Luke Munn in conversation with Matt Galloway

with contributions from Chloe Geoghegan (CG), John Ward Knox (JWK) and Kim Pieters (KP)


MG: If we just start quite broadly, then make our way to your practice. I was interested in your take on how you think digital media and our online selves inform the way we view our everyday reality.

LM: Digital technologies are a medium but they’re also encoded with these desires and ideologies. So when we talk about technology, it’s not just this pure supercession of one technology by another as an enhancement. They’re also inscribed with the way we choose to think about ourselves. Technology reflects that. So the writing I’ve been doing is about how technologies start to reframe the way we think about the body. The body tries to match the performativity in technology. We think of ourselves as this codebase, something to be optimised or enhanced. Things that the digital does well – iterating all the time, version 1.1, 1.2, it’s always in flux. You start to see that translating into the way we think about our identities. So an identity on social media should always be in flux. And if you leave it too long, you start to get emails from Facebook saying “Haven’t seen you in a while, what’s been happening?”

MG: Right and in the background there is this idea of the constantly refreshing page, that there needs to be some kind of involvement from you on a regular basis. But behind that is this idea of how designed these programs are. The pervasive nature of design of Facebook, LinkedIn, whatever it is. That we don’t realise maybe how structured our inputs are.

LM: Which is really powerful. They’re designed aesthetically but they’re also designed as a platform. So you have this social currency – the likes, retweets and shares. And there’s also a systematic way of dividing up your identity into something like ‘movies that I like’ – these personality points which become repackaged. So design becomes then not just the corporate navy blue of a user interface, but the whole paradigm of behaviour, the way we interact with these platforms.

MG: …and also how they prompt us to interact with each other. They design interactions for us. So if there’s a photo of yourself on Facebook that you don’t like, there’s a note you can send asking that user to take it down. And Facebook have experimented with how passive or aggressive that language is. Getting the best response, not just in terms of the take down, but also in how comfortable you feel in sending it in the first place.

LM: … they’re trying to optimise the social. Again, bringing those strategies of silicon-valley startup culture – seamlessness and self-optimisation – to the social sphere.

MG: Which brings us into the idea of self-optimisation, if we take a step back from these platforms to look at the people that are developing them. Something from your writing which I found interesting was this nutrition drink which is a concentration of everything you need for the day. So we can be as productive as possible without having to worry about actually eating.

LM: Soylent is the drink Matt’s talking about, designed by Rob Rhinehardt who’s a software engineer based in California. He was part of a startup team running out of time and money to develop their product and he came to see hunger as a problem that needed to be bypassed. So it’s like a protein shake but it contains all the nutrients you need for your complete day. Instead of being just a supplement, it can be used as your primary food source. Rather than being marketed towards gym bunnies or for muscle building, it’s targeted towards white collar professionals. Focus, not fitness. So you can bypass the biological rhythms of the everyday. One of the quotes from a review was that “time stretches out before you, featureless”. This idea of moving from one task to another without being distracted by hunger as a bodily constraint.

MG: And that idea of the hungerless, sleepless body, it’s interesting that it came from a developer who’s working in that space all the time. It’s like they started to mimic their own programs. The body as a program which needs a certain input or output, so that it can be as effective and efficient as possible.

LM: Yeah and they’ve set it up like an open-source project. So there’s a DIY Soylent site where you can contribute additions or code enhancements to the formula. Again trying to optimise the body. And what’s interesting is that it’s not just a time thing as well. That these hunger pangs you get before a meal or the ‘food coma’ you get after eating are spikes of emotion which get in the way of this perfect performativity. So having this nutrition that you can sip throughout the day smooths out that emotional roller coaster. You become this more stable platform that is then able to take on these tasks in this frictionless way.

MG: …and does it work? I can just imagine still wanting to go get food at some point. Maybe I’m just too entrained….

LM: He calls that “recreational eating” (laughter). Rob and his team have been on it for a while, and they supplement that with the occasional solid food.

MG: I just find it interesting, the fact that he developed this so he could keep working on this product within this startup environment. But it was almost out of that culture that the actual successful product came. You can sign up for a monthly subscription and they arrive in these beautiful minimalist white packs that are highly designed.

CG: I guess it’s nothing new when you think of surgeons finding ways to not use the bathroom. 24 hour surgeries. It’s a property derived from these pre-existing hardcore industries, but it’s moved into this lifestyle choice rather than a survival mechanism.

MG: It becomes this ultimate ‘life hack’. Which is something you talk about and is interesting because it’s something I’ve experienced simply through Buzzfeed or whatever, “99 best life hacks”. Which takes you on this crazy journey about different ways to use coat hangers to make your life better….

LM: Which again is taking software terminology and translating or broadening that into the everyday. So the idea is to eliminate the wasted gesture. It becomes an update of the ‘time and motion’ studies done in factories in the early part of the twentieth century. Taylorism or Fordist labour practices. But using that language of software it becomes something empowering – the savvy, self-optimised individual rather than a regime which is imposed from the top down.

MG: Do you see your practice as coming from one way or another, embracing this or being critical of it? Or is it a mixture?

LM: I think it’s a mixture. There are various strategies which respond to these ideas. We’ve talked before about critiquing something by embodying it to an extreme degree. This notion of accelerating to the point where contradictions or cracks start to appear in some of these ideologies. Or at least reflect them and allow the viewer to generate their own critical response. And then other works are trying to decelerate or ‘re-materialize’ the digital, inserting the body into that space. The body is always a problem-.

MG: -to the digital’s ‘streamlined-ness’?

LM: Yeah the body becomes a kind of constraint. Within a neoliberal capitalist framework you have this push always for more production, more consumption, a wider distribution of the identity, 24/7 ‘always on’ performativity. So then the body itself as this kind of tired, sited, fleshy thing, becomes a pathology. So reinserting that into this intersection between art and technology is a productive problem.

MG: And the body and the material becomes valued again, in a different way. A thing is a thing. We get so bombarded with stuff online and there’s advantages with being able to distribute ideas and having things available at the click of a button. And then there’s the gallery and experiencing something in person alongside other people. Something that’s interesting to me about your practice is negotiating those two spaces. Asking us to think about those ideas by placing us in a specific location but then having stuff that’s taking us online.

LM: Right so this piece (iChat) is available online through mobile so you can access it anywhere, but there was also people accessing it by standing here last night. So what’s the role of the gallery now? What’s the relationship between on- and offline? A lot of artists just use the gallery to provide this real world aura around the work, then photograph it and throw it online. It becomes more valued because of that–

MG: Because of being online, or?

LM: Because of having this connection with the gallery or the validation of a ‘real world’ space. So reinserting the body is not so much a rehabilitation as just a reflection that bodies always underpin this digital which is (ostensibly) so screen-based and ‘immaterial’. We have so much focus on the interface, the screen, the surface of things. Whereas actually the material for phones, for example, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with this brutal, precarious labour.

Amazon Fulfilment Centres are another example. So Amazon has optimised their e-commerce ‘funnel’ so that it’s incredibly easy to buy things and the user experience is perfect. But they provide this kind of discreteness or distancing between that process and the people who grab your order when you click. James Bridle has this nice quote about a click which causes “not just computers to spin up but forces people to get up and walk around”. So Amazon have these Centres in nondescript warehouses typically located in postindustrial towns where cheap labour is available. Employees have to sign Non Disclosure Agreements and work incredibly long days. And the technology which guides them to products is the same technology that monitors their lunch breaks and bathroom breaks. There’s a “three strikes and you’re out” policy, “you’re out” being a euphemism for being fired.

On the one hand you have this incredibly seamless user-experience and a total focus on giving the customer exactly what they want in terms of the screen. And on the other is an ignoring of or negating the physical dimensions which underpin that. So the 1-Click versus Fulfilment Centre bodies is a nice example of something which happens a lot.

CG: Everyone thinks that the internet is some kind of Wizard of Oz curtain, where it operates on its own and doesn’t physically exist because of cloud metaphors. But it’s still a framework, an office building full of people who ensure that things run.

MG: It’s abstracted to the point where it’s a shopfront, a counter. It’s just not how we’ve historically viewed a shopfront or counter.

LM: And design-wise you see that pushing further and further. You get these evaporating interfaces like Siri which essentially is an ellipses on a screen or Google Glass which is all voice-based, ‘OK Glass’. Amazon’s latest device is called Echo, which is a device in the middle of the room which uses ‘far-field’ technology to overhear what you’re saying and then respond by streaming music or movies. It’s a perfect example of the interface which has disappeared. There’s almost no feedback and a lot of the decision making, the algorithmic processes, are all black-boxed. So you really have very little idea what’s happening behind the scenes.

JWK: I wondered if one of the potential fatalities of the digitisation of the world is that one more language will disappear, body language. We’ve got such a rich lexicon of actions that we can express ourselves with in our everyday tasks. And when all your tasks become digitised – all become a click – you lose such a rich language. But maybe the click is something that will soon be discarded and we’re going to have an expansive or invisible way of using the interface. We’re already seeing a bit of diversity with swipes and scrolls onscreen…

LM: It comes back to what is quantifiable? What is capture-able about us and what is excess, or the remainder? I don’t know where that point is. I think there are things which people consider uniquely ‘human’ like our affect and intellect and emotional responsiveness which can actually be codified in a certain way. But there seems like there’s still a slippage or space-between that is left over after everything else has been quantified and digitised. What is that remainder and are there ways to leverage that leftover space?

KP: I think it’s a generational thing too, people who have grown up with it. It provides a structure for behaviour. Body behaviour becomes structured by what the computer gives you, you mimic it. There’s always been these structures – from cities to country, people use their bodies differently. There seems to be quite a lot of anxiety with young people, they’re scared that they’re a machine. They’ve been watching the computer for 20 years.

MG: There’s this idea of exchange which is interesting. You take a photo, you put it on Instagram. And then you wait for the likes and comments. That’s a process that happens on screen. But then the transference back out of the screen is this feeling of being accepted or whatever. There’s this emotion that comes back out to you. That’s where technology as tool stops. There’s this other layer of life online which is about this transference of emotions and friendship. And that’s what is interesting about generations that grow up with that, it’s just a part of how they interact with the world.

LM: Linda Stone did some research at Microsoft and people checking their inboxes. She realised that people start breathing shallow while waiting for their inbox to load, which she calls ’email apnea’. You’ve talked about these ‘digital natives’ that have grown up with this technology, but the flip side to that is the Internet becomes this banality rather than a novelty. That’s what a lot of so-called post internet artists are making work out of. This space where the Internet becomes ubiquitous. So the work is not necessarily about being online but that’s simply the technology which mediates everyday experiences. You’re entangled in this thing, but it’s also freeing in a way. That it’s not some sublime space which is hugely disruptive but it’s always been part of the fabric of your everyday. And somehow that makes it more manageable and controllable.

MG: One of the things I wanted to get to is, what is art’s role in all of this? Art has the ability to be speculative and critical in a way that other disciplines maybe don’t. Historians or people in the technology sector are talking about this stuff in their own way, but what do you see art’s role being?

LM: Maintaining some kind of criticality around this space. For me, art should respond to the current time and space and also try to engage with these ideas which are perhaps leading edge and haven’t quite filtered through to the mainstream. And there are a few unique conventions that art has which make it good at that. Art has this distance between artwork and artist. So that the artwork can produce ideas or embody different stances within a space and almost ‘play out’ or experiment, and that’s not something which necessarily comes back to the artist. You can release these things into the world and they don’t necessarily reflect your views. That means you can – on one hand – accelerate some of the ideals and – on the other – push against them, or speculate on alternatives. The other idea is that the viewer completes the work. The work is open and once you put them out there, they respond to their context and people can finish them off, ignore them or run with them. That’s pretty powerful. The question then becomes, “how do you produce critical work”? That’s difficult.

MG: Especially when you’re dealing with interfaces that we encounter everyday and we understand and know in a certain way, perhaps are even critical of already. Which again is nice because there are pre-existing anxieties to play on our push into. How do you negotiate that space between showing things in a visual language that everyone knows but then also placing something on top of it?

LM: There are various ways to do that I think. This piece for example, iChat emulates this kind of Tumblr teen aesthetic with pinks and blues and cute wallpaper. Essentially it looks like a messaging app, Facebook Messenger or a chat app on the iPhone. But what you’re actually doing is re-performing a conversation from 2005-2006, a real world conversation which took place between a ‘decoy’ and a predator. This organisation Perverted Justice has these decoys who will chat with someone and pretend to be a 13, 14 year old girl or boy. Including spelling mistakes, so language becomes very important in emulating a certain identity. Eventually they’ll try to lure them back to a safe house where they’re stung with the sexual offender label for life. So presenting something in this cute, sugary interface but playing through something darker. Emulating this different identity in order to seduce someone into coming in contact with you. Starting with two screens on two desktops somewhere and ending up with two bodies in the same space together in order to complete the story.

CG: I just wanted to talk about the performer from last night. I thought that really brought into focus the reversal of it – so the digital into the body, rather than body aesthetics into the digital. The performance element was a way to turn it around. I thought that was a nice part of the opening, that if you thought about it you’d see an equilibrium in the exhibition.

LM: For those who weren’t there the performance was a woman (Nada Crofskey-Rayner) who moved around the space. Essentially I took these affective, emotional phrases from Tumblr and then ran them through an algorithm which tries to make these natural language sentences. It’s the same kind of script used for spam emails or chatbots, which tries to make these natural sentences but doesn’t quite succeed. Every time she touched somebody, she uttered one of these phrases that had been run through this code generation process. For me, it’s just an exploration of – what is the difference between a bot and a body? Using an algorithm but giving someone agency as well. So she’s supposed to just repeat the last phrase she heard when touching someone but she’s also allowed to move freely throughout the space, deciding how often to move and who to touch. Using the public as a collection of points but also giving her body over to this code process for half an hour.

So if there are no more comments or questions I think that’s it. Thanks to Blue Oyster for hosting and Matt for being a great conversation partner.