Golan Levin: Welcome back every­one. My name’s Golan Levin, pro­fes­sor of art at Carnegie Mellon and direc­tor of the Art && Code fes­ti­val. And this is our final ses­sion of Art && Code: Homemade: Digital Tools and Crafty Approaches. I’m thrilled to wel­come you to the begin­ning of our evening ses­sion. We have four pre­sen­ta­tions this evening. At 5:00 o’clock, present­ly, we have ann haey­oung, then Dr. Vernelle A.A. Noel at 5:30 Eastern time, then Hannah Epstein at 6:00 o’clock, and then Kelli Anderson at 6:30 PM Eastern time are the four pre­sen­ta­tions that round out and con­clude Art && Code: Homemade. 

It’s now my plea­sure to intro­duce you to ann haey­oung. She is an artist based in Los Angeles and uses video and sculp­ture to exam­ine ques­tions around tech­nol­o­gy, iden­ti­ty, and labor. She’s cur­rent­ly an MFA stu­dent at UCLA. ann haeyoung. 

ann haey­oung: Hi every­one. Thank you so much. Thank you all so much for being here. I’m real­ly excit­ed to be speak­ing to you and to be here at Art && Code. I hope you’ve enjoyed the talks that we’ve been see­ing so far. Really inspir­ing stuff, so excit­ing. And thank you to Golan and the Art && Code team, to Lea, Madeline, Claire, Bill and Lisa for hav­ing me here and for orga­niz­ing such a great con­fer­ence to kick off the new year. It’s been a pret­ty wild ride already. 

And I wan­na begin also by acknowl­edg­ing the Tongva peo­ple, on whose unced­ed lands I am cur­rent­ly liv­ing and mak­ing. And the Tongva peo­ple, for those who don’t know, are the orig­i­nal stew­ards of the land that many of us may know now as Los Angeles. 

So, my name is ann haey­oung. I use she/her/hers pro­nouns. I’m gonna start screen shar­ing as well. 

I’m an artist, and a tech­nol­o­gist, and as Golan men­tioned I’m in my first year of an MFA at UCLA. So this is actu­al­ly the first time I’ve described myself as a tech­nol­o­gist. I usu­al­ly say tech work­er although I am not work­ing in the tech indus­try cur­rent­ly. So I’m still kind of like work­ing through the labels that I want to use, but per­haps that is a good intro­duc­tion to some of what I’m plan­ning to share with you today. Which is basi­cal­ly what is tech­nol­o­gy and by exten­sion code, and what is my inter­est in it. 

So I think tech­nol­o­gy, and code as a sub­set of tech­nol­o­gy is best thought of as a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of our social and cul­tur­al val­ues. So in our soci­ety, we cre­ate tech­nol­o­gy as a means to con­trol nature and/or human rela­tion­ships, and as a way to rein­force dom­i­nant pow­er struc­tures. For exam­ple, ear­ly com­put­ers were tools of cat­e­go­riza­tion and con­trol. So a key impe­tus for the first elec­tron­ic tab­u­la­tor, which you see here, was the 1890 US Census. So the pre­vi­ous 1880 Census had tak­en eight years to count by hand. And so a cen­sus employ­ee named Herman Hollerith cre­at­ed an auto­mat­ic count­ing machine, which is what’s pic­tured. So the desire for this machine and the cre­ation of this machine fol­lowed from the desire to reduce peo­ple to data points as a way to allo­cate gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives and resources and to be able to do that quick­ly. So it’s the social and polit­i­cal val­ues which were the dri­ving force behind ear­ly com­put­er design and cre­ation. And this same log­ic applies to even the most cutting-edge AI we cre­ate today. 

And what is my rela­tion­ship to tech­nol­o­gy? So pri­or to grad school, I was work­ing in the tech indus­try. I was at Google for a while, and and then at an AI infra­struc­ture start­up. And I worked in pro­gram and prod­uct man­age­ment. And I do some­times use code and elec­tron­ics and AI more direct­ly in my work, but I try to use them pret­ty min­i­mal­ly, and maybe the rea­sons for that will become clear. And I like mak­ing things in low-tech ways. And I think today I’m only going to be show­ing the video work that I’m making. 

So maybe you could tell from my def­i­n­i­tion about what I think tech­nol­o­gy is that my inter­est in tech­nol­o­gy is in the sys­tems that we erect around the cre­ation and dis­sem­i­na­tion of tech­nol­o­gy on a large scale, rather than focus­ing on using a par­tic­u­lar type of tech­nol­o­gy. So part of those sys­tems and what I want to focus on today is the phys­i­cal space in which we make tech­nol­o­gy, and the peo­ple who are mak­ing tech. So the work­ers who write the code, who make the designs, who assem­ble the machines. And places peo­ple tech; these come togeth­er in fac­to­ries of course, but also in offices, which is what I’m going to start with. 

So I want­ed to show you all a few videos from my office sketch series and this screen­shots of some of those. And even though these were made in 2019 and obvi­ous­ly not in the home, I think they’re an exam­ple of how I found space for cre­ativ­i­ty where I was, and an illus­tra­tion of how impor­tant place is to my work. 

So I felt real­ly stuck at this office. I was tak­ing week­ends or a few days off here and there to work on art projects. And it felt real­ly dis­joint­ed. So it was dif­fi­cult for me to be going into work every day and you know, smil­ing, bit­ing my tongue, and then going home and feel­ing like I was being some­one else. Especially because my work is extreme­ly crit­i­cal of the tech indus­try. So I guess to deal with that, I start­ed look­ing more close­ly at the objects and the topog­ra­phy of this place where I was spend­ing a huge chunk of my time. And I start­ed to see this place as a col­lab­o­ra­tor in my art­mak­ing. And as I start­ed think­ing more about this space that I was occu­py­ing, I start­ed real­ly get­ting inter­est­ed in the office and par­tic­u­lar­ly the tech office as a tool of sur­veil­lance and social control. 

So this is from social the­o­rist George Lipsitz from his book How Racism Takes Place. And in it he describes some­thing called the white spa­tial imag­i­nary. So the white spa­tial imag­i­nary has cul­tur­al as well as social con­se­quences. It struc­tures feel­ings as well as social insti­tu­tions. The white spe­cial imag­i­nary ide­al­izes pure’ and homo­ge­neous spaces, con­trolled envi­ron­ments, and pre­dictable pat­terns of design and behav­ior. So think about that in rela­tion­ship to tech. And he’s talk­ing about the space of the sub­urbs a lot when he’s like— So the white spa­cial imag­i­nary is not a par­tic­u­lar place, but he’s relat­ing it to the space of the sub­urbs. But I think a lot of what he’s talk­ing about is applic­a­ble to cor­po­rate tech offices. And so these spaces are real­ly intend­ed for and built for straight white man, and every­one who falls out­side of those para­me­ters, who’s not pure and homo­ge­neous, kind of feels that dis­con­nect that this is not a space that’s meant for them. Or us. 

And I think it’s impos­si­ble for us not to inter­nal­ize the mes­sag­ing of a place when we’re spend­ing a lot of time in that place. And once we inter­nal­ize this mes­sag­ing, that’s then going to become expressed in the work that we make while we’re in that place. And so anoth­er way of say­ing this is I believe office spaces and tech office space is rein­forced white suprema­cist and cap­i­tal­ist ideas of pow­er and human rela­tion­ships, and that inevitably finds its way into the tech­nol­o­gy we make when we’re in those spaces. 

So, just kind of switch­ing gears and show­ing some of the videos that I was mak­ing kind of react­ing to these ideas and my rela­tion­ship to these spaces and my feel­ings of dis­con­nect in them. I want­ed to start with this video which is called Conference Call. These don’t have the most orig­i­nal names. 

So for any­one who’s ever worked in an office or sat through a con­fer­ence call, per­haps this feel­ing will be famil­iar to you. But some­times it felt like I was dis­so­ci­at­ing from my body. I knew I was sit­ting there, and there was all this tech jar­gon com­ing out of my mouth, but my head was com­plete­ly some­where else. And I was­n’t phas­ing out, because I was the one talk­ing. But it was like I was watch­ing some­body else using my body and talk­ing through my mouth. So this is kind of express­ing some of those feel­ings. And some­thing else I noticed sit­ting in these con­fer­ence meet­ings, because these were spaces are over­whelm­ing­ly male, that the sound of the laugh­ter was very bassy. So that was some­thing that I was also putting in this piece. 

And in these office sketch­es, all of them, I was think­ing about how we have to hide or make up for these non-normative parts of our iden­ti­ties when we’re in these work­places. And the fur­ther one is away from the white male ide­al of the employ­ee, the more one has to work to fit in. And there’s more cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance or gaslight­ing that you face try­ing to just insist on the valid­i­ty of your own experiences. 

So, this next one I will show… This one takes place in my office bath­room. And again, I will play a bit and turn the sound down.

So, in the begin­ning you see me typ­ing out the Morse code for SOS.” And I’m hit­ting arbi­trary num­bers and just using the sounds of the beeps to do that. And the bath­room I think is sup­posed to be a place of solace, because it’s sup­posed to be a pri­vate place. It’s some­where you can go to cry, to relax, to gath­er yourself—obviously to relieve your­self. It’s a very human and vul­ner­a­ble place, and it’s one that all of us need. And sup­pos­ed­ly it’s a place with­out sur­veil­lance. But office bath­rooms are a whole oth­er story. 

In this bath­room you can see that the walls and the stall doors don’t touch the floor. So any­body who’s in there can mon­i­tor the oth­er occu­pants. In my office, this one that you see here, bath­rooms weren’t gen­der neu­tral, so they’re also a place where your gen­der is scru­ti­nized and sur­veilled. I mean the fact that there’s even a key code to get into those bath­rooms says a lot about how they’re try­ing to con­trol the space as well. And I as far as I know nev­er worked in a work­place where they tracked the length and fre­quen­cy of my bath­room breaks, but that cer­tain­ly is an issue for many work­ers. So the pol­i­tics of bath­room archi­tec­ture and bath­room track­ing is anoth­er way we declare who a nor­ma­tive work­er is. 

And the last one that I will from this series is this one. So this one the sound is real­ly just my walk­ing, so I’m just gonna talk over it. But this one, again not the most orig­i­nal title, is called Office Plants.

So I remem­ber this one time walk­ing down the hall­way at Google and sud­den­ly notic­ing that there was a lot more plants. I think that they had just installed a plant wall and it just like…it just felt real­ly dif­fer­ent. And I had­n’t real­ly thought that much about it at the time, kind of filed it away, but in this office that I was work­ing in, many years lat­er I start­ed notic­ing all these plants again. It’s hard to miss them. The office was just like filled with plants. And even all the pho­tographs on the walls, which you saw a few of, were pho­tographs of plants. 

And so I start­ed won­der­ing how did we all end up here, you know, in this box? The win­dows that don’t open under these ter­ri­ble flu­o­res­cent lights. We both just kind of exist in ser­vice of this com­pa­ny. And so I start­ed look­ing into the his­to­ry of office plants. And as I began research­ing, I real­ized that the his­to­ry of office plants is basi­cal­ly the sto­ry of European colo­nial­ism. And I start­ed learn­ing about the cen­tral role of plants and plant theft and the plant trade in the suc­cess of the European colo­nial enter­prise. And while there were plants that Europeans stole to cul­ti­vate in plan­ta­tions, many plants were tak­en as sci­en­tif­ic curiosi­ties and to quench the thirst of rich Europeans who want­ed to present them­selves as world­ly indi­vid­u­als by show­ing off a vast col­lec­tion of so-called exot­ic plants. And we see that colo­nial lega­cy in the way that tech com­pa­nies use and dis­play plants in their office spaces today. 

So dur­ing the colo­nial era, wealthy peo­ple would build these huge green­hous­es. Glass was very expen­sive, and that was just kind of a way for them to tele­graph their wealth. And tech com­pa­nies today like­wise build these elab­o­rate green­hous­es and plant walls as a way to sig­nal their wealth and their suc­cess. Living walls and green­hous­es are still incred­i­bly expen­sive to build and main­tain. And just think about the plants and how they exist in this space in rela­tion­ship to the quote I shared ear­li­er about the white spa­tial imag­i­nary. The plants are a very care­ful­ly curat­ed, cul­ti­vat­ed, and main­tained ver­sion of nature. And they are real­ly just com­modi­ties. They’re there to serve a PR purpose. 

So, I felt a kin­ship with this plant, the one you—well, all of them, but the one you see me tak­ing a cut­ting of specif­i­cal­ly, because it was right in front of my desk. And I also real­ized that there real­ly was­n’t a way for me to help this plant. The best I could do per­haps was to take a cut­ting and maybe some­day plant that cut­ting some­where where it could thrive. But even that, tak­ing a cut­ting, is a vio­lent act. So kind of it was a recog­ni­tion of how colo­nial­ism and cap­i­tal­ism have touched every part of our world. We can’t just cut off a part and run away. There’s real­ly no easy fix, and in real­i­ty I don’t think there’s real­ly a way out with­out pain. 

And so this brings me to some of what I am think­ing about and work­ing on in 2020

So, in 2020 as we all know, every­thing was total­ly turned on its head. I was­n’t work­ing at this job any­more. And even if I was, I would­n’t have had access to this office space to con­tin­ue mak­ing this kind of work. I also moved across the coun­try dur­ing this time, in hopes that school would be par­tial­ly offline but it’s been entire­ly vir­tu­al so far. And so try­ing to get to know a new place and a new com­mu­ni­ty with­out actu­al­ly being able to go out­side, real­ly, or go any­where and get to know the place has been very dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing. And as I have men­tioned a few times, place is a real­ly impor­tant part of my work. So even before those office sketch­es, the screen­shots you see here are of two video per­for­mances, one where I trav­eled out to a Tesla fac­to­ry, and anoth­er in front of an Amazon ware­house and cre­at­ed per­for­mances that were react­ing to the phys­i­cal loca­tion and pres­ence of those build­ings. And so doing this kind of stuff was­n’t real­ly pos­si­ble. So, this is one of the first things I did, which is very dif­fer­ent than what I had been doing before. 

I took a time-lapse. I’ve been very inter­est­ed in time-lapse and get­ting bet­ter at them. This one was just one pho­to a day so its very jerky. But I took a time-lapse of the cut­ting that I’d tak­en from the mon­stera, first root­ing it in water and then trans­fer­ring to a pot of soil. And then I took that time-lapse and put it with all these black and white images of Wardian cas­es. So the Wardian case was a tech­nol­o­gy that was cre­at­ed dur­ing the colo­nial era, and it was used to ship plants. So pri­or to the cre­ation of the Wardian case, they would just kind of ships seeds, they” being the colonists, would ship seeds and many of the seats would go bad on these like month-long sea voy­ages. But with this Wardian case which is essen­tial­ly a ter­rar­i­um, they were able to ship liv­ing plants, which are much hardier so they had a much high­er rate of suc­cess of mov­ing these plants all around the world. And this com­plete­ly changed what they were able to do, where the colonists were able to go, the kind of plan­ta­tions and plants they were able to cul­ti­vate. And I mean, even today we have plants from all over the world kind of growing—especially in a place like Los Angeles you have plants from every­where grow­ing here. So you know, this is all that legacy. 

And I was also think­ing a lot, as I men­tioned before, about plants and tech com­pa­nies par­tic­u­lar­ly. And so this led me to these guys. These are Amazon’s bios­pheres. So Amazon built these huge bios­pheres, which are just big green­hous­es, in down­town Seattle. And in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances I would’ve loved to trav­el out to Seattle and some­how inter­act with these actu­al spheres and the work­ers that were work­ing in this place. But of course that’s not pos­si­ble. So when I was think­ing about what to do and try­ing to plan this performance—when I plan these per­for­mances I usu­al­ly spend a lot of time on Google Maps or watch­ing videos or look­ing at oth­er peo­ple’s pho­tographs try­ing to get to know a place before I can trav­el out there, if I trav­el out there. So I was look­ing at all these YouTube videos and try­ing to decide what to do, and I kind of decid­ed that you know, I’m not going to be able to do some­thing phys­i­cal so maybe I’ll just kind of con­tin­ue with this dig­i­tal col­lage for­mat. And so I will show this one. 

Still from 25000 Plants rough cut

So, basi­cal­ly what this is is the hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist at Amazon giv­ing a tour to a newsper­son, news­cast­er, local news sta­tion about these Amazon spheres. And like, talk about the lega­cy of colo­nial­ism in the tech indus­try. There real­ly is no bet­ter exam­ple than Amazon and Jeff Bezos right now. So this is still in progress. I’m now kind of think­ing about it, mak­ing things that hap­pen when you kind of step through this wall. But real­ly this was kind of just some­thing that I thought was fun to do, it’s some­thing I’ve been doing a lot more of recent­ly, is tak­ing exist­ing videos from online and insert­ing myself into them or oth­er­wise kind of play­ing with them to height­en and point out the ridicu­lous­ness of what they are talk­ing about. 

So, the last thing that I will show today is anoth­er thing that’s kind of in progress. But I’ve been work­ing on these infinitely-looping videos. And I’ve been also using myself a lot in these works. But in each of these videos I’m repeat­ing a phrase which is some­thing that I’ve heard or heard oth­ers say or I’ve said myself to jus­ti­fy my work in the tech indus­try, and pair­ing each of these phras­es with a piece of office fur­ni­ture. And so I kind of mocked these up quick­ly. I’m in the process of putting back­grounds in. But I mocked these up quick­ly to give you a sense of what these might look like. So I won’t play all of them, but in this one with the red, I’m say­ing, I can do good at scale.” This one is, We’re like a fam­i­ly here.” And this one, which I’ll share, is, I can change things from the inside.” 

So sor­ry it’s a bit qui­et, but I’ve kind of got­ten real­ly inter­est­ed in this infi­nite loop as a way to express this feel­ing when you’re kind of stuck in this place or in this indus­try and mak­ing things that maybe you don’t feel excit­ed about or believe in. But you’re not real­ly sure how to leave. And so these are kind of the sto­ries that we tell our­selves, like I can change things from the inside” but real­ly…can we? 

And so this is actu­al­ly I guess a ques­tion that I get a lot from peo­ple, is you know, can I change things from the inside? Should I just leave the tech indus­try? What should I do? Especially for our fel­low peo­ple who iden­ti­fy as anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist, anti-racist, all these like…anti all these ter­ri­ble things. Like how can we exist in this indus­try and make work for these com­pa­nies if we feel so ter­ri­ble about a lot of the things that they’re doing or what they stand for. 

And I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think you have to leave the tech indus­try. I think that’s a very per­son­al, indi­vid­ual deci­sion that folks have to make depend­ing on a lot of things about per­son­al cir­cum­stances. But I do encour­age peo­ple to be hon­est with them­selves, our­selves, about what the com­pa­nies we work for are doing and what our place in those com­pa­nies is. 

And yeah, so these are some of the things that I’m work­ing and think­ing about and I want­ed to share with you all. 

And I just want­ed to share quick­ly a behind-the-scenes shot of what this looks like in my apart­ment right now. It’s been inter­est­ing this past year. And so I know this is prob­a­bly a bit dif­fer­ent than a lot of the oth­er talks tonight regard­ing code, but I hope that I have encour­aged you to think about the his­to­ry and pol­i­tics of the tech indus­try for folks who work in tech, and what it means to be some­body who’s work­ing with and cre­at­ing new tech­nol­o­gy. Because I think artists are the ones who are rethink­ing tech and build­ing tech total­ly out­side of these sys­tems. And so there’s so much hope in what you all are doing. And I real­ly love chat­ting with folks about all these ideas. And I would love to meet each and every one of you, so hope­ful­ly I will see you in the Discord or on email or in oth­er places. Thank you. 

Golan Levin: Thank you, Ann. There’s a lot to think about. And as you and I have dis­cussed some­time ago when we were talk­ing, your work has a rela­tion­ship to code that apart from your own use of it from time to time is really…you’ve tele­scoped out so far that we can real­ly think about the struc­tures in which code is used and the ways we relate to it. I’m just grate­ful so much for your talk. 

There’s won­der­ful ques­tions in the dis­cord. Claire is com­ment­ing how it’s inter­est­ing to think about office-made as a sub­set of homemade. And some of the oth­er pre­sen­ters made work which was…the intend­ed audi­ence is sort of the bored at work peo­ple. And in rela­tion­ship to the bored at home net­work, your work has a rela­tion­ship there. 

There’s a ques­tion from Andy Quitmeyer in the chat here, which I’m gonna look at. And he asks, With so many cor­po­rate jobs moved to homes, is there a new dig­i­tal ver­sion of some of these things that ann describes that the cor­po­ra­tions push? What’s the dig­i­tal mon­stera plant or the dig­i­tal locked bathroom?” 

ann haey­oung: Yeah, that’s an excel­lent ques­tion. I guess I’m curi­ous to hear from all of you know like what those might be. I mean the vir­tu­al back­ground I guess is some­thing that is this strange thing that we’re inter­act­ing with. I know dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies are send­ing phys­i­cal things, like maybe deliv­er­ing food or things like that that could be something…like a strange inter­ac­tion that’s hap­pen­ing? There’s also a lot hap­pen­ing with com­pa­nies that are track­ing the amount of time that you’re spend­ing in the workplace. 

But I guess that does­n’t quite answer the ques­tion, but some­thing I am real­ly think­ing more about is like, what the rela­tion­ship with dig­i­tal scans of things, and if that is also a form of col­o­niza­tion. And there are oth­er artists like Morehshin Allahyari who’s done a ton of work about dig­i­tal colo­nial­ism. But that’s some­thing I’ve been think­ing about recent­ly, is like if we cre­ate vir­tu­al spaces that are filled with these kinds of plants and things like that, is that a form of like recol­o­niza­tion or dig­i­tal colo­nial­ism? Or is that some­how kinder and more free­ing? I don’t know. So, those are some half-baked thoughts, but I’d love to talk about that more with you.

Levin: There’s remarks about the irony of ama​zon​.com and how instead of help­ing the actu­al Amazon, they sort of dumped crazy mon­ey into this weird simulacrum. 

haey­oung: Yeah.

Levin: There’s another—a prac­ti­cal ques­tion. For the in-office videos, it was your office, right? Did you ask per­mis­sion and explain your project? Which must’ve been a fun con­ver­sa­tion with man­age­ment. Or did you just sneak in in the weekend?

haey­oung: I just snuck in on the week­ends. And I have been told that they have seen the videos and think they’re weird. So that’s cool. 

Levin: It’s a pret­ty gener­ic office. You weren’t reveal­ing any cor­po­rate secrets.

haey­oung: Yeah, that’s what I figured.

Levin: Vernelle Noel, who is speak­ing next, she asks, Question: the plant video is still in my mind. It feels like a Robin Hood bank/plant rob­bery. How do you come up with your con­cepts for what you want to say or question?”

haey­oung: Oh. Um… I don’t know. But like— I don’t know if it comes across this way but a lot of the stuff kind of starts as a joke. I like mak­ing work that makes myself laugh. And so a lot of this is a lit­tle bit like tongue in cheek, as I’m approach­ing it. And like I said, for me I’m sit­ting in this office every day for like two years and star­ing at this plant. So I have a lot of time to think about like, what I want my inter­ac­tion with this plant to be. So yeah, I don’t think I have a real­ly good answer for that, just kind of like star­ing at things a lot. 

Levin: I think— This is just a per­son­al reflec­tion. I think a lot of your work has the qual­i­ty of a joke. I agree it clear­ly starts with a joke, and it’s like a joke that I know you get, and then I want to under­stand it myself because there’s a…it’s not as sim­ple as a joke. There’s a multi-layered palimpsest kind of mul­ti­va­lent qual­i­ty to it, or a non­ver­bal qual­i­ty to it. So I’m like this is fun­ny but do I under­stand how. It’s real­ly interesting. 

I can’t wait for you to see all the great com­ments about your projects and pre­sen­ta­tion in the dis­cord. I want to thank you so much ann for your gift of your time today. And we’ll see you around. Can’t wait to see what you pro­duce next. Thank you so much for your time.

haey­oung: Thank you so much, everyone.

Further Reference

Session page