Lauren McCarthy is an artist, programmer and lecturer in Los Angeles. In our SCHIRN MAG interview she talks about the allure of being watched and the utopian possibilities of social media.

American artist Lauren McCarthy programs apps, an endeavor that could easily be monetized – that’s if they didn’t keep getting just a bit too close to their users. Anyone who registers for her latest project LAUREN, for example, will be subject to round-the-clock surveillance by the artist. It sounds like a satire on smart home assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home. In our interview McCarthy talks about the allure of being watched and explains why forms of social media also harbor a social utopia.

In your latest project, “LAUREN”, you embody a smart home assistant, like Amazon’s Alexa.  What’s fascinating about this?

You invite this surveillance device and control mechanism into your home. I thought of the home as the space where people are themselves, and this needs more attention. My way of raising awareness was to say: how does it feel for a person to be doing that? You sort of know who I am — but you never met the people behind Alexa. 

That’s the uncanny side of it. Do you want to expose and critique that?

I want to show the critical sides. But I try to move beyond that. With the recent pieces, it is clear there is a person stalking me or I invite someone to my to watch my private space. I don’t feel I have to do a lot more. 

Stalking is an important part of “Follower”, another app you designed. How does it work?

You can sign up, you get the app. You don’t know when it will happen, but one day you’ll wake up and get an alert that you’re now being followed. Your location is being broadcast to your follower. It lasts for a day, and in the end you get a photo of yourself taken by your follower with the notification you’re no longer being followed. I envisioned this as a new sort of social network. The secret was, of course, that I was always the follower.

Lauren McCarthy, Lauren, 2017, Screenshot, Copyright the artist

Sounds like a David Lynch movie.

It is playing with our feelings about surveillance. There is the feeling of wanting to be seen and the adrenaline when you get a like or a view on your social media profile. It is a ridiculous situation: You don’t know whether to feel outraged or scared or excited. But a lot of people never have the privilege of not standing out. Whether because of the way they look, or the way they act. With this app, surveillance is a luxury experience. I’m trying to acknowledge that there is a privilege to engage in that in the first place. 

Is this the critical aspect of the app?

Yes. But it’s not only critical. I feel that there is a lot of work being done that says “look at this terrible world we’re in.” For me, I can’t justify making a piece that is only critical. There has to be some hope, a new idea. Even in my seemingly dystopian projects there is a moment where you feel a connection with someone. 

It’s hard to take a critical stance on social media nowadays — almost everyone seems to be on it.

In my day job, I work as a teacher with undergrads. They have always had a phone, and they have always been posting things on social media. I’m trying to probe them how this impacts their relationships. It’s up to us to put an emphasis on real human connection.

Lauren McCarthy, Lauren, 2017, Screenshot, Copyright the artist

All social apps promise to bring people together. And your apps, too, could easily be commercialised.

There is a lot of people that reach out and want to commercialise it in some way. But I don’t really want to see that on the scale of a start-up. I’m not trying to create a vibe of business. As an artist there are ways in which I can question things that aren’t there in other realms. I engage with technology, but I also think about what it means to be a person in the world today. Technology changes the way we interact with each other. Some people — like me — have a hard time connecting with people, especially upon first meeting them. Technology offers opportunities to connect in different ways. On the other hand it adds barriers, complication and confusion. 

You have a piece called the “Facebook Mood Manipulator.” It seems so topical when social media is allegedly used to manipulate elections.

It’s interesting because I made this as a really quick piece and as a reaction to a study in 2014 during which Facebook experimented with mood manipulation. Everyone was upset about the ethics of the study. But every company is experimenting to see how they can manipulate your emotions. I was more concerned with the implication. For instance, in the US presidential election you see how this could be used. But there is a utopian side to it: What if you can just get up and choose how to feel each day?

Lauren McCarthy, Lauren, 2017, Screenshot, Copyright the artist
Lauren McCarthy, Facebook Mood Manipulator, Screenshot, Copyright the artist

I’d probably get depressed after all because I spend all day on Facebook instead of being productive.

I’d be really surprised if it still works. Each word in a post is tagged with different categories. Words referring to me, or words that refers to money, angry and positive words. There is an equation: the positive words minus the angry words. Each of these posts are analysed and given a score — and this toggles which of the posts show up. 

What’s your next app?

I’m working on a project for Dutch Design Week later this fall. The idea is that in the future AI can also take over emotional labour. In this piece, I am hosting a party for 24 hours. A software algorithmically figures out who is coming and arranges them to come at the optimal time to meet each other. It mines their social media to find out the most interesting points about them. As a host, I’m giving the instructions what the talking points are — the human labor: smiling and welcoming, and as it gets later, I become physically exhausted, but the algorithm is just as energetic. The point is to raise the question what the human aspect is. Can we outsource something to this algorithm and still have a human experience. It’s a work in progress, but the idea is that there is a party that won’t end — and there is a semi-human, semi-bot that is running the whole thing.

Lauren McCarthy, Follower, Screenshot, Copyright the artist

Emotional labor is essential to the art world, too.

Definitely. I’m trying to highlight that this is an issue. One of my earliest pieces was this happiness hat that is forcing you to smile. When you first meet someone, people might read you as aloof or shy — if you’re female. Whereas as a man the reading might be really different. I am thinking about this along gender lines as well. 

Does your work have an element of utopia to it?

Yes. You see these outrageous headlines, and it feels like the options are to just go along with it, or to say, I don’t like that, get it away from me. I think we need a more nuanced reaction to theses things. It’s more complicated than that. With these projects, I hope to create a space that is different.

Lauren McCarthy, Follower, Screenshot, Copyright the artist