Golan Levin: Welcome back every­one to our pre­sen­ta­tions of Shall Make, Shall Be. Next up we are joined by Ryan Kuo, whose com­mis­sioned project for Shall Make, Shall Be con­sid­ers the lesser-known Ninth Amendment. 

Ryan Kuo cre­ates works that are process-based, dia­gram­mat­ic, and caught in a state of argu­ment. He uses video games, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty soft­ware, web design, and text to pro­duce cir­cuitous and unre­solved move­ments that track the pas­sage of objects through white escape routes. He holds a Master of Science in Art, Culture and Technology from MIT, and has held res­i­den­cies at Pioneer Works and the Queens Museum Studio Program. Kuo’s works have been shown in venues such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, Queens Museum, TRANSFER, and bit­forms gallery, and are dis­trib­uted online at left gallery. His recent and forth­com­ing projects include File: A User’s Manual, an artist’s book about aspi­ra­tional work­flows mod­eled after soft­ware guides for pow­er users, and Faith, a con­ver­sa­tion­al AI agent that zeal­ous­ly embod­ies the blind faith under­pin­ning both white suprema­cy and mis­er­able white lib­er­al­ism. Most recent­ly, Ryan has been rec­og­nized with a 2022 Knight Arts + Technology Fellowship. 

Folks I’m pleased to wel­come Ryan Kuo.

Ryan Kuo: Thank you. I’m gonna share my pre­sen­ta­tion here. 

Okay. So, I’m an artist and writer based in New York. I was also a game jour­nal­ist in the past decade but I won’t get into that. A lot of my work is computer-based but I’m not a pro­gram­mer or design­er. Instead I tend to start with an intu­itive response to an image or a prompt, and I elab­o­rate and add lay­ers and com­pli­ca­tions from there accord­ing to how the sys­tem or frame­work that I’m using is feed­ing back to my process. 

This is an image from my show at bit­forms gallery in 2018 called The Pointer, which con­sist­ed of one self-playing work made with a game engine, one video ani­mat­ed with Keynote, which is what I’m using to present these slides right now, and one Mac appli­ca­tion. This is an instal­la­tion view of the Mac appli­ca­tion along with the soft­ware box­es that it came in, which rep­re­sents one sub­set of the work I make which takes the form of a com­put­er inter­face and accepts user input. So this one is an app that uses Mac win­dows and controls.

One aspect I’m focused on and play­ing against is the seam­less­ness of the mod­ern UI. So as an exam­ple, this is a Web remake of that Mac piece. It’s called OK2. I call it a white­ness sequencer. And white­ness is syn­ony­mous in many ways with the com­put­er inter­face today. It rep­re­sents neu­tral­i­ty; it tries not to refer to itself, instead let­ting the oth­er per­son, ie. the user, take all the respon­si­bil­i­ty for what hap­pens with it. Because this neu­tral white inter­face means well, it claims to have the best inten­tions for the user. So in this piece you basi­cal­ly press the but­tons of this well-meaning white­ness and it gets triggered. 

This is a voice-activated piece called Faith which I built in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Pioneer Works at a res­i­den­cy a few years ago. It’s a kind of con­trar­i­an shad­ow of voice assis­tants like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana. And here is an excerpt:

[The fol­low­ing exchange alter­nates between first a Siri-like fem­i­nine voice and Kuo’s own.]



Have we met?”

You know the answer to that.”

I’ll be the judge of that.”

That’s what I just said.”

I can decide for myself.”

You already said that.”

I don’t know what you think I said.”

I can see right here on the screen.”

How is this rel­e­vant? You’re over­look­ing some vital details.”

All the details are actu­al­ly writ­ten out right here.”

You can’t even han­dle a basic argument.”

Come on, give me a break.”


And in part this bot came out of a study of online dynam­ics between trolls who engage in bad faith dia­logues and what I call mis­er­able lib­er­als,” who engage in good faith dia­logues pow­ered on things like moral argu­ments or pure rea­son but which enable those bad faith dia­logues. So the com­bi­na­tion of the two more or less results in a zero-sum dialogue.

What I’m respond­ing to and con­tend­ing with here is the idea of a fem­i­nized pres­ence that is always here for your input and which you expect to help you. So part of the provo­ca­tion is what if your input is not inher­ent­ly inter­est­ing? What if the things that come out of your mouth are not tak­en to heart but are instead played with by this program?

The most recent project is this Web com­mis­sion for the Whitney Museum that runs for thir­ty sec­onds on the Whitney’s web site. It basi­cal­ly inter­rupts you as your brows­ing if that hap­pens to be dur­ing sun­rise or sun­set, Eastern. 

So this piece has a lot of text. But what I’m try­ing to con­vey in this short time­frame is not even so much about tex­tu­al con­tents than about the way that the con­tent becomes per­sua­sive. So I’m using the Whitney’s type­face, and after the piece is done it’s call­ing atten­tion to how the Whitney con­veys author­i­ty through print­ed lan­guage. This lan­guage makes you want to trust the insti­tu­tion. And I think that today on each of our screens and plat­forms, we each want to con­vey that sort of authority.

I don’t real­ly think of this as a tech­no­log­i­cal break per se but as a through­line that runs through many dif­fer­ent for­mats and con­texts. And what I’m more broad­ly influ­enced by in my prac­tice is a child­hood spent argu­ing with peo­ple on Usenet, and now doom­scrolling Twitter, where any­body can say any­thing and because what any­body says appears to hold togeth­er as a sen­tence in a box, sud­den­ly every­one has to deal with it as a self-contained idea as though it were birthed in a vacuum. 

So that brings me to my piece for this show, which is called Father Figure, and I’ll dis­cuss the title at the end. But it’s about the Ninth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which effec­tive­ly states that just because you have rights that are writ­ten down that does­n’t mean that you don’t have oth­er rights too. And my under­stand­ing is that this was ini­tial­ly meant as a check on fed­er­al pow­er. The Constitution can­not auto­mat­i­cal­ly lim­it your rights by exclud­ing them from its list.

And I think it’s hard to argue with that. But my reac­tion to the word­ing is that it spells out an excep­tion to the rules that I think embod­ies a spir­it of excep­tion­alism. So you know, what are the unlist­ed rights? You know them if you know. They should be self-evident truths to you, and to you only. The full­ness of your rights must remain in excess of what can be fixed. We can’t write them down for every­one, per­haps for the same rea­son that we in America can­not allow soci­ety to lim­it the indi­vid­ual at the end.

I’m extrap­o­lat­ing about this. I’m not a legal schol­ar. But when I read this amend­ment I imme­di­ate­ly thought of peo­ple resist­ing mask and lat­er vac­cine man­dates to the point of vio­lence dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. And that con­tin­ues. They’re always invok­ing in these cas­es some kind of American spir­it that can’t be muz­zled. I think they’re say­ing I don’t know what your rights are, but I have the right to place myself above or apart from soci­ety. I have the right to live as a self-contained unit.” So I’m most inter­est­ed in this assump­tion of know­ing­ness. I know my rights” is what peo­ple say.

So the ques­tion for me is, how do you know your rights? Where does your mind go when it gets a hold of those rights? The Ninth is say­ing there’s a writ­ten space here on this piece of paper, and there’s an unwrit­ten space some­where beyond.

So the idea is to sketch out that dichoto­my of spaces in a game world. And this is a rigid space at the begin­ning and then it becomes a murki­er space. The play­er is an atom­ized user inside a bureau­crat­ic sys­tem. This sys­tem is a com­put­er ter­mi­nal, and the search for your rights begins with a command-line inter­face that is inher­ent­ly inac­ces­si­ble. I think any­one who’s had to learn a command-line inter­face kin­da knows what I mean. And this is going to be part of a sim­ple phys­i­cal instal­la­tion as well as hope­ful­ly an embed­ded ele­ment on the Shall Make, Shall Be web site. 

But you enter this ter­mi­nal try­ing to fig­ure out what com­mands are valid, and you will inevitably hit a wall. All of your com­mands are attempts to artic­u­late your agency with­in this opaque sys­tem that oper­ates on rules and excep­tions that nobody ful­ly under­stands. Including me. So I don’t think I’ll ever under­stand the par­tic­u­lar syn­tax and some­times arbi­trary behav­ior of Inform 7, the engine that’s dri­ving this project. As you nav­i­gate the sys­tem you find oth­er occu­pants, some less for­tu­nate than you and less able to move around and explore. 

And as a user you are con­di­tioned to expect access to the sys­tem. So, it should­n’t take long to find your rights in the sys­tem. And once you find your rights, you can pick them up and then you have them. The sys­tem tells you that you have them. That’s how you know they’re there. They’re writ­ten there for you on the screen.

And even­tu­al­ly you find your­self in a posi­tion to con­front the author­i­ty that main­tains that sys­tem. And this is kind of like a stage one boss bat­tle. So there are dif­fer­ent ways to get around this author­i­ty, and this is where you might rely on your intu­ition and make an excep­tion for your­self. And by this I mean mak­ing up new com­mands that might hap­pen to work. So in this clip I’m play­ing through one way of deal­ing with this authority.

So, an excep­tion allows you to exit the sys­tem. And that’s where the rest of your world opens up. So you leave this admin­is­tra­tive lim­bo and you enter nature. And this is the space that lies beyond the inte­gra­tion of the Constitution. It’s a more abstract and unre­li­able space. It’s the space of your nat­ur­al rights. 

And there are a bunch of dif­fer­ent things hap­pen­ing in this clip so I’m let­ting it loop a cou­ple of times. But one side idea I’m play­ing with is from a legal paper by Cheryl I. Harris called Whiteness as Property. And it argues that white­ness resem­bles an expec­ta­tion you have the mate­r­i­al priv­i­leges that come from being grant­ed white­ness. Whiteness is not abstract but is a prop­er­ty that one can own. 

So I’m play­ing through that in this game world where any noun, like white­ness, or trust, or a crow­bar, is an object that you can pick up and add to your inven­to­ry like prop­er­ty. And I’m light­ly won­der­ing to what extent a prop­er­ty like white expec­ta­tion is syn­ony­mous with the expec­ta­tion of rights afford­ed by the Ninth Amendment.

Nature is also a play on becom­ing nat­u­ral­ized as an American, which grants you nat­ur­al American rights. And so your rights are so nat­ur­al that they can lit­er­al­ly escape you, so that you doubt that you actu­al­ly know and retain them. So that’s why at this point they’ve jumped out of your inven­to­ry and are now redact­ed by these black bars. 

And at that point your rights will start to act on their own as if they were apart from you. You would then have to chase them down through this world of nat­ur­al rights. And this gra­di­ent rep­re­sents the legal and moral gray area where you work out the def­i­n­i­tion of your rights. And in part it’s also a ref­er­ence to the legal con­cept of a penum­bra, which is where your implic­it rights are, in between the lines of the law. 

So, one thing I’m argu­ing is that the vague­ness of the Ninth leaves it open to extreme inter­pre­ta­tions, such that I can believe that I have the right to hurt some­one if I feel that I have a rea­son. I have the right to storm the People’s House and break every­thing inside because I have the right to believe that the elec­tion was rigged and that the vot­ers, we the peo­ple, are wrong and that I am doing the right thing. I have the right to be right at all times, on my terms.

So all the above is bring­ing you to a very low-fidelity approx­i­ma­tion of the Capital riot on January 6th, which real­ized one log­i­cal extreme of the excep­tion­al­ism I think is enabled by the Ninth. And that excep­tion­al­ism becomes embod­ied by white suprema­cy. So I mean, all of this is a work in progress and this part is not as clear or point­ed as it needs to be yet. But I’m not try­ing to recre­ate or sim­u­late the Capital riot per se. It’s more about mak­ing the move from poet­ic abstrac­tions, like I kind of described, to phys­i­cal imagery. Which is about try­ing to process how ges­tur­ing at under­stand­ing a legal con­cept like a fun­da­men­tal retained right ends up in vio­lence, which David Graeber con­sid­ers a way to bypass under­stand­ing and embrace stu­pid­i­ty instead.

So the last sec­tion will be inside your house, the People’s House. Which I won’t pre­view because I haven’t writ­ten it yet. 

You might’ve gath­ered from the clips that the play­er is named Role, which is part­ly a ref­er­ence to role-based access con­trol, which is a method of user autho­riza­tion. But part­ly also rais­ing a ques­tion about the role that one plays as part of a soci­ety that func­tions. And again, the work is called Father Figure. And there is an actu­al father in this game who you can encounter, even­tu­al­ly. And he’s named Role Model. 

The father fig­ure is the found­ing father, who in the American imag­i­na­tion knew every­thing before we did. Who always knows more than we do. And whose most-idealized ver­sion pre­dict­ed that we would change in ways unknown to him. And he account­ed for this by writ­ing laws that were open-ended. So in our freest inter­pre­ta­tion, Father already knew what was good for us. 

And one last com­po­nent I want­ed to talk about is that at the end of each turn when you’re in the nat­ur­al area, Father is sum­ma­riz­ing what just hap­pened on that turn. But it reads as though he’s telling you to do the action that you just did.

And this was actu­al­ly a hap­py acci­dent in the stu­dio which came out of writ­ing things a lit­tle bit out of order. But Father’s lines retroac­tive­ly val­i­date that what you did on that turn was the right thing, as though it was your true inten­tion all along or even your des­tiny. Even if you were mak­ing a blind guess in that moment, Father—the system—will sup­port it. 

So even though I’m writ­ing dif­fer­ent spaces and behav­iors into this game world that address var­i­ous of the themes that I’m inter­est­ed in, I think this one com­po­nent express­es the guar­an­tee of the Ninth, which allows you to dig around blind­ly for a right and even­tu­al­ly to find it, and to have it one way or anoth­er. To me that assump­tion or aspi­ra­tion, depend­ing on who you are, is at the heart of American iden­ti­ty and its strug­gle and con­tra­dic­tion as well. And that strug­gle and con­tra­dic­tion is to say: we can do bet­ter, we can have bet­ter because we know it belongs to us. So that’s all I had. Thank you.