[-empyre-] Introduction

Sophia Brueckner sbrueckner at gmail.com
Wed May 13 00:50:19 AEST 2020

Byron asked “As someone really invested, aware, and working in the
discourse of social media and its proliferation of policy and culture, are
you hopeful at all?”

Ben said: “As Geert Lovink said recently, artists have a ‘special
responsibility’ to take on the tech corporations...artists can leverage
their ability to build/create/amplify in ways that challenge the trillion
dollar corporations and their billionaire leaders, to make works that help
everyday users see that the designs of monopoly platforms *prescribe*
culture. Put another way, we can't just build a great alternative, we have
to also facilitate individual development of a critical reflex towards
software and platforms so that when an alternative arrives people know and
feel why it's important to shift.”

This has been such a great conversation! I wholeheartedly agree with Ben
that one of the most important things I do as an artist is create work that
helps everyday users understand how these tech companies are prescribing
our culture, influencing our thoughts and behaviors, and providing us with
some pretty sad visions for the future.

We do throw around the word “dystopia” a lot, and this conversation makes
me want to express what I think a dystopia is in a more nuanced way. When I
think of a dystopia, I think of a world where things are deeply broken, but
it is so self-reinforcing that people can no longer imagine an alternative.
The technologies we rely on today are broken, but I don’t think we are yet
heading towards that self-reinforcing state. We know that social media
technologies are addictive and shallow. However, most people I know feel
increasingly frustrated and want an out the more they use them. They just
don’t know how to get out yet. That awareness makes me hopeful even if new,
healthier technologies aren’t going to replace the ones we have any time
soon. Increasing that awareness is what motivates me!

For example, my Embodisuit project is a garment covered in circuit boards
to experience data haptically. Whether I exhibited this work in technical,
art, or more everyday contexts, I was completely stunned that everyone
defaulted to calling the circuit boards “sensors”. It was really a struggle
for them to wrap their minds around the idea that you can have electronics
on the body without sensors. That’s because tech companies only show us
futures for wearables that heavily rely on sensors because they want our
data to sell or serve us ads. Getting people to become aware of that narrow
and biased vision for the future is something artists can do by drawing
attention to the problem, imagining alternatives, and helping people
envision different futures for themselves.

One of the things I often talk about is “critical optimism”, which means
earnestly trying to build good things but also being able to critique the
weaknesses of your ideas. Instead of black or white thinking, imagine
medium to light grey thinking. :) I get really frustrated by both blindly
optimistic visions of the future as well as unconstructively pessimistic
ones. Both extremes are actually a form of passivity. Both extremes mean
you get to give up and not, as Donna Haraway so beautifully says, “stay
with the trouble.” As an artist, I can help people be more aware and
thoughtful, and I can help them feel like their individual efforts working
towards a better future are worthy and important even though they will
never be perfect. So, while I’m extremely critical of the technologies we
are forced to deal with now, my artistic practice overall is very hopeful.

Sophia Brueckner

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