Kennedy Browne: The Special Relationship, installation at Krannert Art Museum, 2018. Photo by Della Perrone.
Kennedy Browne, Real World Harm, 2018. Still from 360º video for Oculus, 5 minutes. Courtesy of the artists © Kennedy Browne
Kennedy Browne, The Myth of the Many in the One, 2012. Still from HD video, 19 minutes. Courtesy of the artists © Kennedy Browne
Kennedy Browne: The Special Relationship, installation at Krannert Art Museum, 2018. Photo by Della Perrone.

How do we confront the wide-reaching effects of multinational technology corporations on sustainable practices of labour, citizenship, and privacy? Prompted by stolen elections, privacy activists, the rise of xenophobia, and blatant data breaches, governments and courts are beginning to ask fundamental questions of an industry that has undergone more than two decades of rapid continuous growth and influence. Alongside the official inquiries, there is a need for critical imagination—to consider the mythmaking of innovation narratives, the very materials of internet technology, the dimensions of time and history at stake, and ungraspable systems on a human scale.[1] In short, there is a need for moving images and sculpture.

Consider Real World Harm, the third entry in artist duo Kennedy Browne’s The Redaction Trilogy, completed in 2018.[2] The smooth oval shape of an Oculus virtual reality headset is enlarged into a heavy black floor mat in the centre of a gallery, almost doubling as a substantial table top in a corporate boardroom. Two discreet arrangements face off across the mat: on one end, Oculus headsets rest on a railing that is painted to match their dull grey colour; and on the other, five standing speakers gather in a manner suggesting a chorus. As you approach this installation, you may or may not know that Oculus was designed by Palmer Luckey, the American entrepreneur and founder of Anduril Industries, which works in concert with U.S. military forces to surveil the country’s southern border with drones and virtual reality technologies.[3] You may or may not know that Facebook owns Oculus (Luckey has not been an employee since early 2017) and that by wearing the device you agree to adhere to the laws of the state of California (excepting residents of Germany). You agree to only bring individual small claims in dispute (no class action law suits), and the movement of your eyes will be tracked and recorded. You may or may not be excited at the prospect of wearing a visually and sonically immersive device under these conditions.[4]

In Real World Harm, Kennedy Browne produced a 360-degree video for the Oculus headsets. The grey railing provides balance and orientation toward the black mat while you watch. In just under six minutes, a white German accented man named Glaucon carries the camera (and you) on the end of a selfie stick in the small Irish town of Portarlington, first in the middle of a traffic roundabout next to a clock, and then in front of the main offices for the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC). If you turn your head, you can follow cyclists, cars, and birds moving around you as if you were there in real time.

Real World Harm’s 360-degree video is a lesson in privilege and invisibility. Glaucon, named for the character in Plato’s Republic, provokes us to join him in a thought experiment. He asks whether your actions would be moral if you were invisible to the world but tracked by someone else who is always watching behind the scenes. He relays that you gain invisibility by either wearing an imaginary ring or by having an actual racialized (white) and gendered (male) body. Glaucon expands his treatise to corporations, and the significance of the video’s site becomes clear. The DPC in Ireland, from this Irish town of just under 8,500 inhabitants, governs social media users’ rights in all of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Their remit encompasses 1.6 billion users whose complaints, should they arise, would each come through this office. The video is a clear reference to Max Schrems, the Austrian lawyer and privacy activist known for his campaigns against multi-national tech corporations in violation of EU privacy laws when they transferred personal data to the US National Security Agency as part of the PRISM program, revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013.[5]

Significantly, Ireland has grown into a major hub for multi-national corporations, and the resulting political and cultural context undergirds all of Kennedy Browne’s work.[6] A creative entity of Irish visual artists Gareth Kennedy and Sarah Browne, their lives track to the most consequential neoliberal governments in the twentieth-century, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan each took office (the artists born in 1979 and 1981, respectively). Kennedy Browne’s collaboration, which functions independently from the artists’ individual practices, dates to 2005 and the early years of user-driven Web 2.0 (the founding of YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and beyond). These dates are substantial because they embed Kennedy Browne’s work in world events and underscore the artworks’ temporal play as artefacts of twenty-first century capitalism. The artists offer a history of our present and contribute to what anthropologist Lucy Suchman has called “the project of relocating future-making” by decentring the most prominent sites, practices, and faces of innovation.[7]

Glaucon is an archetype for the entrepreneur and world-is-your-oyster internet user. Kennedy Browne’s Real World Harm places his figure into an encounter with another labour force that has appeared with the rise of social media corporations. Across the Oculus-shaped black mat are the voices of five former content moderators and all low-wage contract employees with companies including Facebook, Myspace, and Whisper.[8] Each of their voices emits from a single standing speaker. Charged with flagging harmful content, these workers, whose profiles are becoming more public due to a handful of whistle-blowers and solid reporting, are more likely to be multilingual, people of colour, and without workplace support for the traumatizing requirements of the job.[9] In the sound installation, the interview subjects describe their experiences doing this kind of internet work. Topics range from the duration they were able to stomach the job (“the average person would probably last less than a year”), assured knowledge of their expendability, the extended toll that comes from allowing hate speech to remain online, and the shocked reactions of friends and family members once they shared what they were required to see (“you were doing this for one dollar?”). Listening to their work conditions, and the images they describe is jarring and upsetting, too much reality in response to Glaucon’s question, “can there be such a thing as a harmless pleasure?”

“Real world harm” is an industry term for risk in the offline world that social media corporations mitigate through policies described in their community standards.[10] Encountering Kennedy Browne’s artwork forces our thinking on the ethics of looking and the responsibilities of collective citizenship in societies where the internet is so prominent. Kennedy Browne’s formal decisions also reframe our perspective. In Real World Harm, an inviting sculptural arena embraces all users, with speakers arranged to relate to the scale of the body. The installation turns us away from a neoliberal emphasis on individual responsibility. This work resounds with other recent examples in contemporary art that interrogate labour, data, and vision (Andrew Norman Wilson’s Workers Leaving the Googleplex from 2011 and Thomson and Craighead’s A Short Film About War from 2009), and that wage active interference in social media (Lauren McCarthy’s intimate performances as your in-home Amazon Alexa and Ben Grosser’s data-switching browser extensions for Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook).

Kennedy Browne’s subtle play of majoritarian and minoritarian positions asks who becomes legendary and whose lives are most adversely affected by the cultures of digital industry. This aspect of their work connects with the previous instalments in The Redaction Trilogy.[11] The Myth of the Many in the One and The Wonder Years from 2012 and 2013 distil the boyhood biographies of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Bob Noyce, Paul Allen, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Wozniak, Bill Hewlett, and Dave Packard into a single script for a video and a selection of artefacts from their lives (e.g. a rocking horse, a pipe bomb, a biography of Napoleon, and the LIFE Magazine issue from July 12, 1968 covering the Biafran War in Nigeria). How Capital Moves from 2010 renders in video projection six avatars the artists constructed after reading a Dell employee online discussion forum. Their text is performed by one Polish actor wearing six different types of pyjamas, a reference to a company call centre layoff in Roseburg, Oregon on a workday designated (absurdly as corporate comradery) for employees to wear pyjamas.

Kennedy Browne understands redaction as a process of working. More than making occasional texts with marked omissions, the artists draw from banal and often analogue business materials to offer a bigger picture of common patterns and narratives of global capital, always illuminating connections and discerning artistic forms. A Styrofoam pedestal in How Capital Moves comes from a packaging supplier for the now shuttered Dell factory in Limerick; in Real World Harm, a brief text on the front of the headset is extracted from the extensive Oculus terms of service (Glaucon asks you to review this at the conclusion of the video); and Max Schrems’s Retrieved Facebook Data is a stack of 811 pages that Schrems successfully obtained from the company before any other users were able to (and which he made available online and expressly for Kennedy Browne to exhibit). When writer Joshua Craze analyses the effects of political and military redactions, he acknowledges their appeal to fantasy. Craze describes redacted textual omissions as “visible invisibles,” after Donald Rumsfeld’s war tactics, because “they gesture…at the borders of the visible, and give one a momentary vision, within the redacted documents, of an invisible space that signals the limits of legitimated knowledge.”[12] Produced amidst the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Kennedy Browne’s Real World Harm lingers in the redacted spaces of what we know but can’t quite see and maybe don’t want to realize. Their attention to producing new perspectives on technology and recent history goes beyond simply uncovering the truth—always a complicated proposition—and invites you to step onto the mat.[13]  


[1] I have been fortunate to think with Kennedy Browne’s work alongside scholarship and public events in critical technology studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, including the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory’s Spring 2018 seminar, “Technocultural Futurisms: Code/Hack/Move,” and the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities conference “Humanities and the Arts in the Age of Big Data” in October 2018.

[2] The Redaction Trilogy and other bodies of work were included in my survey exhibition Kennedy Browne: The Special Relationship at Krannert Art Museum, on view from October 4, 2018 to February 9, 2019. My description of Real World Harm in this essay pertains to this first iteration of the installation.

[3] Steven Levy, “Inside Palmer Luckey’s Bid to Build a Border Wall,” June 11, 2018: and Lee Fang, “Defense Tech Startup Founded by Trump’s Most Prominent Silicon Valley Supporters Wins Secretive Military AI Contract,” The Intercept March 9, 2019.

[4] Kennedy Browne includes these specifics in Disclaimer, a vinyl text adhered to the front of the headset. The text is the artists’ redaction of the Oculus Terms of Service.

[5] Hannah Kuchler, “Max Schrems: The Man Who Took on Facebook and Won,” Financial Times April 4, 2018: See also

[6] Pollyanna Rhee, “Between Boston and Berlin,” The Avery Review 40 (May 2019): Accessed July 17, 2019.

[7] Lucy Suchman, “Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design,” Annual Review of Anthropology 40 (2011): 2.

[8] Conversation with the author (July 13, 2018). The workers’ companies are not identified in Real World Harm.

[9] Olivia Solon, “Revealed: Facebook Exposed Identities of Moderators to Suspected Terrorists,” The Guardian June 16, 2017: and Casey Newton, “Bodies in Seats,” The Verge June 19, 2019:

[11] These works are documented extensively in the artist publications Kennedy Browne, How Capital Moves (cottagelab: 2011) and The Myth of the Many in the One (cottagelab: 2013). See also Caoimhín Corrigan, ed. Kennedy Browne: IrelandVenice (Carrick-on-Shannon: The Dock, 2009).

[12] Joshua Craze, “Excerpts from a Grammar of Redaction,” in Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, ed. Anthony Downey (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015): 390.

[13] Thanks to Kevin Hamilton for signaling Kennedy Browne’s emphasis on production. For The Hugh Lane exhibition in 2019, Kennedy Browne is staging a series of talks and workshops called Digital Self Defence on the mat.