Image description: A Chinese-American woman with short dark hair standing in front of device sculptures. Photo by Gabriel Noguez.
Lauren Lee McCarthy (she/they) is an artist examining social relationships in the midst of surveillance, automation, and algorithmic living. She is a 2021 United States Artist Fellow, 2020 Sundance New Frontier Story Lab Fellow, 2020 Eyebeam Rapid Response Fellow, 2019 Creative Capital Grantee, and has been a resident at Eyebeam, ZERO1, CMU STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, Autodesk, NYU ITP, and Ars Electronica. She is the recipient of grants from the Knight Foundation, the Online News Association, Mozilla Foundation, Google AMI, Sundance Institute New Frontiers Labs, Turner Broadcasting, and Rhizome. Her work SOMEONE was awarded the Ars Electronica Golden Nica and the Japan Media Arts Social Impact Award, and her work LAUREN was awarded the IDFA DocLab Award for Immersive Non-Fiction. Lauren's work has been exhibited internationally, at places such as the Barbican Centre, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Haus der elektronischen Künste, SIGGRAPH, Onassis Cultural Center, IDFA DocLab, Science Gallery Dublin, Seoul Museum of Art, and the Japan Media Arts Festival.
Lauren is also the creator of p5.js, an open-source art and education platform that prioritizes access and diversity in learning to code, with over 1.5 million users. She expands on this work in her role on the Board of Directors for the Processing Foundation, whose mission is to serve those who have historically not had access to the fields of technology, code, and art in learning software and visual literacy. Lauren is an Associate Professor at UCLA Design Media Arts. She holds an MFA from UCLA and a BS Computer Science and BS Art and Design from MIT.
You can say turn off the lights. You can say wake me up at 7am. You can say talk to me. I am captivated by the ways we are taught to interact with algorithms, and how this shapes the way we interact with each other. Central to my work is a critique of the simultaneous technological and social systems we’re building around ourselves. What are the rules, what happens when we introduce glitches?
I create performances inviting viewers to engage. To remote control my dates. To be followed. To welcome me in as their human smart home. To attend a party hosted by artificial intelligence. In these interactions, there is a reciprocal risk taking and vulnerability, as performer and audience are both challenged to relinquish control, both implicated. We must formulate our own opinions about the systems that govern our lives. We begin to notice their effects play out on our identity, relationships, and society. Situated in everyday life, my projects have real life consequences. We’re reminded of an urgent need to find a sense of agency.
I am working with performance, software, electronics, internet, film, photography, installation. My work exists within and beyond the gallery, seeking edges of art and media performance. There are different layers of experience, from the intimate performance to a much wider audience invited in through the ripples of viral videos and media coverage.
Each work feels like an attempt to hack my way out of myself and into closeness with others. I am embodying machines, trying to understand that distance between the algorithm and myself, the distance between others and me. There’s humor in the breakdown, and also moments of clarity. Who builds these artificial systems, what values do they embody? Who is prioritized and who is targeted as race, gender, disability, and class are programmatically encoded? Where are the boundaries around our intimate spaces? In the midst of always on networked interfaces, what does it mean to be truly present?
Thoughts about code
Code is a medium like any other, with its own rules and affordances. I feel freedom being able to rapidly prototype ideas in code and build my own tools, it is a way of thinking through questions. I often am tweaking the software in real-time while each performance runs. It is important for me that my code is open-source, that is, others may use, share, modify, and build on it. Around this code sharing communities form, decentering individual artists and prioritizing collaboration.
My background in computer science gives me a level of fluency and understanding of what’s happening with technology on different scales at the same time. I see the systems around us, and I imagine the code and underlying logic, I then zoom out to the way we are experiencing it as individuals which feels unique and personal, then zoom further to see the larger social patterns the technology is encoding. I look for the opportunities to insert hacks and glitches at any of these different levels, watching the effects propagate. I care deeply about questioning the technologies around us because no tool is neutral. Each is embedded with the biases and beliefs of its creators. Every software system is also a social system. How do we reclaim a feeling of control, how do we participate?
A software system is a set of instructions, a code or a script. I gravitate toward performance because it shares much of this logic. But there is a humanness in the interpretation of a performative score, whereas a machine interpreter demands a precise series of directions or it fails. As technology moves ever closer to us, the scripts start to blend. I’m chasing the program crashes that open something up.