[-empyre-] Introduction

Byron Rich brich at allegheny.edu
Thu May 7 01:20:26 AEST 2020

I’m pasting Ben and Sophia’s intros to their work into this thread.

Thank you all for your thoughtful intros to your work.

I guess to start I thought I’d talk about why I’ve been drawn to your work individually.

 In 2007 I was in undergrad and trying to reconcile with what I wanted to do as an artist. I still feel that way. Anyway, my professor, Jean-Rene Leblanc, introduced me to Ben’s piece Money Management and Electronic Mail  as he thought it might help me envision a transition from being a painter to a new-media artist. Ben’s work seemed omnipresent in my way of thinking and contextualizing the stuff I was producing from 2007 to 2013. I was hugely inspired by it when I made my collaborative piece Paint-by-Numbers in 2013. Ben’s consideration of the political effects of software, and “websites and software as fluid” resonated immensely, even though I wasn’t and still am not, adept enough at writing code to produce such culturally resonant works.

Sophia entered my radar in 2013 with Musical Painting, and like Ben, drastically altered my perception of how to make. Since then, her blending of craft and software through her ability to unveil the underlying political and polarizing effects of software, and it’s inability to be neutral continues to inspire me. For instance, Camo, her 2018 work that lays bare the complex reality of a system of tropes, images, and signs regarding masculinity, militarization, political allegiances, etc. is profound in it’s subtle subversions and ability to move between cultural extremes.

Roya is an artist who I’ve recently come to know and feel equally as inspired by as I do Ben and Sophia. Softwar(e) was the first work of Roya’s that I came across in late 2018 as I was researching AR/VR works by artists dealing with immigration and surveillance for a class I was teaching on Sci-Fi and Art. What I found particularly compelling was confronting the topic from a non-western point of view by examining nation states’ “purification” of information to suit a political end. Her work Plastic Makes Perfect has proven to be an amazing teaching tool when working with students coming to grips with how software and technology cannot be apolitical.

Perhaps we can have a conversation regarding, as Ben states, “software as fluid”, and how this fluidity can at once be a canvas for profound cultural contributions via art making, while at the same time enable a system of mass suppression of thought, and manipulation. Each of you confronts this fluidity in your work in one way or another, from Ben’s complex critiques of “friendship foregrounded friend count”, Sophia’s compelling use of Amazon Kindle text highlighting, and Roya’s confrontation of western beauty standards and the social media paradigm that enforces them. Do you ever worry that you’re doing the research of finding conceptual holes for the corporations whose platform you are critiquing? I mean, is there ever a concern that they use your work to actually close loopholes, or more actively suppress the very real marginalizing effects their platforms engender? 

Below are the intros given by each artist in case you missed them.

Hello Everyone,

Byron asked me to start with a brief introduction to my work...

I focus on the cultural, social, and political effects of software. What does it mean for human creativity when a computational system can make its own artworks? How is an interface that foregrounds our friend count changing our conceptions of friendship? Why do we become emotionally attached to software systems and what does this attachment enable for those who made them? To examine questions like these, I construct interactive experiences, machines, and systems that make the familiar unfamiliar, revealing the ways that software prescribes our behavior and thus, how it changes who we are. 

My primary artistic research method is one of "software recomposition," or the treating of existing websites and other software systems not as fixed spaces of consumption and prescribed interaction but instead as fluid spaces of manipulation and experimentation. Many of my works are browser extensions that get in between the user and the systems they use every day, enabling them to critically examine their own experiences with software. Examples include Facebook Demetricator (hides all metrics across the Facebook interface), Go Rando (obfuscates how you feel on Facebook), Safebook (Facebook without any of the content at all), and ScareMail (tries to make your email "scary" to the NSA). Other works examine algorithmic agency, including Computers Watching Movies (shows what a computational system sees when it watches popular film), and Interactive Robotic Painting Machine (a robot that makes paintings while considering what it hears as input). Sometimes I set code aside and work on/with video or sound. My recent film ORDER OF MAGNITUDE is a good example: it’s an epic supercut drawn from every public video appearance made by Mark Zuckerberg from 2004-2018. I extracted each time Mark spoke one of three words: "more," "grow," and his every utterance of a metric (e.g., "one million" or "two billion"). The result, which is nearly 50 minutes long, chronicles Silicon Valley’s obsession with growth over the last fifteen years.
As a long-time lurker I’m happy to be part of this week's activities, and look forward to discussions around Byron’s framing, the role of social media platforms in the pandemic age, the coming push for increased surveillance, and, perhaps, the effects of metrics at a moment when so much reporting is "by the numbers."


Thanks for the invite to be part of this, Byron!

All of my work uses technology or is about technology. Before going to art school, I was an engineer at Google during its early years. My experience in the Bay Area was simultaneously wonderful and horrible, and it has definitely shaped my perspective as an artist and designer working with technology.

A lot of my work is inspired by how science fiction authors think about the future. I teach a class called Sci-Fi Prototyping, which combines science fiction, building prototypes, and technology ethics. Thinking extrapolatively isn’t something that comes naturally to people, and it’s striking to see how a person’s vision for the future is so strongly influenced by their own lived experience. I teach my students how to critique current technological trends and imagine possible, probable, and, most importantly, preferred futures. I think it’s especially important to ask people who normally would not get to have a say on this, people whose perspective on current trends and preferred futures is very different than that of your typical Bay Area technologist. 

At Google, I worked on early social networks, and I was exhilarated by the possibilities for how technology could be used to connect people. I was amazingly disappointed that we ended up mimicking the Facebook model. In my own research, I often prototype alternative, more positive futures for social interfaces/networks and wearable/tangible interfaces (https://sophiabrueckner.com/embodisuit.html and https://sophiabrueckner.com/amulet.html). I also like to draw attention to hard-to-find examples of positive social networking trends (https://sophiabrueckner.com/romance.html). I could talk about my opinions and related projects on social networks forever, but I think this is enough for now!

Hello everybody,
I am Roya Ebtehaj, an Iranian artist based in the Bay Area, CA. I incorporate XR technology (VR/AR), 3D, video, animation, web, and installation to reflect on the themes of identity, stress, and digital chaos. My practice stems from looking for new methodologies, taking a multidisciplinary approach, and merging creative production and modern technology.

My current research navigates between two directions. The first is Multiple Identities, which reflects my questions about my own personal dual identity based on the society where I grew up. Byron’s wonderful introduction also reminded me of the days I grew up alongside the transition from analog to digital as I was learning ways to bypass Iranian internet filtering in order to check my Orkut account!

The other aspect of my research focuses on 21st century digital exploitation. Imperialism and capitalism have taken on a new form in the digital age. Corporations misuse our data (and we are complicit) and globalisation and consumerism have become the new normal.
One of the themes I explore is “Plastystopia,” a horrific dystopia where everything is fake. With this idea in mind, in 2019,  I created an installation called “Plastic Makes Perfect”. Below is a link to this piece, where you can learn more.

Thanks to Byron and those who introduced me to this community, I am very happy and honoured to be part of it! I hope you enjoy the rest of your week in this uncertain time!


Roya Ebtehaj
Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Art and Art History
Santa Clara University

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