23. December 2016

Social media reinforces the isolation of the users, by separating them in accounts. But there are many other ways of liking, following and clicking on each other, like the works of Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald show.

By Paolo Ruffino

There is something tragic in the work of Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald. Their work has an inner layer of desperation for the contemporary world, the technologies we use and the forms of social interactions that we engage with on a daily basis. Such element of tragedy is implied in the otherwise explicit message of hope, and through the humour that spreads across their projects, counting both those they have been working at individually and as a duo. Across their production, they try to remind us that something great, unique and daring can happen when we interact with each other through digital technologies.

However, it is precisely because of this need to remind us that, after all, we are not yet living in an apocalyptic scenario, that the underlying idea of a compromised society is reinforced and brought to the fore. Their work tries to tell us that love, attention, co-operation and openness can still be important values, precisely because contemporary forms of computer mediated communication tell us exactly the opposite. The production of McCarty and McDonald can be understood through this opposition, of tragedy and comedy, desperation and hope, as both forces are present and reinforce each other.

Inviting the audience to intervene

To explain this perspective, I will try to contextualise their work by summarising in a few paragraphs the complex history of the notion of interactivity as we know it today, and of the narratives of enthusiasm and desperation associated with it.

When in 1967 the movie "Kinoautomat", directed by Radúz Činčera, was presented in the cinema of the Czechoslovakian pavillon at the World Expo the audience had a shocking experience. The movie was in fact inviting the audience to intervene in the narrative by making choices, in what could resemble an early form of interactive video game.

At every turning point of the narrative, the spectators could press a button and vote which direction they wanted to see the story develop. The majority of the votes would determine how the movie would unfold. Much later, in 1991, Loren Carpenter had a similar vision when he projected on a cinema screen a game of Pong. The audience was asked to direct the paddles up and down by controlling them together. The experiment, represented in Adam Curtis documentary "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace", was the first to imagine the possibility of a world where collective collaboration, with no hierarchies or top-down systems of power, could self-regulate, progress and live in harmony.

Collaborate and solve problems

In 1994, the publication of the first edition of "Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace" by Pierre Levy (1997) offered a manifesto for the century to come, one where human beings could gather their energies, collaborate and solve problems regardless of geographical, cultural and economic differences, all of which would be soon erased by the emergence of internet technologies.

If we fast-forward to the world we live nowadays, then we can see how these dreams and fantasies have turned out to be too optimistic, to say the least. Decentralisation of power has granted to corporations unquestioned control over systems of distribution and archival of information. Economic inequalities across the globe are far from being resolved. Consider the story of Internet.org, an enterprise run by Facebook and some of the major IT companies of the world to bring Internet access to developing countries. While the project might have appeared ambitious and inclusive, it received severe criticism as the access to the internet was guaranteed only to specific services and websites. Facebook renamed the project Free Basics while trying to rebrand it, but it eventually was banned by the Indian government where it was supposed to set its initial user base.

Visionary expectations of a few decades ago

Nowadays, privacy is no longer an option, particularly since Edward Snowden’s revelations have demonstrated that anything we do and say will be recorded and, possibly, used against us. The dream of a collective intelligence, that Levy hoped to see in the near future, has revealed to be possible only through the economic interests of corporations, thus undermining the visionary expectations of a few decades ago.

Where does the work of McCarty and McDonald stand, when confronted with this depressing world we live in?

In How We Act Together, the artwork on exhibition at Schirn Kunsthalle and online, the participants are invited to respond to the images shown on screen by replicating a series of meaningless facial expressions, usually associate with social interactions, such as making eye contact, nodding, waving hands and so on. These movements of the facial and body muscles are as simple and meaningless as the paddles moved by the audience at the interactive Pong game by Loren Carpenter, or as the button smashing on a controller when playing a video game, or as the click of a mouse.

A new form of empathy

However, these movements receive a new meaning through the work of McCarty and McDonald. The participants are asked to work "Alone Together", to cite the seminal work by Sherry Turkle (2011): they operate in isolation from each other, interacting with the installation and website at different times and at different places, distant from the other collaborators. Yet, a new possibility opens, that of a new form of empathy with the other nodes in the crowd, people from other places and spaces that become part of this meaningless accumulation of faces.

The automation of the social interaction is preserved in its emptiness, the meaning associated to the social context is gone, but the participation can become strangely authentic. If the participant has been nodding, waving hands, and so on, as long as the video lasts, then her micro-performance is added to the queue of faces that repeat the same action. The bodies are distant, but brought together in the same archival of meaningless face motions.

Leaving users in isolation

A similar approach is shared by the other projects of the two artists. In "Sharing Faces" (2014) two screens and cameras are positioned at different locations in Japan and Korea. Participants from one of the two places can stand in front of the installation, and a face recognition software will match the position of their face with that of participants from the other country. As in their more recent work, participation takes place while leaving users in isolation, but also establishing an emotional connection with others that are not present at the same time and place of the interaction.

"Social Turkers" (2013), "US+" (2013) and "Follower" (2016) play with the solitude associated with what William Merrill (2014) has defined the me-dia: technologies of mediated interpersonal communication. Social media reinforce the isolation of the users, by separating them in accounts associated to personal data (and possibly connecting them only within the ‘bubble’ of other users who think alike), while initiating new kinds of social connection. The works by McCarty and McDonald transform the experience of using social media in a truly shared one.

Alternative forms of care

However, their idea of sharing is not the same as that of YouTube and Facebook. Here we see a performative sharing, one where users are directed by others in an operative manner. Specific contexts of our social lives, like dating, chatting or working, are transformed into activities and tasks to be assigned to friends/collaborators. However, these tasks are not automatized, as it would happen on Amazon’s platform for crowdsourcing Mechanical Turk. These activities bring to alternative forms of care and attention for each other.

Indeed, it can be argued that these are just forms of imagination. These apps and services designed by the two artists are not really in use by a significant portion of the population. The artists are only suggesting possibilities, that are not really part of our lives. Our lives, instead, keep being made of those automatized clicks, meaningless likes and repetitive interactions that the artists are asking us to play with. However, their message of hope, the comedy after the tragedy, is that an alternative is still at our disposal. Not necessarily an effective alternative, but nonetheless one we should not disregard. There are many other ways of liking, following and clicking on each other.

About the author

Paolo Ruffino is Lecturer in Media Studies at University of Lincoln, UK, and member of the artist group IOCOSE. He has been writing, teaching and researching in the areas of digital culture, video game studies and media arts.


Levy, P. (1997) Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, Basic books

Merrill, W. (2014) Media Studies 2.0, Routledge

Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together, Basic books