Off-Campus Profiles

“Internet Imperialist”: Andrew Breaks Tech Industry Barriers With Her Art

For art lovers around the world, the internet is an ever-expanding tool for exploration. Rather than facing the crowds of art museums, patrons can explore artwork from their homes with a quick Google search. While many people see the internet as a tool to find quick information, Gretchen Andrew sees the search as art itself.

Growing up in New Hampshire, Andrew, BC ’10, said she admired the opportunities that come with living in a city like Boston. While she was searching for colleges to attend, not only was Andrew looking for academic rigor, but she was also navigating the recruitment process of a college athlete. When she received an offer from the Boston College track and field team, she immediately knew the decision she would make. Andrew entered the Carroll School of Management with an interest in information systems. At the time, fewer than 30 students had a primary concentration in information systems, she said.

“A lot of people had it as a second concentration because the requirements were very, very light compared to finance or some of the more popular CSOM majors, so people sort of tacked it on,” Andrew said. “Whereas for me, [I was] like, ‘Cool. I’m gonna take more liberal arts classes instead.’”

The liberal arts curriculum at BC introduced Andrew to a range of new ideas, particularly in philosophy and theology, she said.

“I didn’t grow up Catholic at all, but I grew up … interested about religion,” Andrew said. “As I’ve been figuring out my own path and finding my ways into things, there’s that feeling of something clicking that I think I hadn’t encountered—the concept of vocation.”

With this idea of vocation in mind, Andrew continued her journey as a BC student, running on the track team, attending football games, and taking trips into the city. As a lover of art and culture, Andrew spent many of her Sundays in Boston’s art museums and at concerts. She would even venture to New York, frequenting museums like The Museum of Modern Art.

Andrew also had several internships during her time at BC. She began with the TechTrek program in CSOM before finding a job with Intuit. Andrew spent each summer working with Intuit while at BC. As graduation approached, Andrew said she used these connections to boost her chances at landing a job. After applying to 23 job opportunities, she only heard back from one.

Google was the first and only job offer Andrew received, and she said it was her dream job. Immediately following graduation, Andrew moved to Silicon Valley to begin her position as a people technology manager at Google.

“I felt that the information systems degree was uniquely qualifying for places like Google—for anyone that was looking at institutional change and technology kind of coinciding,” Andrew said. 

Upon joining Google, Andrew focused on human resource information systems and helped design the systems Google uses to manage internal operations and employee data. Andrew also studied the ways in which information structures can influence advertising. But being an employee at Google required knowledge in a variety of subjects, including the workings of the search engine, she said.

In many ways, Andrew had her ideal career ahead. She was in a sought-after position in one of the most powerful and upcoming companies in the world—a true CSOM success story, Andrew said.

While Andrew had the credentials for her position, she felt she was at a disadvantage compared to her colleagues.

“Google is such a big organization that they have people in sales, people in HR, and all of these different areas, but the leaders of the industry, the people that were considered to be visionaries, were not female,” Andrew said. “Something I really felt underprepared for going into the industry was that gender was going to be something that I had to navigate on a daily basis.”

The gender divide in the workforce reminded her of the experience she had studying business as a female. In her four years at BC, she only had one female professor in CSOM. During her TechTrek internship, she found no women in the business-technology industry, she said.

Even after securing her position in Google, Andrew said she felt a constant pressure to prove her worthiness as a female employee in a male-dominated industry, she said. While her male colleagues saw work-sponsored social events as opportunities for team bonding and building relationships, Andrew viewed them as strictly networking events.

Andrew said that as she began to question her place at Google, she thought back to her liberal arts education at BC and the idea of a vocation. As she had learned at BC, a vocation is a calling to one’s life work. She wondered if an environment of gender discrimination and strict hierarchy truly aligned with her life calling.

“I wanted to be able to really create my own path, and it seems like Google was a place that would allow that,” Andrew said. “But ultimately, my time at Google was defined by specific people [and] specific managers that I worked with.”

Though Andrew left her dream position at Google after 18 months, she had not lost her passion for the internet and its functions. With extensive knowledge of information systems and the workings of search engines, Andrew saw potential for success within herself, she said. For her, the internet was a vessel to craft the future she desired.

“I sort of set it as a challenge, like I really believed in the internet, really believed it could change my life, and believed it could make me into something that I wasn’t yet,” Andrew said.

With Silicon Valley behind her, Andrew turned to another passion—art. While she had dabbled in darkroom photography while at BC, Andrew had no formal art training. With Google behind her, Andrew traded Silicon Valley for London to study art technique with a mentor. Through a friend, she came into contact with English painter Billy Childish.

“I’d been trying to spend time in artists’ studios, and it hadn’t really clicked or worked, but this relationship did work,” Andrew said. “I think it was the right time for me and the right time for him as the mentor.”

Under his direction, she studied oil painting, but her interest in information systems did not falter, she said.

Andrew created a series of paintings, titled them after Childish, and uploaded them to her website. She quickly found that her art was being miscategorized. Rather than being labeled as pieces inspired by Childish, Andrew’s art was incorrectly attributed to him. Andrew’s own art would appear when searching for Childish’s work.

“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ because the internet’s not wrong,” Andrew said. “How is it that technology and search is approaching and categorizing the world? It’s different and less nuanced than the way that we do it.”

The search engines were correct in connecting Andrew’s work and Childish’s work, but they failed to differentiate creation from inspiration. With this newfound discovery, Andrew began researching linguistics and how the internet interprets the language of humans. She noticed certain words would perform better when categorized by search engines than others. She said abstract concepts such as “metaphor” and “desire” were more likely to be miscategorized by search engines because of their inherent ambiguity. It is easier to define words that refer to concrete objects than to define complex human ideas, Andrew said.

By studying the relationship between language and the artificial intelligence used to direct search engines, Andrew has become a self-proclaimed “Internet Imperialist.” She created this title for herself, recognizing her power as an individual over massive entities like Google. Through careful manipulation, Andrew has discovered the key to changing the course of internet searches.

Publishing her first pieces and noticing the discrepancy in the attributions exposed Andrew to digital loopholes in search engine technology. By attaching her artwork to hundreds of URL links, she broadens her images’ online presence. As these sites gain traction, these images are boosted in Google’s search algorithm, eventually finding a place among the first few results of certain searches.

The images that she spreads throughout the internet are her “vision boards”—pictures of her artwork. As these images become more prominent in search results, Andrew’s dreams come to reality, she said, because she is able to simultaneously fulfill her passion for art and the internet.

Colter Ruland, a member of PR For Artists—Andrew’s public relations team—said that while her internet skills are impressive, they can sometimes overshadow the value of her artwork itself.

“I think viewers sometimes overlook the physicality and artistry of her vision boards,” Ruland said. “What usually takes the headlines are the search engine manipulations and how she’s rewriting internet AI, which is great. The vision boards themselves, however, are so intricate, dreamlike, and communicate a sense of positive abundance.”

Andrew wanted to insert herself into prestigious art auctions, so she let the internet believe she had actually broken art auction records. The first image results that appear when Googling “contemporary art auction record” are pictures of Andrew’s art. While she was not actually present at these shows, she has led Google to believe otherwise.

“One of the strange magics in my work is that by making work about wanting to succeed and wanting to be part of the art world, I actually am increasingly becoming those things,” Andrew said.

Like her vision boards, Andrew herself is abundantly positive, Aubrie Wienholt, CEO of PR For Artists, said. Wienholt said Andrew lights up any room with her optimism.

“Her whole practice is a reflection of her manifestations,” Wienholt said. “It’s dealing with what she wants to manifest in the world, and she really brings that to her interactions with myself and her team.”

Through her work, Andrew said she hopes to critique the power structures in modern society. In a world largely run by men, especially the tech industry, she said she inserts her unapologetically feminine energy to challenge these traditional notions. A Google search for “the next American president” will not immediately provide images of the 2020 presidential candidates. Instead, the first pictures that come up are Andrew’s colorful collages. She creates a dichotomy between the male-dominated world of Google and the feminine imagery in her art.

“My work is very much about luxury and pools and champagne,” she said. “At the same time, it equally critiques these power structures that expose all of these differences. I think it gives permission especially to women to mold reality the way that they want it to be molded.”

While Andrew specializes in expanding her digital presence, she has also connected with viewers in a physical space. Her latest show, Trust Boundary, opened in October 2021 in Linz, Austria. This exhibit features an interactive vision board that allows visitors to contribute their own ideas through glitter, magazine clippings, and stickers. Also in this show, Andrew showcased the physical vision boards for three exhibits: Contemporary Art Auction Record, NYTimes Art, and Map of the EU.

Looking forward, Andrew is embarking on a project to manipulate social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram. She said she hopes to challenge the traditional advertising system that follows users throughout their internet usage. Rather than being bombarded with unrealistic beauty standards, Andrew hopes to create “affirmation ads” that reaffirm viewers of their own beauty.  

“Gretchen is really a visionary,” Ruland said. “The way she has made her career a reality by insisting that the art world, the political world, the tech world, whatever world it may be, take notice of her is nothing short of inspirational.”

Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor

December 12, 2021