Perverse Affordances

Artist and software developer, Sarah Friend was the second artist in our Extreme Views online exhibition programme in 2018. Sarah explores the subject of human and computer relationships by focusing on the digital interface through the eyes of a neural net algorithm trained by machine learning technology, or artificial intelligence (AI).

Perverse Affordances, 2018 takes the form of a machine learning algorithm that has been trained with 10,000 screenshots of popular global social media interfaces to recognise and re-create its own versions of these software architectures. At its core is a generative adversarial neural net, which is a model in machine learning that can generate new images based on a given dataset. Through this development Sarah created a narrative of online habits which were largely shaped by the interfaces used by large platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, recontextualising this seeming hidden everyday element through the alien eyes of a machine.


The Interface

In history the interface has been touched upon by several artists over the century. Writer and philosopher Alexander Galloway wrote about this artist effect on this visual technic, expressing that visual experimentation on art’s boundaries played a central focus for modernists, and is a tradition that continues on today.



In the digital age the interface becomes a key component for the everyday usage of screen-based technology. Social media in particular utilises this element to great effect and simulates pseudo-social environments through their interfaces for continual user engagement. In many ways the interface can be considered potentially one of the biggest contributors to successful user consumption of those online spaces, which also enact centuries of visual research and experimentation by artists and designers.


















The Alien Eye: Machine Learning Algorithms

While the interface has been traditionally designed and developed by the human hand, much like all aspects of the web, the rise of AI has now disrupted traditional workflows. Machines, which are infinitely faster at learning than their creator counterparts are being deployed in all aspects of digital technology to analyse, understand and make human experience with technology ore intuitive and natural.


In this sense, Perverse Affordances, 2018 is used by the artist in several fashions. One is as an ‘other’ perspective to aid the research process on the digital interface and help reveal this integral part to the digital age. The second is as a collaborator to create a whole new social media site.




Words from Curator

Perverse Affordances speaks to me on many levels. The primary one is Friend’s use of the machine learning algorithm. In many cases and discussions AI has a dystopic connotation attached to it – whereas Perverse Affordances offers a different type of human computer relationship. One that is more collaborative and able to bring new critiques and perspectives on contemporary society to the table by introducing the concept of ‘other’, which is represented by the alien eyes of a machine.

    – Digital-U Guest Curator, Alejandro Ball


Read Alejandros Email Interview with Sarah Friend.


Sarah Friend (Canada) Bio

Sarah Friend (@isthisanart_) is an artist and software engineer working at a large blockchain development studio. When not doing that, she creates games and other interactive experiences. Her practice investigates murky dichotomies – like those between privacy and transparency, centralisation and decentralisation, and the environment and technology – with playfulness and absurdist humour. She is a proud Recurse Centre alum, and has presented at Radical Networks in Berlin, Microwave Festival in Hong Kong, and Mutek in Montreal. She was recently chosen as one of Canada’s 30 under 30 developers, is one of the organizers of Our Networks, a conference on all aspects of the distributed web in Toronto.



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