Astonish Me - Curator Noam Segal on Tayler Ashby Hawkins

May 1, 2017

For the column “Astonish me”, Widewalls has invited internationally acclaimed curators to impart their latest discoveries to us. To kickoff the new column, we have invited curator Noam Segal. Segal is an independent curator based in New York City. Among the artists she has worked with are Anri Sala, Haim Steinbach, Sharon Hayes, Liz Magic Laser, Ulla Von Brandenburg, Dor Guez, Uri Aran and Leonor Antunes.
We asked Segal who her newest discovery is: Taylor Ashby Hawkins.

By entering Taylor Ashby Hawkins's studio, the visitor stumbles upon packs of ready-made, seemingly un-useful objects, which were gathered together by the artist to form a weird, open, non-operating vehicle. On its open top, the vessel is adorned with a banner listing “DIT”, Do-It-Together, as a calling for online users to organize together to guide, control and initiate the movements and actions of a human avatar.

Taylor, born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1990, and attended Columbus College of Art and Design for Painting. After graduating in 2012, he moved to Brooklyn and is now graduating with his MFA from Columbia University.

In the artist’s eyes, this user-participatory, inter-passive practice is a derivative of video gaming; “Video game culture is no longer seen in a lowbrow corner of contemporary society. It is in fact held as one of the highest forms to critically approach the world we live in, distinguishing more about our lives in a whole panoply of technologically based forms… There is agency for participants to become manipulated by an anonymous community of watchers via social media or algorithms that calculate and process data from our consciousness”.

Noam Segal
Work by Taylor Ashby Hawkins, Courtesy The Artist

Taylor Ashby Hawkins - Do It Together

Noam Segal: Taylor, could you tell me about your DIT work, its materiality and the process it was shaped by? Specifically, the car parts and the building?

Taylor Ashby Hawkins: A couple years ago, I was making videos and collaging found objects together to make scrappy sets and costumes. I became obsessed with every nook and cranny of the YouTube “how to” tutorial, using them to make props and costumes, as well as to learn video editing and 3-D software. I was thinking about DIY, which is so often registered as a defense against the dystopic forces of technology, and I stumbled across a community of self-described makers, who are proponents of DIT - Do it Together - which emphasizes the web's ability to connect do-it-yourselfers in forums and places like YouTube, so that knowledge of ad hoc problem solving can be quickly accessed and collectivized.

The installation I’m working on right now is like a branding initiative for DIT. It involves a Smart car borrowed for the duration of the exhibition from car2Go (which allows you to rent a car for short periods of time via your smart phone), and then a scrappy replica of it made from household materials. There are many other components to the installation which involve two performers sitting in the home-made car, emphasizing a computer workstation that directs a live-streamed performer via a monitor which doubles as the windshield. There's also an Internet audience participating via the self-broadcasting site Twitch TV, Skype, Omegle, or even Chat Roulette... but the cars are the physical aspect. I started out by making the skeleton of the car out of PVC pipes and then zip tied on pieces of a Smart car shell - a bumper, doors, the dashboard - which I found on Craigslist. I watched automotive tutorials on YouTube to make the parts I didn't have. It was a process where I'd make the next object/part from whatever YouTube's algorithm would suggest to watch next. I just rode the filter bubble through videos that had no relation to what I started with, but had a higher following and likes.

With the YouTube sculptures, I attempt to limit my decision making, and follow them as best I can, repurposing the objects into car parts as needed. A {insert} becomes the shocks of the car, {insert} becomes the rearview windows, etc. I source the parts mainly on Amazon Prime and eBay. Snorkels, tennis balls, springs, duct-tape, ratchet straps, a shower curtain, Pringles container, Smart car pieces from a hoarder in Brooklyn... What started as DIY, ends up as DI-WHY?, assembling a car out of inscrutable devices made from collisions of commonly available materials. Then, finally, I reference the original creator/video via QR code stuck on the part as a sticker, so there's a potential for the viewer to engage with the same content, and to push the open-source initiative, possibly creating their own space of bifurcating paths.

Noam Segal: You referred to the first iteration of the work, or should I say “tryout” as a performance. You invited a performer to avatar participant’s commands, in several occasions and different environments. How did it go?

Taylor Ashby Hawkins: My first attempt at this way of working was in my friend Stefan Hoza’s studio almost two years ago. As the process was new to me, the two of us went back and forth on who was the “avatar” carrying out the commands made by users of a video chat room - Chatroulette… The goal was to make a painting constituted from the decisions of an anonymous assemblage of users. They told the avatar what to paint - what color to use, what kind of mark to make and where, etc.  Afterwards I would cite who made what decision or mark, and what area of the world they were coming from.   Eventually we had a painting of mostly animals and genitalia.

For the next attempt, I made a set of ads promoting DIT, with theatrical lighting, several performers with different talents, one was a musician that played guitar for the duration of performance. I wanted this to try out the idea of users being able to customize their avatar, having the opportunity to switch. After doing it the second time, I realized that the environment is just as important as the goal. The space wasn’t as recognizable as the white cube studio, which made the users more engaged and less biased about what was to happen.

In that performance, it was also possible for the user to actually be in the space. As the performance went on, they were not watching the live performer, but the screen that was connected to the GoPro mounted on the avatar’s helmet. This created a level of immersion similar to first person video games.

Work by Taylor Ashby Hawkins, Courtesy The Artist

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Noam Segal: To your understanding, how do DIY practices function today? Is it still a form of resistance or it is highly saturated, and therefore no longer function as a counterproductive practice?

Taylor Ashby Hawkins: I think in general, doing anything yourself is still resistance. However, the DIY I'm interested in is in grayer territory. DIT is a particularly media-literate community that's grown inside of the sprawling social media technologies, and while occasionally critical of these corporate technologies, largely exists because of them. So it largely lacks the antagonism towards capitalism associated with the history of DIY. But that complicity comes with a certain power, as they invest in maxing out the potential of the web 2.0, focusing on the power and ingenuity of users, not just coders and back end technologists. DIT has an optimistic attitude about the new web and its potential for togetherness without alienation, maximizing the corporate ethos of users self-constructing inside of templates. But it also comments on how these same technologies can become vampiric and feed off of the users who use it. So, not surprisingly, in all of this is a consolidation of user opinion in an attempt to bend companies to user will.

One of the reasons it's interesting to me is how it sidesteps the old DIY binary of consumer and maker. Cynically, sure, these makers are the cogs in the social media machines, generating content and sharing new ways to seek out simulations of communities from the screen. However, I think the crushing positivity of it all, and its emphasis on “being there” or GoPro's “be a hero” actually represent something else. The users outperform the technology. They re-describe it. They make unexpected connections and new ways to survive because of and in spite of our conditions. It's a new idea of literacy in information and forms for the post-digital generations.

Noam Segal: Inter-passivity is a position articulated by Slavoj Žižek, which referrs to the outsourcing of our being to every form of media. According to Žižek, this transaction is satisfactory as real interactive experience, although the subject is never traditionally active in this situation. Žižek claims that the inter-passive connection gives the subject (the user) the sense of interactivity, although the object is active instead of the subject, who’s passive: “you think you are active, while your true position, as it is embodied in the fetish, is passive” (Slavoj Žižek. The Interpassive subject, Centre Georges Pompidou. Paris, Traverses. 1998).
While you consider notions of inter-passivity, to what extent do you think this plays in your work, especially in regards to human “relations”? And, in this sense, is it a critique or an ironic reflection?

Taylor Ashby Hawkins: It’s not a critique, exactly. While I understand that these mass culture phenomena are widely interpreted negatively, I’m looking for an earnest position exploring concepts of entertainment - or maybe just the gradient of freedom to enslavement found in these online spaces. People desire to be part of a supportive network of development and growth.
One should resist equating Gamic Action with the theory of “interactivity” or the “active audience” theory of media. Active audience theory claims that audiences always bring their own interpretations and receptions of the work. I want the work to find its way to be rooted in cybernetics and information technology, an active medium whose materiality moves and restructures itself. Because of this potential confusion, I avoid the word “interactive” and prefer to call it like the computer, an action-based medium.

So rather than passivity, I’m seeing exponential growth: Users connecting to each other and making new kinds of human connections and expressions, with the hardware and software as an additional dynamic character. There’s no unwinding it or laughing at the mediation of it all, since it increasingly offers something where erasing the sensation of mediation is operationally imperative. A new virtual body always present, even when offline.

Featured image: Work by Taylor Ashby Hawkins, Courtesy The Artist.