Bezos, bodies, and backprop
Jonathan Zong’s ‘BODY TEXT’ exhibition is more than meets the eye
Jonathan Zong G
Wiesner Student Art Gallery
On display until Feb. 27, 2020
A blank keyboard. A box of receipts. The name “Jeff Bezos” stickered onto the wall. At first glance, Jonathan Zong’s BODY TEXT exhibition intrigues with its deceptively innocuous exterior. But for observers who care to read between the lines, BODY TEXT navigates the boundary between bodies and machines, lamenting both the aggregation of identity and invasion of the individual in the digital age. Told through visual media as unbounded as its message, BODY TEXT is a search for self within an increasingly impersonal world created by technology.
Situated opposite the gallery entrance, the “Jeff Bezos” display mentioned earlier immediately greets my arrival. Upon closer inspection, I realize that the letters are composed of partially erased outlines of recognizable faces: celebrity faces taken from a facial recognition training dataset. It’s a commentary on how these datasets are mined from the internet, often without consent, and fed into artificial neural networks programmed to decompose faces into features and aggregate them, denying individuality and amplifying bias. “Jeff Bezos” offers a human perspective on machine learning, told from a side we don’t usually consider. We love training our ML models to perform neat tricks, but where does the data come from? What do the outputs mean for the individual? Stare too hard at the words and you miss the faces.
Like “Jeff Bezos,” other pieces in the room convey complex messages of identity and tech that aren’t immediately obvious from the elegantly simple displays. The blank keyboard mentioned earlier is part of “Biometric Sans,” an interactive typewriter which preserves the personality of handwriting lost in the regularity of typeface by elongating letters based on typing speed. The "box of receipts" actually contains a printed record of every “sorry” sent by Zong via Facebook Messenger from 2008 to 2018. Though the content of the messages is personal to Zong, “A Box of Apologies” speaks to any user of social media, a testament to the duality of our perfectly curated online personalities and not-so-perfect selves, with regrets buried beneath inbox notifications and exaggerated smiles.
The rest of BODY TEXT addresses topics ranging from public surveillance to violent masculinity to food scarcity, sometimes through the lens of humor. I was surprised by “jeff bezineo’s amazine dream” (made in collaboration with Kathleen Ma), a collection of zines — printed booklets with an organic, MS Paint feel. But hidden within the flippant text, jokes, and meme imagery of the zines are angry, rational criticisms of Amazon’s business practices and their consequences on individuals. Passive-aggressive in the best way, Zong and Ma’s zines are a woke comic form which delightfully defied my expectations.
In fact, defying expectations seems to be one of the only common threads encapsulating BODY TEXT, as Zong himself attests, “[no one thing is] going to completely index ‘all this.’” The final piece in the exhibition catalog, “Messages and Means,” is displayed in the center of the gallery. The piece leaves us with insight into the “headspace” that produced such works and anchors us back to reality. “Messages and Means” is a photographic self-portrait of the artist which depicts not only longing for his undergrad days in the Visual Arts Program at Princeton but also his desire for a stronger graphic design community at MIT.
Echoing this last sentiment regarding MIT, BODY TEXT embodies its own theme in a very meta style. For starters, the exhibition is tucked away in the Wiesner Student Art Gallery on Stud 2, one of the least frequented corners of the bustling Student Center, speaking to a broader message about the secondary (or even ternary) position of art and design at an institution which prides itself on technicality. We reduce building names and majors to numbers, punt HASS classes like chores, and pigeonhole humanities into Course 21. I myself am no less guilty, walking into Wiesner to view BODY TEXT at 10 p.m. on a weekday night, preoccupied with thoughts of the 18.06 pset due at 12 a.m. Even this article is the first non-technical writing I’ve done in too long, and my neglected, half-finished artwork continues to pile up, casualties of the firehose.
But how can an institution which disregards design and humanities produce the engineers and scientists building systems to be used by people and impact lives? In that sense, BODY TEXT is a nuanced reminder to step back and consider the social implications of the systems we create and to question the whys, not only the hows, of the problems we solve. To take BODY TEXT at face value would be to miss the entire point of the exhibition, designed to provide food for thought with an aftertaste which lingers long after stepping out of the gallery.