Laborers of Love (LOL) – A Project-in-Progress by Jeff Crouse, Stephanie Rothenberg and Michael Schieben

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

Stephanie Rothenberg
Associate Professor of Visual Studies
SUNY Buffalo

“Laborers of Love” is a crowdsourcing project focused on the relationship between online sex and new models of online work – or more specifically, the mediation of desire and sexuality through the creation of a just-in-time pornography website that leverages a global online workforce not relegated to the sex industry. The project intends to raise questions about how online culture has transformed what we mean by labor, sex, gender, sexual preference and collaboration, as well as how we think of pornography in terms of production and consumption.

Fig 1:

Fig 1: Laborers of Love homepage

The project evolved from Crouse and Rothenberg’s 2008 project, “Invisible Threads”, a virtual designer jeans sweatshop created in the online 3D world of Second Life. The mixed reality performance installation explores the growing intersection between labor, emerging virtual economies and real life commodities enabled through telematic production. “Telematic” meaning the use of information communication technologies such as the internet to short cut the “middle man” and deliver a product directly from manufacturer to consumer.

In “Invisible Threads”, real life people controlling avatars (Second Life residents) were hired and trained to work in the virtual factory. The avatar workers operated virtual textile machines that symbolically manufactured real world, wearable, custom designed jeans. The customers ordered their jeans through a retail kiosk in a physical space and watched them be made in real time virtually on the assembly line. The entire process took approximately 10 minutes. When complete, the jeans were output via a large format printer.

Fig 2:

Fig 2: Invisible Threads virtual sweatshop

“Invisible Threads” provided the context for “Laborers of Love”. Instead of the virtual social networking environment of Second Life, “Laborers of Love” uses Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing engine, to create an “on demand” product. The product this time – a custom ordered pornographic video of the customer’s sexual fantasy. The difference between the two projects is that in “Invisible Threads”, the workers functioned more symbolically whereas in Mechanical Turk, the final product is completely dependent on the workers’ labor.

The crux of “Laborers of Love” is its use of crowdsourcing. Defined (and somewhat epitomized) by Wikipedia as a neologistic compound of “crowd” and “outsourcing”:

crowdsourcing makes use of group intelligence through a distributed problem-solving and production model…tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, are outsourced to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call.

Participants can range from amateurs to experts.

In 2005, Amazon.com launched the crowdsourcing Internet application Mechanical Turk (www.mechanicalturk.com). The name is derived from a chess-playing automaton of the 18th century that supposedly beat Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. The web site consists of “Requesters” who post job tasks and “Workers” who perform them. The job tasks are called “HITS” – Human Intelligence Tasks and pay from a few cents to a few dollars depending on complexity.

Most of the jobs are a few steps beyond automation – still requiring human intelligence to complete the task and only paying a few cents. Mechanical Turk calls it “artificial intelligence”. For example, a task might be to evaluate if two online product images are the same or to choose an appropriate category for an item. As of this writing approximately 200,000 workers are registered and about 50,000-100,000 HITs are always available. The average Worker spends about 8 hours per week performing HITs and earns around $10. Yet committed Workers that perform tasks all day claim income comparable to part-time and even full-time wages. Various research studies and news editorials suggest Mechanical Turk is both a form of entertainment similar to a repetitive computer video game, as well as a viable new form of online labor.

So how does “Laborers of Love” work? The process has three basic steps. First, customers input their sexual preferences into a web form and specify the amount of money that they want to spend. The form follows a classical narrative structure. Customers choose the number of characters and input brief information about them (i.e. chubby middle aged white male), determine a setting which includes special effects options, describe the plot, and finally, title the work.

Fig 3:“Laborers of Love

Fig 3: Laborers of Love customer input form

Next, their input is broken down and translated into tasks that are posted on the Mechanical Turk service. The customer’s “bid” is divided up between the tasks, so the more the user bids, the faster and better the results. Production of the video is automated and broken into individualized tasks assigned to a specific Worker who responds to the request. Workers do not get the entire narrative but a fragment (i.e. fruit section of the supermarket) leaving image or video choice completely open to interpretation. This interpretative aspect of the project and the relationship between what the customer imagines the outcome to be based on their input and how the Workers actually affect the final product is a critical component.

And as previously noted, the Mechanical Turk Workers are not sex workers per se. Anyone anywhere in the world with access to a computer can perform a HIT. Workers must only agree to age restrictions and consent to use of explicit imagery.

As soon as the first Worker responds to a HIT, the customer can watch the “creative” process on the “Laborers of Love” web site. Customers watch their order being dynamically assembled on the screen in real time via a visualization consisting of a global map showing the approximate geographic location of where the worker(s) are located and the images and video that they are choosing to be part of the product. Customer and worker identities and their exact locations are not disclosed.

Fig 4:

Fig 4: Laborers of Love data visualization of customer’s order

The images and videos selected by the Workers are then edited automatically through a custom program created in openFrameworks – an open source cross platform toolkit that provides a framework for code experimentation. In the videos, the custom program detects static, non-moving areas of the video image (i.e. backgrounds) and removes them, enabling a transparent background. The program then composites the found videos with the found images. The customer’s special effects input is used to manipulate the image and video. Similar to Final Cut Pro and Photoshop filters, effects such as lighting quality, pacing of the edit cuts, hue saturation and distortion are determined.

The final product is a recombinant video mash-up reminiscent of early 1970’s experimental hand processed films. The customer can download and/or post their video to the “Laborers of Love Online Gallery”. What began as a sexual fantasy, visceral and throbbing, ends with a rather formalist aestheticizationcomposedof light, color and fragmented body parts, as desire is processed into data. For “Laborers of Love”, the medium becomes the messaging.

Fig 5:

Fig 5: Laborers of Love still from customer’s video order