Commonwealth and Council

HIT (Human Intelligence Task)

Danielle Dean


In 1928, American automaker Henry Ford founded Fordlândia, a prefabricated industrial colony located in the Brazilian Amazon. Intended as a plantation to grow rubber for Ford car tires, Fordlândia’s strict control over Indigenous workers’ lives and lack of climate-appropriate agriculture led to worker revolts and the shuttering of the enterprise in 1934. 

Amazon, Inc. launched its Mechanical Turk (MTurk or AMT) platform in 2005. It uses crowdsourcing to match remote contractors with companies requesting high volumes of low-effort tasks, officially named Human Intelligence Tasks, or HITs; also known as “artificial artificial intelligence”—a term coined by Amazon to describe the outsourcing of certain computer tasks to humans. 

The exhibition HIT (Human Intelligence Task) comprises the latest installment in Danielle Dean’s ongoing body of works dealing with the Amazon—both the rainforest and the megacorporation—which launched last year at Performa and is currently on view at Tate Britain and the Whitney Biennial. Stemming from the odd juxtaposition of place and corporate identity gathered by seeming coincidence under the name Amazon, Dean’s research into historical labor practices at Fordlândia and those of Amazon’s present-day MTurk operation reveals an uncannily intertwined legacy of exploitation, extraction, and alienation.

Dean’s project is grounded in four years of original research into Ford’s archives in Detroit and a long-term collaboration with four AMT workers across different countries. The resulting works reflect the two companies’ use of a visual lexicon couched in layers of baroque corporate expression, old and new: from lushly-illustrated landscapes culled from advertisements, to sculptures resembling watercolor-painted marketing props, and post-apocalyptic mementos in the form of abandoned data servers sprouting their own artificial plants. Dean’s watercolors appropriate and condense scenes from car ads, their vast unpeopled horizons evoking the American mythos of Manifest Destiny, land for the taking. A vacant workstation—replicated from an actual AMT worker’s home office and set into a dreamy landscape—conjures the fantasy of in-absentia labor and the ever-present potential for sabotage and revolt. By the early 20th century, the rise of global supply chains had largely insulated both workers and consumers from the human and ecological costs of economic and technological “progress.” This is perhaps best exemplified by Amazon Mechanical Turk, a mediated platform which fragments and undermines the connections between not only contractor and work product, but contractor from employer, and human cognition from computational system, resulting in a planetary-scale mode of machinic data extraction that is, paradoxically, used to train artificial intelligence algorithms to “think” more like humans.

A new series of paintings make reference to Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, commissioned by the Ford Motor Company. Where Rivera depicts interconnected labor, machinery, science, and mythology, Dean’s subjects are the atomized AMT worker bees, siloed in their respective home offices. The frames are wreathed in ersatz rubber plants, as if to represent the insidiousness of Amazon (and modern work culture in general), worming its way into the domestic environment. AMT often distributes a single uniform task across many participants—a direct inheritance of Ford’s pioneering assembly line production. The assets now may appear intangible but the process remains similar, with a neoliberal twist: rather than Fordist paternalism dictating employees’ lifestyle and living conditions, AMT relies on an army of independent contractors who are neither guaranteed pay for their labor nor given access to those setting the tasks they are mobilized to perform. 

Dean connects the dots, outlining the continuities and discontinuities between the different legacies of capitalist exploitation as particular empire-building projects of the human, the machine, the geopolitical, and the environmental. Amazon Mechanical Turk workers constitute a digital blue-collar global workforce, for whom the signifiers of the office job—work-from-home, flexible hours, sedentary desk work—not only mask precarious labor conditions but also sustain the illusion of a voluntary workforce insulated from the environment. Looking at particular histories of capitalist representation, organization, and revolt, Dean imagines the subversion of this system of domination into its other, a platform that refigures the possibilities for resistance and solidarity across domains of place and being.

Special thanks:

Amazon Mechanical Turk collaborators: Amy Cutler, Elizabeth Rhodes, Greg Vendramini, Hunter Keels

Amedeo J Gallo

Arlene Mejorado

Brice James

Conrad Jones

Dorothy Boyd

Gala Porras-Kim

Grant Loparo

John Somers

Lilly Irani

Luisa Aguilar Solis

Manuel Shvartzberg Carrió

Marisa DeLuca

Marjolaine Lebrasseur

Matt Town

Mendel Varela

Michelle Sauer

Mireya Lucio

Olivia Leiter

Robben Muñoz

Ruoyi Shi

Sabrina Piersol

Taylor M Chapin

Tidawhitney Lek

Yaeun Choi

Danielle Dean (b. 1982, Huntsville, Alabama; raised in London; lives and works in Los Angeles) received an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 2013 and a BFA from Central Saint Martins in 2006. In 2013 she attended the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program. Recent solo exhibitions have been held at Tate Britain, London (2022); 1646, The Hague (2020); Ludwig Forum, Aachen (2019); Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills (2019); Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (2018); 47 Canal, New York (2018); Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles (2017); and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2016). Selected group exhibitions have been held at Performa, New York (2021); 47 Canal, New York (2021); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2018); South London Gallery (2018); the 6th Athens Biennale (2018); Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam (2017); Goethe-Institut Nigeria, Lagos (2016); High Line Arts, New York (2016); and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2014). Dean is the recipient of the Tomorrowland Projects Foundation Award (2021), a Creative Capital Grant for Visual Artists (2015), and a Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant (2014). She has been in residency at Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten (2017-19), The Drawing Center (2016-17), Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (2014-16), and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2012). 

Dean’s work is currently on view in Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet As It’s Kept until September 5, 2022 and in Danielle Dean: Amazon at Tate Britain through May 8, 2022.