Intersectional Ecologies: Matt Kenyon’s "Useful Fictions," an interview

Intersectional Ecologies: Matt Kenyon’s "Useful Fictions," an interview

Lisa Swanstrom

Lisa Swanstrom interviews Matt Kenyon, founding member of S.W.A.M.P. (Studies of Work Atmosphere and Mass Production, co-founded with Doug Easterly), an Associate Professor of Art in the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan, and a 2015 TED Fellow.

Matt Kenyon is a founding member of S.W.A.M.P. (Studies of Work Atmosphere and Mass Production, co-founded with Doug Easterly), an Associate Professor of Art in the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan, and a 2015 TED Fellow.

Even though it’s been more than fifteen years since S.W.A.M.P. began operation, Matt Kenyon shows no signs of slowing down, no signs of decline in his fantastically peculiar artistic vision, no signs of compromise in S.W.A.M.P.’s direct, engaging, and at times unsettling mode of expression. Quite the contrary, Kenyon, who now runs S.W.A.M.P. solo, seems only to be building up steam, creating new works that speak to global problems, and spreading S.W.A.M.P.’s gospel abroad. One of the most compelling features of Kenyon’s work is its intersectionality; it merges the fine arts with performance, interaction, computation, process, activism, and popular culture. As such, all of Kenyon’s work defies easy categorization. But even as his projects intersect with these different modes of expression, they manage to make powerful statements about our increasingly vulnerable world, with impressive specificity. His work ranges widely in topic. From works that focus on the cost of war, to the exploitation and appropriation of labor, to the vagariesof the stock market, to the ethics of caring for virtual and real life, to the practices of corporate surveillance, Kenyon’s work engages forcefully with our real, present-day world. It takes on real places. It pulls data from real time and real space and transforms that data into something recognizable, readable, and tangible. Given all of that, it almost seems artificial to focus on issues related to ecology when it comes to Matt’s work, but this fact points to what is perhaps my favorite thing about his art: Matt doesn’t single out “nature” or “the environment” as some untouchable sacred space in his artistic practice, but rather calls attention to the intersectional aesthetics and politics that inform our understanding of it. These include the natural world, of course, but also the built environment, civil infrastructures, corporate entities, and, yes, digital technology, both as an object and medium of critique.

For this special gathering I managed to catch Matt at different moments between production, research, teaching, travel, and his schedule as a newly-anointed TED fellow to ask him a few questions about his practice. The following conversation took place piecemeal, over several emails, staggered over the summer of 2015.

Lisa Swanstrom: Before we talk about issues specific to digital and natural ecologies, it’s important to acknowledge how successful your work has been in calling attention to important social issues. Your artwork fights for economic parity, calls attention to fragile environments, and, perhaps most importantly, offers up sketches of hope for a global future. But even as your work nudges us towards the realization that these problems are connected (especially your work on empathy, which by definition seeks to put minds in touch with other minds), is there a particular problem that motivates your work? Is there a single issue, above all others, that preoccupies you as an artist, educator, and citizen?

Matt Kenyon: There is no one single issue that preoccupies me as an artist. I try to build Useful Fictions. For me, these little stories start out as a personal effort to maintain a kernel of optimism in the face of depressing world events—recent developments in regards to labor, the environment, etc. that continue to privilege the corporation and reduce the power and influence of the individual. We see evidence of this in our political elections in the Citizens United ruling that advanced the argument for corporate personhood. At any one time my attentions are being pulled in different directions—between for instance global climate change and housing bubbles. It is important for me to try to see culture as something that we actively participate in. Not as something that simply happens to us. I have found that there is real power in this participation: Useful Fictions. I find the people around me, often students and other artists, asking, “why should we even make things?”—my own answer was a belief system I installed in my head—but at the same time I was aware that that could give me a sense of entitlement—they’re not capital “T” truths, but Useful Fictions. These Useful Fictions help stave off the real crisis, which is apathy. Apathy and powerlessness in the face of these huge problems like climate change. 

LS: Speaking of climate change: Could you tell us a little bit about Puddle (2009), one of your projects that deals explicitly with the consumption of fossil fuel? 

MK: Puddle is the first in a series of three artworks created in order to examine and critique Oil and Gas mining. I grew up in Louisiana, a state rich with deposits oil and gas and all of the corporations and corruption that comes with it. Immediately following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I was in grade school at the time, each student was given a tray of water, a feather, table spoon of oil and a squirt of dish soap. It was part of a Exxon-sponsored science lesson on how effective Dawn ™ dish soap was in cleaning oil off of bird feathers. In reality, what Exxon was trying to teach us was that the heinous oil spill off of Alaska with its oil-covered birds and coastal beaches could simply be cleaned up with something as familiar as dish soap. At first glance, Puddle appears to be little more than a slick of thick black oil spilled across a concrete floor. The black oil is reminiscent of tar-sands oil, some of the dirtiest oil on/under the planet. Its presentation is informal, its shape indistinct. In the controlled environment of a contemporary art gallery, you might consider whether this unceremonious mess is simply an accident. At closer glance, the viewer observes that the black puddle is slowly transforming. Eventually, letters emerge to the surface. As the letters become embossed to form words atop the oil, it reveals the names of large sport utility vehicles that are more commonly referred to as gas guzzlers.

IMAGE 1: Puddle (2009)

Appearing and then disappearing back into the black mass, the names themselves are references to a frontier mentality: “Discovery,” “Avalanche,” and “Expedition.” Maybe the most fitting to this situation is the “Suburban.” In identifying these names, the work highlights the inherent contradictions present in vehicle branding. These luxury vehicles rarely see the environs they portend to represent and their homage—seemingly sincere—are caricatures in themselves. Instead, they pose one of the greatest threats to environmental sustainability. Puddle recognizes that to point to this hypocrisy, it is simply necessary to spell it out. Making Puddle involved jackhammering up and removing a 4-foot cube of the museum floor and installing a moveable magnetic type device I designed and built. Following the excavation and installation, a thin slab of concrete was poured over the device, sealing it into the museum floor for the duration of the exhibition. What appears to be dirty motor oil is actually ferrofluid, a fluid containing a suspension of nano-sized bits of iron. The device projects a magnetic force up from under the museum floor, causing the ferrofluid to slowly form letters and words.

LS: One of the trends in contemporary media studies and ecocriticism both—a rare crossover, indeed—is the focus on “cloud computing” as a metaphor for and medium of environmental information. Tell us about your own project, Cloud (2010).

MK: Cloud is a mobile cart that provides a visual, interactive critique of the US sub-prime mortgage crisis and the housing bubble originating in 2007. The viewers witness common house-ownership dreams disappear as fast as they materializes — just as many saw the false promises of their homes disappear as they were quickly foreclosed upon during this period.


IMAGE 2: Cloud (2010) 

Miniature artificial house-shaped clouds are created ‘on the fly’ in order to critique the global fallout that resulted from the bursting of the US housing bubble. Local housing capacity to consumption ratios determine the size and frequency of cloud generation, creating a stream of house-shaped clouds. This work functions at the convergence of two scientific systems, which are deeply rooted in prediction and classification: economics and meteorology. The vernacular discussion of the weather contrasts with the opaque and technical dialogue surrounding the global economic crisis. Taken as an aphorism, Cloud demonstrates the cyclic nature of real estate speculation that prospers even in the wake of the most recent housing bubble collapse. The houses, and the home ownership aspirations that are inflated with them, rise only to fall. Yet, in the continual reconstitution of the large cloud’s form, the fundamental connection between the domestic abode and its neighborhood persists, and is always in flux. I’ve exhibited Cloud all over the world, from Detroit, Dublin, to Copenhagen. I am fascinated how the viewers’ vernacular understanding of weather, clouds and participation leads them to tell personal stories resulting from the recent global financial crisis.

LS: Puddles, clouds, rubber tree plants: your artistic material is fascinating in its diversity—and compelling because you use things themselves, rather than representations of things, to convey meaning. Do you find yourself drawn to any one arena, medium, or mode of expression?

MK: I’m drawn to making work that can simultaneously exist as an object/artifact and circulate as a story. I’m working on a project this year in Perth, Australia where I’ll be converting crude oil into edible foodstuffs through synthetic biology. Inverse biotelemetry transponders take data from the herd and inflict it on the individual—like the I.E.D. and Spore.

LS: Your project on Detroit, Domestic/Data Occupations, speaks to the problems inherent with geo-demographics and “objective” data collection, including the political contours of data collection. What motivated this project?

MK: Domestic/Data Occupations was a collaboration between me and Mclain Clutter and part of UCLA’s city lab project for media arts and architecture. People in cities produce all kinds of data: consumption, traffic, the load on certain cell towers. All this informs the built environment. Companies might use this data to determine what gets built in each neighborhood. People are shoehorned into fitting these models, into a big map of these demographic types. Developers in a city value more demographic types than others. Our objective was to gerrymander the data collected by these companies. Fabricated data allowed us to create a toolbox of techniques that citizens in neighborhoods could use to generate infrastructure + maintenance. Like street re-paving. Developers decide to-repave through road censors, rubber tubes that determine how much traffic goes across the tubes. We designed a device that would hack into the road censor to generate phantom traffic flows, disguised as a road-kill squirrel. Know the phrase “Fake it till you make it”? Well, this is a variation: “Fake it, until they make it.”

IMAGE 3: Domestic/Data Occupations (2013)

LS: In that same project, the clips you’ve posted are fascinating. How do you see questions of environment, ecology, sustainability, etc. getting captured (or not) with this data?

MK: What we created was akin to a Potemkin’s village—greeting the czar with a façade. Each intervention like a road-kill squirrel. Arbitron-encoded bird song, cell phone encased in a rubber brick that enacts online behaviors representative of privileged demographics. Each had a video documentation that represents one of our interventions within the urban context of Detroit. They’re like little cartoons, little trailers. In the “Prairie” clip you see a participant throwing a brick through a window—a destructive element, signaling derelict homes through broken windows. But once inside this specialized brick starts to tweet, watch television, buy stuff. Making a neighborhood look prosperous means creating a data illusion that would prompt re-investment. But implied within this work is a critique that if we’re just looking at the data and not examining our cities in person, we’re going to be throwing energy away. Consumer data actually ends up affecting census, politics, but this project shows how easily that data can be manipulated. For example, the AC Nielsen + Arbitron companies were recently the subject of a large federal lawsuit for allegedly under-representing various ethnic groups in their sampling.

LS: You were selected to be a TED fellow in 2015. Given TED’s focus on innovation and its celebration of creative problem-solving, your work with S.W.A.M.P. seems like a fantastic fit. What does your role as a TED Fellow entail?

MK: It’s a great opportunity. I was very excited to join this group of people from all over the world—scientists, journalists, artists. The fellows, unlike a lot of people at TED, are not rich establishment types—they’re emerging thinkers. As you may know, TED charges attendees $9000 for a single ticket. It was a challenging context to present my work. I got permission from Punk rock legend Jello Biafra to use one of his images for my talk—the image I used was from the Dead Kennedys performing at Bay Area Music Awards music industry bigwigs types back in 1980. The Dead Kennedys come out to sing “California Über Alles” the song they were asked to play. They start to sing it, stop, then put on ties. The ties turned the Ss on their shirts into dollar signs. Instead they played the song “Pull My Strings,” a satirical attack on the ethics of the mainstream music industry. There’s a great quote from Biafra—”don’t hate the media, become the media. I was excited to see many influential folks—members of the 1%. I was able to talk to GE’s CEO about corporate responsibility and share the Notepad with Al Gore and many others. Mostly I was excited to share the Notepad through TED, and since the talk went public, I’ve received emails from people all over the world—veterans, Iraqis, students.

LS: I did not know that (about the TED ticket price). That’s a powerful presentation venue. Where else do you feel that your artistic interventions are most successful? Certainly gallery spaces are important, museums are important, academic institutions are important. But what other avenues of expression do you favor?

MK: Right now I’m working on a project called GPM (Giant Pool of Money)—myths surrounding global financial crisis. At the center of the series is a two-story tall champagne glass pyramid—something you might see at an opulent wedding. Viewers interact with this piece by putting money into a machine that instantly replaces legal tender with special coins made of an alloy that melts at human body temperature. They’re transported to the top of the pyramid and selectively heated—so they melt and trickle down or don’t trickle down. This piece will be installed and performed at various locations—from main street to wall street—at foreclosed homes, corporate boardrooms, etc.

LS: Along similar lines, what are your thoughts on “participatory” art/culture? There is something interactive and engaging about all of your art, but it is not a sort of engagement that lends itself to, say, a flash mob (correct me if I’m wrong). Are you curious about large-scale collaboration?

MK: Yeah. Collaboration with Notepad exists on multiple levels. I have it in exhibitions as a five hundred pound pallet of paper. Individuals can interact with the text by reading it. The paper is given out as well—individuals can take sheets to write to government officials. I smuggle it in to government paper supplies. These participants don’t know they are collaborating. I also share it with politicians in a very open way—the responses have been varied.

LS: In an age that seems to be chipping away at the notion of a unified “public,” does participatory, crowd-sourced, or crowd-motivated art help constitute an effective counter-public?

MK: Nietczche talks about the birth of tragedy—an individual stepping out from the chorus. I like to imagine a chorus made up of only soloists—they just keep marching forward, trying in vain to step out from the chorus. If there’s hope, there has to be in communal action based on shared interests. Political and market forces seek to divide us. Art is free expression. Undigested. Art is part of an ecology of ideas and interactions and beliefs. It’s not that one thing causes change, they’re just part of system. Like a salt marsh that cleans the toxic chemicals out of water.

LS: What are you working on right now?

MK: I’m working on Giant Pool of Money and Tap, a project about fracking.

LS: You’ve done a lot of traveling in the past year. How has it influenced your art?

MK: Right now I split my time between Ann Arbor and New York City. I was on sabbatical this year, so I went to the ASA on Giant Pool of Money. I went to Russia (and was there the week their currency lost a third of its value) I was there, talking about GPM when their currency became devalued. I took Supermajor to oil rich countries like Malaysia, Brazil, and the UAE.


IMAGE 4: Supermajor (2014)

Supermajor, which is currently in a show in the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was the subject of a scandal when gallery staff replaced the labels on the oils cans with Petronas labels. Although the work is quite clearly a critique of the oil industry and the perception that oil, gas and other resources are infinite, the local gallery staff secretly changed the Exxon, Shell, BP, and Mobil oil labels of the installation to Petronas labels. They did this overnight and without my permission or even knowledge. The gallery sought permission for a label change months before, a request I denied. When I received word of the unapproved changes, I was told that the change was just for the opening reception. 

IMAGE 5: Supermajor (2014)

It’s possible that the gallery who is technically independent from the oil company (although staffed by several former Petronas officers) wanted to impress oil company higher ups perhaps as a strategy for securing additional funding. Being on the other side of the world, I was left with few options. I decided that if they (Petronas) want so much to be part of the work (a work they clearly didn’t understand) I would oblige them. Once word of the whole fiasco got out, the gallery quickly changed the work back to its original state.

LS: You recently joined U of M. What has that transition been like?

MK: The Stamps School of Art and Design is a great school. I was hired as part of a presidential computational media cluster hire in 2012. Since then I have collaborated with faculty and students in Architecture and the Medical Sciences on research and teaching projects. We have some truly remarkable students.

LS: What have you found most gratifying to teach as an artist and educator?

MK: I’m teaching a really exciting course this semester for artists and designers interested in using cellphones as material for art. They learn several techniques from augmented reality to programing Apps, in addition to readings in critical theory. In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explores perspectives of technology as perception of technology moves from “being better than nothing” to “better than anything.”

LS: Do you have a sample assignment that you’d be willing to share?

MK: For one of my favorite assignments, each student is given a fake iPhone, a photorealistic nonworking dummy phone. They have to plan and execute a performance using these fake phones in a public context as a way to explore their relationship with technology. The outcomes are fascinating—one student pined the phone to the hair on the side of her head. She proceeded to walk around the city asking people if they had seen her iPhone. Another student glued the phone to the ground in a public park and documented people’s efforts to pick it up.

LS: Which artworks and artists, contemporary or past, do you feel most akin to?

MK: I am a big fan of the old school spectacle and destruction of SRL (survival research laboratory) performances as well as the recent work by Zack Denfeld and Cat Krame’s The Center for Genomic Gastronomy. Their Smog meringue project titled “Smog Tasting” uses egg foams to harvest air pollution. Smog from different locations can be tasted and compared. The project is brilliant. I am constantly impressed and inspired by both Evan Roth’s FAT Lab as well as his solo projects. His Multi-Touch Paintings are powerful evidence of the time we are living in. They are powerful and disturbing finger print patterns that trace out our obsessive relationship with screens. Touch screens. 

LS: You seem to often experiment with new modes of expression that have some digital component. What has been most valuable lesson for you in your artistic practice in terms of working with technology?

MK: The idea that digital technology is new is something we need to dispense with. I was trained as a painter. When I was in school, when I was a painter, the first time I went to New York City, I spent most of the day in the Met—looking at horse nostrils and flake-white highlights of a Velasquez. And then I walked into Times Square and had to reconcile modes of representation—things that were rarefied and beautiful and things that were irradiating us with poisonous content. Going back to the Jello Biafra quote about hating the media. I reject humorless pessimism—idea that humans aren’t capable of critiquing the technical environment around them. If the work is successful it provides additional material to people who are already critical and curious about technology. When it fails, it condescends to them or thinks there not capable. I don’t want to be providing a salve to some rash their phone gave them. I want them to take the work and add it to their relationship to technology and the world.