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HOUSTON — Artist Lauren McCarthy wants to be your virtual assistant, but the catch is you have to invite her into your home to surveil your life. It might not sound like a bad idea, since she promises to listen to you, control your appliances for you, and do many other tasks you might require. It seems almost to good to be true, right?
During the Day for Night Summit, McCarthy discussed her “Lauren” project, a surveillance art work that solicits invitations from the public to have the Los Angeles-based artist come into your home and wire it for 24/7 surveillance. First, however, you have to answer a few simple question, including: “Please explain why you want to try LAUREN, and describe what is unique about your home.” If the artist selects you, she arrives to your doorstep and promises to become your “human intelligent smart home” assistant for roughly three days.
McCarthy’s project is clearly a commentary on the new craze for personal home assistants being pushed by tech companies. In an age when we already feel overwhelmed by digital surveillance, it’s surprising that these new devices are entering homes so easily. As the artist mentioned during our conversation, unlike previous devices that were often given to children by parents, this device has the ability to be ubiquitous from day one. The implications, as the artist demonstrates, are serious.
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(The following interview was edited for clarity and length.)
Hrag Vartanian:Can you tell me a little bit about the “Lauren” project? How did it come about?
Lauren McCarthy: I was thinking a lot about home as the space that … When I was talking to people about it, a lot of people say, “Oh, it’s the place where I feel like I can be myself, where I can be comfortable.” I was also seeing all these smart home devices, like Alexa, being pushed really hard. For a while, every package you get from Amazon had Alexa tape on it or Echo tape. You get this idea that everyone’s participating in this thing.
For me, it felt even more insidious than mobile phones because it feels like the final frontier in some ways. This place where you, from a child, learn to be a person and understand the first things about your culture, about who you are and your family, and so to insert this device in there and have this device carrying all of these ideas from some particular group of developers in Silicon Valley felt more bizarre than having cameras everywhere.
The “Lauren” project is basically an inversion of this where I’m trying to become a human version of the Amazon Alexa. You can sign up on a website and you can get “Lauren,” and then I will come to your home and install a series of devices and cameras and microphones and locks and lights and stuff and then watch over you remotely 24/7 for several days. Basically watch every room of your house, watch you, and then control very aspect of your home for you.
HV:Isn’t that also the sci-fi fantasy, because in the 1950s, ’60s that was the dream, right? Isn’t this the realization of that?
LM: Yeah. I think that’s what I’m playing with. I usually make work that isn’t trying to tell you necessarily how to think. For some people who sign up, they’re really excited about this. This is the fantasy, and for me I have more a critical view of all of this stuff and there’s a critique in there for me, but what I’m trying to do is make a space where people can engage with it and decide what they feel about it. Whether they feel totally imposed on or if they like being seen this much or they like this feeling of control or not versus just having to just hypothetically watch a sci-fi movie and make up your mind.
HV:What has the reaction been?
LM: It’s interesting. So people usually have an immediate reaction whether they wanna try this or not. It’s similar to the “Follower Project,” where you would say either, “I wanna be the follower, I wanna be followed, or I want nothing.”
The people that sign up, they’re are already in the camp that they want to try it. But out of that, I think there’s a mix in terms of some people feel really affected by being watched all the time and other people forget that really quickly, and they’re more interested in other aspects of it.
HV: It makes me wonder, how many of them are performing for you?
LM: I think all of them to some extent. But the point of doing it in the home and the point of doing it over several days is that it’s hard to keep up a performance for days. Even if they’re really aware of me the whole time, there’s moments when they slip or they forget, and they relax into their own home for a while and themselves.
HV: How long is the surveillance period?
LM: The version that I normally do is three days. My dream version would be six months so they really forget, where you really build a relationship, but it’s a little bit resource-intensive to do that.
HV: Does it ever get emotional? Do you ever think, “Oh I wonder what they’re doing, oh, I hope they’re all right”?
LM: Yeah, definitely. The whole span of emotions. Paying so much attention to them and for them maybe they’re just watching TV, but I’m on call watching everything they’re doing, and so it’s to some extent kind of stressful and exhausting.
Then other moments, like I was doing this performance in Amsterdam, and I had not totally accounted for the power voltage differences, and so I had tried to correct it during the performance by ordering the right voltage transformers and stuff like that. But there’s some moment where everything shut off and I didn’t know what happened. I was like “Oh my gosh, like what if some device just like blew up and the house is on fire?” I really felt this lack of control and then I was like, “And who let me do this project, oh my God?” Ten minutes later it came back on and they’re like, “Oops, we flipped the power switch when we were trying to turn on the baby’s mobile,” or something.
It was really a weird feeling. It made me realize, I don’t even know these people and they’re like an ocean away, and I’m suddenly tied to them in these weird ways that I haven’t experienced. Then there are times where something really personal would be happening, like someone might have a date and I feel like, ‘Well, it’s my job, the agreement is that I watch this,’ but also it feels really personal and intimate.
HV: Let’s say you see something burning, are you supposed to call the fire department? What’s the agreement?
LM: Yeah, it’s not clear. I would call someone if I saw something burning. But that is a question. A lot of people come in and say — after experiencing it — that they sort of felt like I was a little bit like a psychiatrist at times, particularly during the moments when they would talk to me. Part of it is there’s this a little bit of a delay so there would be these long pauses, so they would start filling them up by talking. And then some people were saying, “Do you feel like you have some obligation to get some training in terms of dealing with people and what they might say to you?”
HV: So they were scrutinizing you?
LM: Yeah. I’m offering my presence, and I’m offering this control and so that’s the contract, but obviously if you seem in trouble, I’m gonna go back to my contract as a person and try to be a good one.
HV: How about when you remove the surveillance? I’m wondering what the after-effect is on the person, or you.
LM: I don’t feel a need to maintain a relationship. Sometimes it happens. I immediately feel this sort of emptiness or disconnection and other people have said they felt that as well. But I think that’s what I like about these projects is that I set up the situation, and it’s very intense and intimate for just a short period of time and the relationship we have is a really unusual one, and then it’s done. And there’s no expectation of anything beyond that.
HV:How do you plan to exhibit that? Or is that part of the plan at all?
LM: I always end up doing these performances where the number one audience is the person participating in it, which doesn’t go over great with curators because obviously they wanna show more. There are different types of documentation from the performances and thinking of it less like documentation and more like art pieces that might arise from that kind of ephemera.
HV:You consider them performances?
LM: Yeah. Definitely. Each one is a performance in itself.
HV: It reminds me a little of the documentary We Live in Public (2009), which follows the life of Josh Harris, who installed cameras throughout his home for the public to watch online.
LM: Yeah, it was definitely on my mind. I think the big difference for me is the knowing that it’s just for one person. I was thinking about that relationship, I’m like, okay, if you put this in your home and you know it’s all going to Amazon, who’s that “Amazon,” and are you conceptualizing them at all? I wanted to give them a person or being to conceptualize on the other end of that system.
HV:How about the fact that you might be humanizing surveillance? We wanna scrutinize and be critical of, but at the same time I wonder sometimes, is it humanizing this?
LM: I do. Some people say, I wanna try it because I’m thinking about getting Alexa, and so I wanna try this first. And then I feel like, oh, so maybe I wanna give you a really bad time so you don’t do that.
It is trying to figure out how do we fit into the system as humans. I think sometimes surveillance can be so abstract, and we’re just like, “There’s this thing watching, it’s scary.” And there’s a reason to be scared but also that puts it in terms that are really hard to understand or physically comprehend. But now that you know I am watching you, how does that feel? And what if you knew that I was not just me but it’s all going to a database and hundreds or thousands of people could look at this later and do anything they want with you, with it.
HV: How many have you done, total?
LM: I’ve done about eight now.
HV:Have you ever had to stop one because you’re like, something is weird?
LM: It’s definitely crossed my mind in a lot of different performance pieces I’ve done. I haven’t had to stop any of these ones.
HV: Maybe I’m cynical, but I wonder if somebody might ask to do this just to fuck with you. Is that a concern?
LM: One thing with these performances is it’s asking so much of them. They’re more vulnerable than I am. This one and the Follower project, if I ever felt weird, like you said, I could just turn it off or walk away and stop following. And they can’t. I set it up and make it clear that they can tell me to stop at any time, but it’s not quite so. If I were malicious in my intent, it would be harder for them to turn it off or stop it. I feel like they’re being so vulnerable and then also in terms of an art audience, normally you get 20 seconds, and they’re giving me three days, so I feel immediately, at least from my end, the relationship feels like I wanna give them something.
HV:What do you think you give them?
LM: My attention, mostly. And I wonder if that’s enough sometimes. But I think that they feel it a lot. And then the controlling is usually the secondary element, even though that’s the part that takes it up a notch. I’m not just watching, I can actually lock your door and …
HV:You can actually lock their doors?
HV: That’s a lot of control.
HV: How has your relationship with the internet changed? Beause you’ve been working on the internet for a while now. I could tell you my relationship with the internet has definitely changed over the years.
LM: I’ve had the internet since the third grade or something but it was really like high school where you feel like you have an identity there. Or I did. It used to feel like a separate thing you could log on and then I think in college we would talk about virtual versus physical or something, and I was feeling like that’s kind of a dumb distinction. That’s something my teachers think. That was 2008.
Since then, I’ve felt like, yeah, it really is this mix and it’s pervasive. I think that’s part of what makes it hard to make up our minds about how we feel about certain things because a particular technology or a particular control structure is not just in one place or on one website, but it’s like a phone, in our cars, in our stoplights, in our social media, and it’s slightly different in all those so it’s really hard to wrap your head around it. I think this project is also responding to that and trying to have that all encompassing feel, saying, okay, now you can download a being into your home, in your relationships, in your head, and connected via the internet.
HV: What was the first computer that entered your home?
LM: I don’t remember what type of computer it was. It was a PC and we had America Online, that was the internet. It was very limited in terms of how many minutes we got to use on it, and I was in the kid zone on their menu. Just this idea that you could talk to anyone. It was this feeling that you could be anonymous, say anything and type and hit enter, your friend hits enter for you, and I feel like that spirit is almost still here for better or worse.
HV: Let’s talk about for the worse. Where’s the worse part in that?
LM: I think it’s the trolls and the cyber hate. The dark place in the internet you can end up where it’s just terrifying, the views and the beliefs that are the dominant ones. Seeing that pervade out from those spaces and spread over the rest of the internet or just the rest of the world.
HV:Would you ever get an Alexa or any one of these devices? Have you been thinking about it?
LM: I have an Alexa. I got a bunch of them for research for the project. I think whenever there’s something that really scares me or upsets me, then I try to engage with it as much as possible. So all these sites and all these apps and all these things, I’m always signing up and participating. I don’t want one in my home. For me the biggest thing is having this always-listening device.
HV: Many of us work online nowadays, but at the same time there’s this fear of being left behind. You’re like, well if I’m not working with that, everyone else is working with it. How do you deal with that fear of missing out? You want to experience it the way other people are experiencing without being cynical. Do you know what I mean?
LM: That’s a good question. I don’t ever feel like any of these things are black and white. Even if I say I don’t want an Alexa, doesn’t mean I feel like every part of it is bad. I do go into trying any one of these with a, what’s the interesting or exciting part here. That I could find, enjoy. Then of course, the parts of my brain that freak out about some of the surveillance or more insidious aspects are still going off, but I’m still looking for that. This is kind of interesting, or the way that they designed this personality or this mechanism for whatever, now there’s a new way to make friends with this app, huh. What if I make some friends? Does that work? That sounds cool.
For more information about Lauren McCarthy’s “Lauren” project, visit get-lauren.com.