16 March 2007

In the summer of 2006, search engine AOL controversially released the searches of more than 600,000 individuals, sparking outrage at what was seen as an invasion of privacy. AOL described the publication as a "screw-up" but it was also the inspirational starting point for Canadian artist Suzi Webster. "I had read about the story in the news. The New York Times did something much more 'sensationalist'. They tracked down one of the women whose searches had been released, an older lady who I think lived in New York State. To me it sounded interesting. While you read through these people's internet searches, you built up an imaginery picture in your head of what that person would be like."

The searches, Suzi believed, reflected these people's hopes and dreams. "You would read through and pick up one piece of information... oh he's searching for porn, it must be a man, but then you'd read something else and you weren't so sure. It was difficult to work out anything solid about what these people were like."

Despite her intrigue, Suzi is not convinced she'd like to meet any of the users, "In some ways I would really not like to meet them because if you think if you think the magic happens when the viewer reads the searches and imagines what the user is like then you couldn't meet them. For me, the work exists in the moment the viewer reads it." The actual release of the searches by AOL, did worry Suzi; the fact that someone could trace everything you had searched for on the internet, and could build up some picture or idea of what you might be like, or might want to buy. "I think people should know that someone could store your internet searches. I wouldn't want to read all of mine back and think 'I really don't want someone to know I was looking for that'."

Suzi, who in her own words is a "global mongrel," has travelled extensively. Born in South Africa, she received the Isaac Ochberg Scholarship and the Elaine Forsyth Trust Scholarship before graduating from the University of Cape Town and moving to Canada. There she has exhibited widely before moving to Manchester and being selected for Artefact, FACT's artistic programme allowing North West based artists to exhibit in the building's bar. The three search lists, displayed in vinyl lettering in the bar at FACT, are part of a series of five, Suzi is planning to extend that to ten. She says she was delighted to be chosen to exhibit at FACT. "I was so excited because I knew if FACT's reputation in new media and art. I think it's really important to have a place like this in this field. Digital and new media art is, I believe, in a bit of flux... it enjoyed the first flush but a few years on from that it's in disarray."

Suzi's artefact exhibition will remain in the bar until June, meaning it will run at the same time as FACT next exhibition in the Media Lounge, Galleries 1 & 2, the first major solo UK exhibition of the work of interactive artist David Rokeby, who's also Canadian. "Since I did my foundation course in Canada I've been aware of David Rokeby," she says. "He is such a hero, definitely is one of the heroes for new media. He was one of the first and laid some really important foundations... revolutionary. He never really seemed to get credit for that from the mainstream arts industry. But I can't believe I'm exhibiting work at FACT at the same times as David Rokeby."

Searching User 1, 2 & 3 will be displayed in the bar at FACT until June. David Rokeby's exhibition, Silicon Remembers Carbon, opens at FACT 20 April until 10 June.