Mónica Alcázar-Duarte explores the dangers hidden behind the algorithm

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The Mexican-British artist gathered over 100 accounts from Mexican women who have experienced the result the embedded digital bias

With every query typed into a search engine, algorithms learn and continually influence which images display as a result. As we consider the role this technology plays in our everyday lives, how does it impact and perpetuate bias? Second Nature, an ongoing project by the Mexican-British multidisciplinary artist Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, considers how such bias and discrimination are digitally embedded into different strata across society. 

From the shadows they keep coming. The title comes from a fragment of web search results I got in 2019. The search included the terms: Mexican. Mexican women, Mexicans are. © MonicaAlcazar-Duarte.

The experiences of growing up in Mexico City and being a migrant have both deeply influenced Alcázar-Duarte’s way of thinking and seeing. As part of her research for Second Nature, she spent a year speaking to Mexican women living in Mexico, the US and the UK, gathering over 100 accounts of racial inequality. Pre-existing cultural or social expectations, which in turn enter into algorithmic structures, can be pinpointed as the reasons for such experiences. The process of making the project drew on these interviews and “became a way of representing things I couldn’t witness directly, but were present throughout my research,” says Alcázar-Duarte. These occurrences underpin negative stereotypes and perpetuate prejudices that are misleading. It brings about what she explains as, “The psychological impact of digital deceit and manipulation in which swathes of people, specifically from the Mexican community, were being ‘othered’.”

The women’s stories reveal patterns where particular sentiments surface repeatedly. Alcázar-Duarte’s human-centred approach takes these commonalities and restages them figuratively in the studio. She places her body in front of a black backdrop and uses props to emphasise how cultural stereotypes can create bias. “It raises further questions as to how mathematical algorithms are being used to classify human beings,” says Alcázar-Duarte. “The algorithm doesn’t allow for any expansion of certain conceptions from particular nationalities, such as how Mexican communities have been associated with violence, corruption and migration.” 

200 Billion per year. The title comes from a fragment of web search results I got in 2019. The search included the terms: Mexican. Mexican women, Mexicans are. © MonicaAlcazar-Duarte.

Alcázar-Duarte’s use of augmented reality is combined with traditional studio portraiture and intricate drawings, deconstructing the paradigms affiliated with aspects of these mediums. This enables her “to take part in a larger conversation regarding the use of technology and the influence of data in our present and future lives”. Layering linguistic symbols evokes the “emotions produced by these invisible structures of power,” she explains. The work pushes the boundaries and “uses the limits of photography to interrogate what gives images meaning. In the case of Second Nature, how we might also counteract them”. The series further draws attention to technical terminologies and their connection to the Anthropocene. Terms such as ‘web’, ‘stream’ and ‘cloud’ reflect nature. “These are often used intentionally to make the idea of technology and its capabilities more accessible, enabling it to sit comfortably in our minds,” she says.

The work reveals many complex facets in which visual language and the haptic properties of technology irrevocably expose the inequalities that affect rights, access to care and economic wealth. “How is the delegation of algorithmic filters capable of extracting the majority opinion, thus automatically becoming truth?” Alcázar-Duarte asks. By mediating the representation through data, these myriad structures make it overtly clear how entangled systemic biases really are. 

How do you stop these people. The title comes from a fragment of web search results I got in 2019. The search included the terms: Mexican. Mexican women, Mexicans are. © MonicaAlcazar-Duarte.
Bindi Vora

Bindi Vora is an artist, curator and Curatorial Project Manager at Autograph, London. Her recent curatorial project Poulomi Basu: Centralia was awarded the Rencontres d’Arles - Louis Roederer Discovery Award (2020). Since joining Autograph, Vora has co-curated solo exhibitions including Lola Flash: [sur]passing and Maxine Walker: Untitled. She has written for publications including British Journal of Photography and Foam Magazine; most recently contributing to a series of artist conversations for Autograph, which have included multidisciplinary artists such as Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, Maryam Wahid and Tobi Alexandra Falade amongst others. Vora has contributed to public programmes at London Art Fair and The Photographers’ Gallery.