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Making art of the con, the scam and the spam


Only in the Information Age could those teeming billions of unwanted, mostly unreadable computer e-mail messages called spam possibly be considered objects worthy of serious artistic attention.

But New York-based conceptual artist Graham Parker has seen the writing on the wall, so to speak.

Parker, whose show Actual Size is on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery, uses Internet spam - anonymous, computerized commercial pitches for everything from prescription drugs and low-interest home loans to fake Rolex watches and online dating services - to explore the spirit of our era.

"I'm of a generation that was very self-consciously introduced to computers," says Parker, 35. "So, as with any kind of new technology, you're aware of how it changes your sensibility, just as you're aware of how the spread of cell phones has changed the way you think about your day."

The term "spam," Parker says, probably comes from an anecdote current in the early 1960s about the development of mass marketing techniques.

"Basically, someone described the art of public relations as throwing a can of Spam into the air conditioner and seeing what sticks," Parker says.

That fits the spammers' practice of indiscriminately sending out millions of unsolicited messages at a time. Because until now, spam e-mails have been free, and even if only a few people respond, the advertiser can still make a profit.

Parker constructs elegant works on paper, installations and other objects out of the seemingly meaningless fragments of text that turn up in spam e-mails. His prints, for example, are precisely ordered geometric constructions whose forms are lettered in tiny, 4-point type, the smallest size legally recognized by the courts.

Tricking the filters

Like many of his peers, Parker first became aware of the Internet as an artistic medium in the 1990s. Soon, however, his focus shifted more to an investigation of its content.

"I became interested in it more as a subject, in what happened when this virtual, global, placeless thing met local traditions," says Parker, who was living in Manchester, England, at the time.

"Initially what interested me were those spam letters that promise to give you $5 million if you'll open a joint account [with the sender] and deposit $20,000," Parker recalls. "I realized these messages were being sent to appeal to people's gullibility and vanity - and that some people actually were taken in by the con."

Parker also explored so-called "phishing" scams, a form of identity theft in which a spammer claiming to be a bank or credit card company tries to elicit information about the recipient's account.

Several of Parker's works at Grimaldis are built out of short texts that have nothing to do with the product or service being pitched, but are there solely to trick the electronic filters in the recipient's computer that are supposed to screen out unwanted messages.

In The Master Key, for example, Parker created a series of prints based on bits of spam text pilfered from a 1901 novel by L. Frank Baum, who also wrote The Wizard of Oz. The story involves a boy who summons a demon endowed with seemingly magical powers that involve electrical forces. Since some computers apparently recognize phrases from the book from other online sources, spammers use snippets of Baum's text to gain access to machines that otherwise would be protected.

E-mail newspapers

One of the more unusual uses Parker makes of this electronic clutter is creating his own newspapers out of recently received spam e-mails.

The broadsheet pages look like those of a daily business journal or racing form, until one notices that the "articles" are printed in such minuscule type that they are barely legible. Parker likes to have these broadsheets printed the night before his shows open, so that visitors to the gallery will recognize the messages as e-mails they already have read on their own computers.

In his investigation of the Internet, Parker also has found historical parallels in the network of railroads constructed in the 19th century, which brought together people who previously had been isolated from one another - city slicker and country rube, for example - and vastly expanded the repertoire of confidence tricks. His installation Long Con, in which the name of the scam is spelled out in bright pink neon lights, evokes the intricate web of deceit that some confidence tricksters wove around their victims.

"Elaborate sting operations would be set up where someone would befriend you on the train or offer to guide you around town," Parker says. "Your whole experience of the city would be entirely fictional until the moment you were robbed."

ACTUAL SIZE -- C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. -- 410-536-1080

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