Ann Hirsch on the art of the scam ⌧
The artist responds to scammers with rage, regret, acceptance, and even gratitude.
While Ann Hirsch’s work tends to shape-shift across mediums, it always seems to push the boundaries of what “performance art” can mean. Back in 2008, she became a YouTube sensation for her channel “Scandalishious,” where she played Caroline, a “hipster college freshman” and cam girl who danced, vlogged, and chatted with her followers—all as one massive social-media-based performance.
Then in 2010, Hirsch became a reality TV contestant on a Bachelor-like VH1 show as a way to continue exploring self-representation, sexuality, and feminism in front of a more mainstream audience. Hirsch’s recent works continue to push the concept of personal identity into a more fluid space. She recently cross-casted herself as a porn-addicted “bro” for her play, Jason’s Crazy Night, and released a series of dark, AI-enhanced family photos—all based on actual images of her own family—in a web-based experience called SACRA FAMiGLiA.
For her launch with Gemma, Hirsch is yet again drawing on ideas of identity, persona, and trickery as fodder for exploration and manipulation. In her new Dear Scammer series, Hirsch has produced seven different “notes” written from the perspective of a scammed victim. The idea is to bring a human, emotional element to the transactional nature of a scam, reflecting on how this kind of non-consensual engagement might play out if the defrauded person could share their thoughts on being scammed with their scammer.
Below, Gemma contributor Willa Köerner speaks with Hirsch about her release with Gemma, the way she uses new technologies to reflect on her own evolution as an artist, and how today’s world can often feel like one giant web of scams.
Willa: Let’s start with the Dear Scammer series you're releasing with Gemma. Can you talk through the concept?
Ann: Dear Scammer explores the idea of talking to a scammer after they scam you. We don’t really think of scammers as real people, but behind every scam is a human. And, a lot of scams are very intricate, where a scammer will have a long conversation with you to convince you they're legit, just to drain your wallet and disappear. In that way, the scammer always gets the last word. But what if you, the unsuspecting victim, were able to get in the last word?
For the Dear Scammer series, I created seven different notes from a victim to their scammer. They range in tone and format—there is a threat, a curse, a love letter, a thank-you note, a poem, and a message of regret. There’s also a last will and testament, which describes the victim’s wishes for what they want the scammer to do with the contents of their wallet.
I really love the notes where the victim seems almost grateful, as if getting all the NFTs and crypto drained from their wallet was a relief. [Laughs] Which of the notes resonate with you the most?
I like the last will and testament, because it's almost like you're treating the scammer as someone in your family. "Okay, you have my possessions now, and even though I don't really like you, I want you to be successful with them."
Obviously nobody wants to get scammed, but in these notes I’m reminded of the feeling you get when you lose something, and you know you’re not going to get it back, so you just have to find a way to accept it and move on.
Yeah. The idea of a sunk cost, where you keep investing your time and energy and money into something even though it'd be better if you just walked away, is very prevalent in the NFT and crypto spaces. But probably we would all save ourselves a lot of energy if we just cashed out and walked away. [Laughs]
In our society, there are so many different layers to scams, and format for scams. When you start picking things apart, you realize that almost everything is a scam, even though we don't always call it that. The stock market is essentially a scam, corporate America is a scam, and so much of what the government spends their money on is literally just one huge bureaucratic scam. So it's like, “Where does what we call normalcy end, and what we call scamming begin?”
To a certain extent, scamming is just another way to hustle, and you can't knock the hustle. So on the one hand, I find scammers despicable. But on the other hand, I actually have respect for them because what they're doing is really difficult. And some of these scams are so elaborate that you really just have to admire their craft, even if it's like, "Oh man, they fucking got me."
How did you make those images? Are they AI generated or did you physically create them?
The notes are just created from a mix of writing, photographing, and scanning. It's not AI, just good old-fashioned digital image making. I made one by literally just writing the note on a piece of paper, and then scanning it. For a couple, I paid a random person to write the notes with their own handwriting. I just wanted them all to feel like real notes, from a real person, and to actually look like the thing that they're trying to represent.
I wanted to touch on another project you recently launched, Sacra Famiglia. It’s a series of AI-altered photos of your home and family that viewers can browse in a web experience that walks them through your house. It captures this relatable mood around living with young kids, where your house is equal parts mundane, sweet, and a total horror show. How’d you make these images?
I recently started getting into AI text-to-image stuff—specifically using Midjourney—but I didn’t like what I was getting back. I was like, "There has to be a more interesting way to work with this."
I had been taking pictures of my family over the past few years, so I started feeding those to the AI. Right from the start I was really interested in what came out, and how it was reinterpreting the photos I was giving it. There was an unnecessarily dark layer that the AI was adding to my photos, which felt like a subconscious interpretation on some level.
Can you give an example of what that looked like?
At one point I put in an image of my husband just standing in the kitchen, and added the prompt “pudding.” What it gave me was an image of my husband stabbing a skull with red liquid coming out. I was like, “Why did it do that? Why did the AI pick a bleeding skull?” [Laughs]
So you weren't instructing the AI to do spooky stuff—it just went that direction all on its own?
Yeah. Sometimes I would put in a slightly creepy word, like “alien,” but I wasn't like, "Picture of someone bleeding." The prompts that I used were not complicated. They were usually one-word prompts with an image, that's it. The rest was Midjourney’s dark interpretation.
It's sort of like the opposite of the “uncanny valley” concept, where humanoids give us a weird feeling when they look too lifelike. You’re getting a similarly spooky result from photos of real people that are being digitally altered to feel less human.
When I saw what it was giving me, I was like, "Oh, this is the vibe." It felt like the AI was making my home and my family scary. But it works, because I do tend to think of technology in general as this oppressive force on the family.
Technological innovation is always wrapped up in capitalism. Each technological advancement that we've made is supposed to relieve us of work, relieve us of burden—but that never happens. We always end up working more. When so much is automated, more is expected of us, and we're also paid less because it's like, "Well, it's so easy."
That's how I see technology specifically being an oppressive force—a lot of it is just about the state of the family in today's shitty world, where we're very isolated from each other, we don't have a lot of resources, and it's tough. This is all because the fabric of our society is a web of scams, basically. And you just have to hope you get in on a scam. We’re all just trying to be part of a good scam.
How has your approach to making work shifted as you’ve grown older and become a mom, and as new technologies have been introduced?
I think the biggest thing about being a mom is that I just have so much less time to make art. Becoming a mom hasn't fundamentally changed the way I think about art or the way I make art. In each state throughout my art career, I've made work that shows where I'm at in my life in relation to technology—specifically the social aspects of technology. Sacra Famiglia is just the next iteration of that where it's like, "Here I am in my life as a mom," using the new technology of today, AI, to reflect that.
I make time to keep making work because if I have a good idea, I just need to see it through. I’ve felt inspired to launch projects specifically within the NFT space, because I love that it's full of people who don't know that much about art. That's always my preferred audience—a non-art audience. Right now, for the first time, there are all these people who want to look at art, but who don’t have an art background. And for me, that's very exciting.
Gemma is an emerging community co-inhabited by artists, curators, and contributors with a shared vision for how culture can shape our future. Gemma is currently releasing a series of commissioned open edition artworks, which you can mint now. Subscribe and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to be notified about new releases.