Interview via Zoom by Ryan Maciel (Publicity Manager)
Alison Nguyen is a Brooklyn-based artist who works primarily in video. Her exhibition, i broke my mind at the link in my bio is currently being shown at the Hartnett Gallery. Her work explores the ways in which images are produced, disseminated, and consumed within the current media landscape, exposing the socio-political conditions from which they arise. Creating strategies for dissent, she re-articulates mainstream visual language and technology in video, installation, and new media works. We were able to enjoy a conversation on AI, internet labor, neoliberalism, mass media, and how art can be used to address these issues.
Ryan: Where are you from? You mentioned that you were raised by Mother Television–what do you mean by that?
Alison: I was born in Delaware and I grew up in New Jersey. As a kid, I was an obsessive reader and also an obsessive watcher of television. QVC played in my family’s house throughout the day. My brother and sister and I binge-watched everything from cartoons to work-out videos to gameshows. I have vivid memories of almost pissing myself because I didn’t want to risk going to the bathroom and miss a few seconds of whatever I was watching. I wanted to chew gum like they did in Juicy Fruit commercials. Cry like they did in the soap operas. I wanted pancakes and pizza to look like the way they did in cartoons.
R: Where did you go to school? Did you study film and video?
A: I went to Brown University where I majored in Creative Writing. I also studied Semiotics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science–areas which seemed tangential to me at the time but wound up working their way into what I do. For me writing always involved a lot of necessary isolation–which I didn’t always enjoy. Mid-way through college I had terrible writer’s block and–to make a long story short–I began to take Graphic Design classes at the neighboring Rhode Island School of Design. As a writer, I had always cared a lot about how words looked on a page so this seemed to make sense to me.
Although I was truly bad with craft, design was liberating for me. I didn’t feel the burden of other writers so to speak and so it was easier to find my voice. There was something pleasurable about taking complicated ideas and distilling them into a visual surface. Learning how to manipulate images and text taught me how they work in the world and how they function in popular culture. I know it sounds a bit lame, but learning how to take a popular sign or symbol and to be able to flip it, or fillet it, and make it your own really opened things up for me creatively.
R: How did you get into working with the moving image?
A: For the first few years after college I lived precariously from place to place working as an assistant to various artists and doing odd jobs. Dog-sitting. Cat-sitting. Modeling smoking slippers. Soldering 8-bit electronics. Teaching Photoshop. You name it. I made work whenever I had free time, which wasn’t often. My art changed a lot, however, when I began working in the film industry. I got a job as a visual researcher and designer at a production company that focused on mainstream films and commercials. I was responsible for visual research and for designing film treatments (a document used to pitch a film or television series). To get out of the office quicker I created a huge archive and database of pop imagery that directors were typically asking for–everything from locations to color palettes to cinematography references to actors, non-actors. In a way, the job was like stepping inside the cinematic machine–seeing how mainstream media is visually formed and assembled. I was morbidly fascinated with the image production process
Aside from my assistant, I was the only woman who worked there. The company was really part of the cult of the male genius director. Whatever the director said went. There was a total militarized sense of hierarchy. If I challenged any director on his ideas I was taken aside and basically reprimanded. And during this period I saw so much waste. Films went into production and there would be thousands and thousands, and sometimes millions of dollars spent and they were terrible [laughing]. Often–at first to my surprise–the directors weren’t that intelligent and I began to think to myself, “God, I could do better work with no money.” I could take found imagery and make a better film, and to make a long story short, that’s what I ended up doing.
R: Can you talk about the design of Andra8’s apartment?
A: The apartment is set in an unpopulated perpetually bright virtual void. To create a space that essentially exists out of context representing the feeling of being online is a challenge. I have a background designing sets for films (this is what I did after my visual research job) but 3D modeling was a bit beyond my skill set at the time when I began this work. I worked with friends at Shisanwu LLC to design a domestic space, using a BBC Test Pattern as a guiding design structure. I came across this image during my research and found it uniquely disturbing. The card was developed by a BBC engineer, George Herse, father of the girl in the test card, Carole Hersee. It was broadcast on BBC Television until 1983 and was still seen before the start of programmes until BBC1 began to broadcast 24 hours a day in 1997. Along with his Test Card F Carole Hersee appeared for a total of 70,000 hours on television, which is more than any living person other than Carole.
It’s disturbing to think about a young girl–paid only £100 at the time–used essentially as a site of calibration. This got me thinking more and more about women’s (often exploited) role within technological advancement and the development of labor power.
Andra8’s apartment: The space is an all-surrounding, all-surveilled living quarter with flat colors and soft shapes, referencing the depthless feeling of both digital space and neoliberal advertising. One of the defining features of the apartment is a central conversation pit surrounding a red circular table. A good portion of the video is shot from overhead in aerial view, where the set appears as it is: A 3D model oddly suspended in digital space. From this flattened orthographic perspective, the conversation pit and red table look like the sensor of a camera, or in other ways, a humorous nod to Kubrick’s Hal from 2001. It is the pulsing heart of the space, the nucleus, where much of the action takes place or is oriented from and towards.
I wanted the apartment to feel a bit like an Airbnb in LA or like a mental hospital or like a Thinx advertisement, where everything is very flat and soft with rounded edges. Muted color palettes. Kind of like a real purgatory actually, where nothing feels dangerous, it doesn’t feel specific, it doesn’t feel tied to any place or time. It is generic to the point where it’s eerie. It’s almost what you would see if you decorated a room with objects found on someone’s Amazon, recommended products list. Or somebody’s Instagram ads. We built the world in ‘my favorite software is being here’ out of free downloadable user-generated models from sites like Sketchfab and ripped 3D modeling programs I otherwise couldn’t afford. Embedded in the work is a noisy Internet subconscious–a user’s resistance, aspiration, fantasy, political reality, decontextualized humor, and so on.
R: You’ve said that Andra8 performs a very particular, very online type of femininity, could you expand on that?
A: The question of gender really came into question with the sound design for Andra8’s voice. I worked with artist Tim Bruniges to create a voice that feels synthetic, but we didn’t want it to sound like Siri or one of these totally artificial voices. To use that in a new media work already feels very retrograde. I recorded my performance of the script at a sound studio and later Tim and I went into the voice and ever so slightly changed the pitch on certain syllables creating a very subtle and at times awkward mediated effect. The idea was also to have the overall pitch of the change during the piece (again, subtly) based on what Andra8’s doing. So when she’s broadcasting, he upped the pitch of my voice so I sound younger, more classically feminine. I sound like I live in LA [laughs] and I’m “the smart wife” that’s a spokesperson for a wellness brand. I joked and called it the “bubblegum patriarchal voice.” But then when she is not broadcasting, her voice is slightly more casual and lower in pitch, a bit closer to my normal voice. Towards the end, it’s unclear whether she’s broadcasting or if she’s just being herself. So there’s this kind of slippery thing that’s going on.
The internet and social media in particular are still so incredibly driven by the male gaze. You see this especially in women who are trying to sell things or promote things–which is the bulk of people on Instagram– play into that whether they’re conscious of it or not. You begin to notice these things if you spend as much time as me sifting through online cultural detritus [laughing].
R: The only other question I have is taken from the perspective of a person like me who is learning about the science and development of artificial intelligence. I’m wondering how might a person like me, approaching this work, think about their own place in this “neoliberal hellscape”, this kind of ultra-techno-void that we are both within and becoming the architects of?
A: I think just on a very broad level, being more aware of the technology and its very origins and implications is a very hopeful thing unto itself. You’re not using these tools blindly. It’s important to have a filter and evaluate: What is the technology doing and how is it affecting people? What is at play here?
With tech the guiding principle is rationality. “Show me the data.” But data is not impartial, as you know. It’s fraught with human biases. As an engineer, it’s important to think critically about where you are pulling datasets from and what the implications are. You don’t always have total control over how your work is implemented in the world; but I think the more you know, the more you’re aware, and the more you can shape and alter social systems that technology creates.