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Greif Alumni: Q&A with Magdalena Wutkowska


We periodically invite our alumni, artists we have featured in the past, to share their new work and projects with us. Magdalena Wutkowska’s work was first featured in our Guest Room curated by John Fleetwood in 2019. We are featuring her series “Infostates”, which touches on the overwhelming abundance of information in today's world. The basis of Wutkowska’s professional work as a biologist is to sift through the information contained in the DNA of the organisms she studies. This project is an attempt to explore her attitude towards a world flooded with information of often questionable quality and content. It was created out of a desire to understand her own and other people's infostates. But it is also a foreground to ask herself a fundamental question: “How do we find balance in a space driven by information?”

Der Greif: Hi Magdalena, thanks for sharing your series, “Infostates” with us. Can you describe the inspiration behind your photo project "Infostates"? How did the idea of exploring the concept of information and its impact on individuals and society come about?

Thanks for inviting me to talk about my project. Humans generate a volume of information beyond comprehension, even in relatively narrow fields. This project started when I was finishing my PhD and felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information out there. I realized that people are often paralyzed when making important decisions amidst a flood of information, and the countless options can be confusing. I also noticed a lot of unreliable information in the media and a constant stream of fake news. This made me question how I handle all this data and how it shapes my understanding of the world. So, I set out to find better ways to navigate in this information-saturated world for myself.

Der Greif: The project appears to center around the theme of information and its role in decision-making. Could you elaborate on how you perceive the relationship between information and decision-making in the context of your project?

This is greatly influenced by my biological studies. Every living organism collects data about its environment to navigate through life, and this holds true on many levels. This information impacts various aspects of life, from which genes are expressed to changes in behavior. Humans do the same. Furthermore, we create numerous scenarios in which we can thrive, develop products that sustain our lives, improve them, or help us achieve our goals. We decide where to work, where to live, what to do with our lives, who to vote for, and how to interact with others. I believe that we require a certain amount of information from our surroundings to make all these decisions. Decision-making is a privilege; it implies that we have a choice. However, the world now offers countless choices, each with its pros and cons. Information helps us determine not only which of these many options are available but also which are best (?) for us. This information space can be significantly influenced by different individuals, groups, or companies.

Der Greif: Your project touches on the overwhelming abundance of information in today's world. How do you personally navigate this sea of information, and how has it affected your own understanding of the world?

All of my mentors and studies have taught me the importance of being critical of information. However, reality does not always allow us to fact-check every piece of information we encounter. Many of us willingly immerse ourselves in a deluge of information, driven by the fear of missing out. Much of today's technology is built around an attention-based economy, bombarding us with information. Personally, I value being well-informed. This holds true at work, where constant learning is essential, and in my numerous personal interests. Nevertheless, this is a double-edged sword because there is a limit to the brain and body's capacity to sustain constant bombardment and processing of the information collected every day. Since the beginning of “Infostates”, I have strived to be conscious of the amount and, perhaps more importantly, the quality of information I absorb, in order not to overwhelm myself. This means not only avoiding mindless scrolling but also taking regular breaks to clear my mind.

Der Greif: Your project explores the concept of the "filter bubble." Could you share your insights into how filter bubbles affect individuals and shape their perspectives of reality?

On a large scale, we have changed the way we consume information as societies, shifting from traditional sources like newspapers, radio, and television to social media news feeds. Unlike the static pages of a newspaper, which are the same for everyone who reads it, the information available on social media is highly personalized by algorithms. However, we often assume that we all encounter the same information about the world. All of this has profound consequences for how we function as a society. This phenomenon was first described by Eli Pariser, who wrote a book about it and delivered a brilliant TED talk on the subject.

Der Greif: In the context of your project, you discuss the "quality of information." How do you perceive the quality of information available in the digital era, and how do you think it impacts decision-making and understanding of the world?

The internet has given everyone the opportunity to share information in numerous ways. With so many voices online, there's an explosion of information on virtually every topic. In my project, I highlighted this by using numbers in the descriptions of my photographs, showing how abundant information is on Google searches. Of course, it's impossible to read millions of websites that appear in a search to fully grasp a topic. In most corners of the internet, there's no one checking the accuracy or trustworthiness of the information. I believe this can lead to significant problems in various areas if people aren't aware of it. There's a substantial amount of misinformation online, including deliberate efforts to spread false information for profit.

Der Greif: In your work you mention "alternative sources of information." How do you approach verifying and assessing the credibility of information from different sources during your work on this project?

While working on that project, I kept my mind open to everything related to information. Deliberately, I refrain from making any judgments about alternative sources of information or assigning a value to them. The term 'alternative' means different things to different people. Some consider it to encompass everything not proven by science, such as drugs not tested in clinical trials. However, scientists have not tested everything that exists. During my project, I read extensively about experiments focused on how information about something can impact us, including our physiology. For instance, in an experiment conducted by Alia Crum and Ellen Langer, it was discovered that simply informing people that their job is beneficial for their health improved their blood profile a month after receiving this information, by altering their mindset*. This also means that the information can have a more long lasting effects than previously thought.

*Read more in: Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer. "Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect." Psychological science 18.2 (2007): 165-171.

Der Greif: The idea of "limits of senses" is mentioned in your image captions. How do you think these sensory limitations influence our perception of reality and our ability to gather accurate information about the world?

This is one of my favourite aspects of that project because it always sparks my imagination. In general, we can’t really see the world the way it is because of our senses. Firstly, human senses can only perceive a small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum through our eyes, ears, and thermoreceptors. It's fascinating to imagine how the world around us might look, sound, smell, or feel if we could detect the remaining parts of the spectrum. This involves trying to envision how other creatures perceive the world with sets of senses that have different ranges or sensitivities or how machines such an X-ray do that. Secondly, even if we theoretically could perceive information from the environment, our brain often doesn't register it because it's occupied with other tasks at the moment. This has been demonstrated in many experiments, such as the invisible gorilla experiment, which clearly shows that we miss a lot of what is happening around us. Consequently, we always, by definition, have a skewed way of looking at the world.

Der Greif: The project was developed during the Sputnik Photos Mentoring Programme. How did this mentorship and collaboration influence the direction and growth of your project?

I joined the Sputnik Photos Mentoring Programme with the idea of creating a project about information, although it turned out a bit differently. I had always been intrigued by how the control of information (censorship, propaganda, flooding, misinformation, fake news, etc.) could be used as a tool to manipulate societies in the interests or for the profits of small groups of people in power. My initial plan was to document significant places where various practices restricted or continue to restrict people's access to information in various contexts. However, during the time I was working on my project, there were many pandemic-related restrictions on travel and access to the places I had researched. Through hours of discussions with my mentor in the program, photographer Agnieszka Rayss, she helped me reshape this initial idea to make it more personal. I firmly believe that engaging in critical conversations with Agnieszka played a crucial role in shaping both the concept and the images. It was an intense and fruitful process that I enjoyed a lot and immensely value this experience!

Der Greif: Has working on this project led to any personal revelations or shifts in your own attitudes towards information and its role in shaping your worldview?

I think it did, although the revelations appeared more as a slow, gradual process rather than a eureka moment. The project served as a means to structure the information landscape around me, and I also attempted to comprehend the ‘infostates' of other people. I believe that being aware of how information is distributed in a society and how it impacts people can help us better understand each other in this polarized world.

Der Greif: What do you hope viewers will take away from experiencing your "Infostates" project? What message or impact would you like it to have on them?

This project reflects my personal journey, and I don't claim to have any answers for anyone. But I hope the viewers will take a moment to question and think about how they approach the issues I've explored in this project. I encourage them to embark on their own journey to find their own answers to these important questions.

Der Greif: Lastly, can you tell our community what's next for your practice?

Recently, I completed a project focused on constructing false memories related to a place that is literally melting away due to climate change. This was also a personal journey that explored novel ways of working with archives, delving into the process of forming memories, and experimenting with the fusion of various techniques. Currently, I am working on several projects that aim to explore abstract ideas that hold great importance for me, similar to “Infostates”. One particular concept I am exploring is the notion of limits and boundaries. This is a broad concept that is perceived somewhat differently in or by biological systems compared to a societal context, but we often use the same words to describe it. Nevertheless, it all revolves around differentiation between the self and others, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Like “Infostates”, this is a personal project, impacted a lot by my background in biology, but I believe it holds relevance for many people in the 21st century.

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