How one woman became a human Amazon Echo in the name of art

If you invite her, Lauren McCarthy will come to your home, install a series of cameras, microphones and smart sensors, and will watch you for 24 hours a day.

The artist describes her LAUREN project as a “human intelligent smart home”; a remote controller that is responsive, attentive, and quicker to learn than the algorithms powering Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. Agree to take part in McCarthy’s three-day performance, and LAUREN will study your movements, anticipating your needs, pulling the strings on light fixtures, electrical outlets, water taps and door locks.

It is the latest in a series of works that grill the ticks and tocks of our technological present, born from the artist’s interest in “following people and following commands”. In Follower, for example, volunteers are granted a “no-hassle unseen companion”, who will watch you from afar over the course of a day. In Social Turkers, the artist invited people to give real-time feedback for her dates with people she met on OkCupid.

Over email, McCarthy told me about LAUREN, her influences, and how it felt to be installed as an omnipotent controller over strangers’ homes.

What was the initial impetus behind the project?

We are being sold smart devices that outfit our homes with surveillance cameras, sensors, and automated control. They offer us convenience, at the cost of loss of privacy and control over our lives and homes. We are meant to think these slick plastic pieces of technology are about utility, but the space they invade is personal. The home is the place where we are first socialised, first watched over, first cared for. How does it feel to have this role assumed by artificial intelligence?

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A person’s home is the first site of their cultural education. By allowing these devices in, we leave the formation of our identity to a small, homogenous group of developers. Women, long seen as the keeper of the home domain – as complicated as that notion is – are now further subjugated. Their control is undermined by the smart home “assisting” and shaping every activity. So in this project I try to wrestle back some of that control. The smart home and surveillance devices are present, but there is a woman behind them, not artificial intelligence. The performance viewers actively participate in this exploration, negotiating boundaries and poking at the system for themselves.

Why did you decide to call it LAUREN?

I called it LAUREN because I was thinking about the names given to these AI assistants. They’re almost always female names. Joanne McNeil wrote a great piece about this. I thought that it was probably rarely the case that a woman with the name of one of these systems chose or gave it to the AI.

“If my name was to be used for a system like this, I would fully embody it to keep ownership.”

Instead, I hear stories from people named Alexa of having to go by a different nickname so their family members’ daily interactions with them don’t accidentally trigger their Alexa device. So by choosing the name LAUREN, I felt like I was claiming agency over it. If my name was to be used for a system like this, I would fully embody it to keep ownership.

Can you give a sense of the scale, how many people want to take part? Are these people generally happy to have you install networked device objects in their homes?

So far I’ve received about 30 applications, which amazes me considering what openness it requires on their end. I won’t be able to perform in all of their homes, but I will select a number of them in different cities and do the performances over the next year. One idea that comes out in the performance is the promises and expectations of technology. I try to be better than an AI, but I’m often less efficient and clunkier. The technology I’m using to remotely control their home creates a sort of barrier for me to be as effective as I’d like to be.

I have found though that people are generally much more forgiving of me than they are of Alexa or Siri. I think something about knowing it’s a person and not a machine foster a sense of empathy when I fail to work as well as I or they would like.

For the performances you’ve done so far, how did the experience feel from your end? Did you feel subservient throughout, or did the power dynamic between the occupant and yourself shift? Did you feel dehumanised?

It was thrilling to watch people do even the most mundane things. I felt a strange combination of in control and completely at the whims of the occupants. Which I felt most changed from moment to moment based on the situation. It made me realise how delicate our construction of a social situation really is, how quickly it can change. I didn’t feel dehumanised, if anything, I felt more aware of my limitations as a person and my relationship to the person I was watching and the technology between us.

Some of your ideas about surveillance remind me of artworks by [French conceptual artist] Sophie Calle. Would you say she has been an influence on your approach? Are there any other artists that you’d point to as influences for your work?

Definitely. I find her blend of imagination and reality very inspiring. Some other artists that have influenced me a lot include Jill Magid, Julia Scher, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Ann Hirsch.

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To what extent has the ability to gauge real-time analytics online changed the way we think about social interactions when we talk face to face? Do you think there’s an increasing tendency to judge situations in terms of social capital (e.g., that sunset is beautiful. It will get me a lot of likes on Instagram).

I think this can happen when we go too long without experiences that remind us what more there is. Without a meaningful connection to others and our environments, we settle for fleeting likes and view counts. But I don’t think these deeper experiences will ever lessen in value, we might just have to make more effort to tap into them because the rest of it is designed to distract and occupy us.

Images/video: Lauren McCarthy, David Leonard

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