pick apart the art of the online scam. Through a presentation of video and collected text, the duo examines the construction of fake online identities.

Before I entered the main exhibit, the front desk advised me to begin in “The Rumor of the World” (2014), an exhibit that fills the entirety of a side room. A dozen or so screens set on the edges of the hall provide the only light in the space. Each one shows an actor reciting the script of a scam email. Speakers dangling from the ceiling pump in fraud by the decibel: “… 63 million dollars … financial opportunity … a trustworthy source ….” A tangle of speakers hangs from the center of the room, blending the voices into a cacophony that can be heard throughout the whole exhibit. “Rumor” serves as an immersive introduction to the rest of the exhibit and also encapsulates what makes “I Must Apologize...” so engaging. By rendering the online world in the physical, the viewer can read the human intelligence behind the spam. From the mouths of real people, the scripts do not feel machine generated. The blatant deceitfulness of the spam combined with the quiet sincerity of the actors did not sit comfortably in my head. Watching the actors read these scripts triggered a small amount of cognitive dissonance, which I took with me into the main exhibit.

The rest of the exhibit is housed in a separate, well-lit room. Each piece is a scientific effort to document the world of online spam and present it in the physical world. Visitors hear a scam artist discuss his trade secrets in “Fidel” (2014), or browse a bound collection of spam emails. Hanging from the ceiling, a tangled globe of bent metal, “The Geometry of Space” (2014) traces the path from scammers to receivers in curved, stretched steel and gives tangible definition to the world of spam letters.

Most of the installation space is devoted to “The Trophy Room” (2014), which feels like an artist’s take on a natural history exhibit. In “Trophy,” thin panes of glass hold placards which detail the triumphs of “scambeaters” — vigilantes dedicated to wasting the time of scammers. When solicited by a scammer, a scambeater will trick the unsuspecting scammer into running a fool’s errand as a sign of good faith. This particular exhibit adds a nuanced layer to the exhibit’s depiction of scammers. “Trophy Room” highlights the difference between the spammers and the spammed. Most of the scambeaters seem to live in more developed nations. The pranks that they pull on the scammers, while mostly harmless, seem to cruelly take advantage of the scammers’ less privileged positions.

Taken together, the exhibits of “I Must First Apologize…” do a great job of pulling truth from noise. Although spam emails intend to mislead, they contain real information about the recipient’s expectations and credulity as the scammer perceives them. When scammers or scambeaters set out to deceive, they must consider the intelligence and emotion of the deceived. Through a series of carefully constructed pieces, “Apologize” unpacks these intricacies, extracting a profile of human trust from a collection of spam emails.

In the back of the hall, a projector rotates through a series of video portraits in “It’s All Real” (2014). In the process of recording the monologues for “The Rumor of the World,” the artists also collected genuine stories from their actors. In these accounts, a woman speaks of her life in Lebanon after fleeing Iran, and a young man expresses his wish to reunite with his missing mother. The authenticity is refreshing and a little comforting, a reminder that the world is not composed solely of scammers and scambeaters: some people are trying their best to construct a real identity