Alien and Sedition: Ryan Kuo Interviewed by Kent Szlauderbach

Interrogating the whiteness of the user interface. 

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Ryan Kuo, OK., 2018. Custom software (color, sound), software box. Dimensions variable, landscape orientation. 8.25 x 2 x 10.4 inches, software box. Edition of 100, 1 AP. Courtesy bitforms gallery, New York. Photo: Emile Askey.

Conventional media fail to describe Ryan Kuo’s work. That’s not a cliché—we really don’t have nouns for Kuo’s revisions of consumer tech (.dmg’s, game-spaces, or presentations) as seditious simulations of user-complicity. These are tools we use every day. We get things done; we entertain ourselves. Lest the designers of these tools continue to develop ever-novel ways of stimulating preconscious response (clicks), Kuo’s work corrects our grip on reality. His first solo exhibition in New York, The Pointer—a title inspired by philosopher George Yancy to describe what Kuo calls the “illogical figure of whiteness”—resides in the bitforms gallery office in New York. The following conversation with the artist took place in long turns, like in a role-playing game, over Google Docs.

—Kent Szlauderbach 

Kent Szlauderbach When you were working on the pieces that make up The Pointer, you told me the show was specifically about whiteness. OK. (2018), a macOS app you wrote for this show, is a “procedural whiteness simulator.” The persistent articulation of whiteness makes the work seem pedagogical, almost didactic, which feels like a risk. Why do we need a simulation for what reproduces so much of our present reality? Do you feel a responsibility to train?

Ryan Kuo The persistent articulation of whiteness is what I set out to do. I am being intentionally single-minded about this because whiteness continues to escape proper articulation. OK. offloads this considerable stress onto a computer that can generate and permutate an endless statement of Platonic whiteness. Many people understand that whiteness acts by dictating the terms and categories that describe everything in the universe except itself. But instead of tracing that impulse back to its catastrophic origin, we only see whiteness in the negative, contesting our “own” identities on the backdrop it created, as if we’re taking turns with it. I mean to turn categorical thinking back on whiteness. This emerges from resentment, not responsibility.

What is the risk, and who is put at risk? People who are not white tend to experience the “simulation” as demonstrative of what they already know. They get a bitter reminder of how the world works, but they can also have pleasure at watching one script execute another.

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Ryan Kuo: The Pointer, bitforms gallery, 2018. Installation view. Courtesy bitforms gallery, New York. Photo: Emile Askey.

KS The risk, I thought, might have to do with humor. OK. is easy to laugh at. The software box wryly advertises a cheatsheet inside. Is delight a built-in defense against the implication that I need my whiteness simulated for me? Does your good humor buttress my hold on the center?

RK The program was in fact designed for me, but I shouldn’t be struck that I’m answering questions about what my work does for you, a white. The work is named OK. for the resignation that our meanings are this easily co-opted, and claims on them this readily made. It’s not OK, and there’s no good humor in it.

I think that your laughter is a sign of recognition. But your knowingness, your identification with and of the work, could be a more elemental defense than delight, which at least exposes you to being read yourself. None of this stretches to the absurd.

KS Another piece, I Don’t See It (2018), is a game-space rendering of the bitforms office that plays on a large, beautiful TV. Sitting and watching the camera zooming in with the highest attention to the most irrelevant detail, the script continuously regenerating the viewer’s own perspective, the room starts to affect scorn. The chairs seem to accuse you of your gaze. The piece is described as “site-specific,” but what does a word like “site-specific” fail to describe about the work?

RK We’ve talked about opening this work to commissions in other office spaces. A new space would be modeled, and the probability engine behind the camera movements would be rewired. It’s necessary to copy the space so that the viewer can feel embodiment. “Site-specific” misses that the work is about the systematic disembodiment of the viewer, so that the same work could occur at any specific site. The computer represents a way of looking at the world that specifies the bounds of its objects while assuming a non-specific position. The act of 3D modeling and rendering a real environment on a screen is numbingly literal, and yet it works. This is the unspoken dumbness of conventional VR and game space, which happens to be a good illustration of how whiteness relates to the world. It floats around in an avatar, a symbolic body that buffers experience into actionable items. It spends its lifetime pointing outward from this avatar. It cannot see itself except as an abstract outline that it fills with tenuous verdicts. At some level, digital space and whiteness are resistant to phenomenological readings because the fabric of their shared consciousness leaves no space for doubt to occur. That’s why people always say, “I don’t see it,” when their views are challenged.

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Ryan Kuo, I Don’t See It, 2018. Game application. Dimensions variable, landscape orientation. Edition of 3, 1 AP. Courtesy bitforms gallery, New York. Photo: Emile Askey. 

KS A person in a VR headset is the perfect image of this failure to recognize one’s own exposed, vulnerable body. Your piece, far more effectively than VR, becomes a mirror, not for the eyes, but for this orientation. Are you suggesting that all digital user interfaces or experiences are metaphorical modes of whiteness, which demand complicity or resistance? What, then, is an office, and how does it encrypt this reading?

RK I’m not being metaphorical at all. Digital interfaces, as we now understand them, result directly from the logic of whiteness, and they indeed demand complicity or resistance. Interfaces determine user behaviors by projecting illusions that are apparently neutral and have evidently good intentions, such as clearing a path through a darkly unknowable space for the movements of the will. Rather than interrupt this logic, what I’ve tried to do in my recent work—and especially File: A Primer—is to ride the seamless features of the software interface (in that case, the default slideshow tools in Keynote) to their own disconcerting ends. This brings up the office.

An office is where work gets done, which implies that an office has good intentions. Everyone would question those intentions if only they had the energy or resources. Instead, we default to the office and now have a proliferation of work spaces, startups, and management structures that mean to help you get things done, whether that means inbox zero or deporting an immigrant. It doesn’t even matter what the thing itself is. In The Pointer, I’ve called whiteness an affective failure, less a failure to have empathy than a failure to part with the mental and material comforts of apathy. I fetishize the office in the latter spirit, building routines that are autonomous for the sake of working for themselves in a hostile place. But perhaps I’m also saying that minority resentment at its most perverse can be complicit in upholding whiteness.

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Ryan Kuo, File: A Primer, 2018. Keynote animation (black and white, sound), media player, screen. Dimensions variable, portrait orientation. Edition of 3, 1 AP. Courtesy bitforms gallery, New York. Photo: Emile Askey.

KS If there is metaphor at work in The Pointer, it is the poetics of complicity and resentment you’ve created. There is disarming poetry to the language of File: A Primer (2018), but it’s also in the way you use Keynote—and all of your platforms for that matter—to revolt, with a degree of banality, against any space it occupies. As you continue to work remotely as a technical writer and occupy a studio at the Queens Museum, how will you endure this kind of affective commissioning?

RK Resentment and complicity are at play everywhere I take up space, and the studio is supposed to be the space where I work this into a productive dialectic. But there seems to be no end to the number of possible spaces and selves that are required, and indulging them is one way that I’m complicit. Lately the virtual workplace has been encroaching on the studio, to the point that I find myself needing to step just outside my studio door to teleconference with an office on the other side of the world. So it’s not only a revolt that I’m making, but a material reality that continues to accumulate.

Ryan Kuo: The Pointer is on view at bitforms gallery in New York through August 5.

Kent Szlauderbach grew up in Kansas and lives in New York. He teaches at Queens College and is working on an artist’s novel.

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