Excerpted Q&A with Lauren Lee McCarthy, visiting artist at Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence

Their live performance for the campus community is on April 21 in Pigott Theater.

Through their practice over the last decade, artist Lauren Lee McCarthy has been figuring out through performances and visual media what it means to be human in an increasingly mechanized world. From automating romantic dates to re-inserting compassion in voice-activated smart homes to reimagining reproductive futures, McCarthy sits at the intersection of art and ethics for co-existence with machines.

McCarthy is currently the 2022-23 Visiting Artist at Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI). They are exploring the genetic implication of artificial reproductive technologies, culminating in a live performance for the campus community on April 21 in Pigott Theater.

Here is an excerpt from an interview where McCarthy talks about their experience on campus and art as a research methodology.

Bhumikorn Kongtaveelert [BK]:
Your work has been at the intersection of art and computer science, specifically ethics and surveillance. However, your new body of work focuses more on the biosecurity of reproductive futures. What created the shift from human-AI interactions to something more intimate but also distant?

Lauren Lee McCarthy [LLM]: I think about [my work] being less about technology and more about the experience of what being a person is like right now. Depending on what culture and context [one] lives in, this often involves a lot of technology.

I was making a lot of works that dealt with surveillance and AI. One of my particular interests is thinking about really intimate spaces and the way that technology plays out in very personal spaces because we have so many narratives about how AI affects us in terms of work or in the public space. So, the series of works dealing with AI and surveillance is really thinking about what happens in the home. How does that feel when it comes to that personally? What do we think about it?

I think of the recent work as sort of an extension of that. So if we take it one step further and think not just about the home but about the body and these really intimate moments like reproduction in the way that we understand the family, what happens when technology intervenes in those processes? How does that shift our understanding of who we are?

I’m often making work that is really just about what’s most confusing to me at the moment. And so when I was doing all of the AI and home works, it was partially inspired by the fact that I had just gotten married and moved in with someone, and I was trying to navigate, like, we’re making a home together, and I couldn’t understand what that meant. And then I think, this work began because another question on my mind was, Should I have kids? and why or why not? And what does that mean? The work has this personal dimension, and the point of it is not, Should I have kids? but just thinking about what are all the things that come up when one starts to explore that question at this moment in time.

BK: What will you do at Stanford, and what do you hope to accomplish here?

LLM: One of the outputs from this whole kind of exploration has been a live performance for an audience. It’s kind of like a one-woman show where I’m sort of telling the story of what happened. So that’s something that I’ve been developing while I’ve been at Stanford.

Another big part of my research at Stanford has been trying to get deeper into the genetic aspect of this project. What are all the different ways that we can currently, or might in the future, be able to control the outcome of reproduction? How does AI factor into that in terms of quality prediction, possibilities, genetic screening, and even gene editing? There are a lot of startups that have spun out of Stanford around those topics, like 23andme. A lot of the research has been talking to different people working in that field, understanding what’s possible, and then thinking about how it relates to this project.

I’m also working on a new piece at Stanford called SALIVA that is trying to get at some of these questions. The idea is that it would be a saliva exchange. People could come and spit because I figured after COVID, we’re all just used to spitting all the time anyway, or swabbing and all that. So, you come in and spit into a tube. Then you fill out a form that’s similar to a sperm donor forum, where you share some qualities about yourself, your personality, or your genetic traits. Then after you’ve made your donation, you go into the next room, and you can select from other people’s samples and take one home in exchange for yours. As you’re selecting, you’re given this information, like this person had brown hair, or this person had a really nice voice, or this person was very melodic, and you can select the saliva you wanted based on those traits.

In a way, it’s an absurdist project, but it’s also a way of talking about this future idea of designer babies and how that could be very problematic or what sort of questions it raises. But it’s also a way of talking about our shifting relationship to biosurveillance after everything we’ve been through in the pandemic.

I did a test performance of SALIVA, and in that version, I was just exchanging the saliva one-on-one with people myself. In this version, it’s more of an exchange. So, it would be less about just exchanging with me and more about this idea of selection.

BK: You have cultivated an intellectual grounding, or at least a speculative anchor, for work based in science or ongoing research. Talk more about art as a research methodology and how it works in tandem with philosophical and scientific inquiry, but also how it offers alternative outputs that these two things were unable to do.

LLM: I think that a lot of scientific research is really based around trying to find answers to questions. In some cases, there’s a hypothesis about what that answer should be, and that can skew the way the data that’s collected looks. So, you can sometimes find yourself in a situation where you’re collecting data in support of the answer that you’ve thought of. Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s often about a question that you’re trying to find an answer or solution to.

I think one of the things that art does really well is it doesn’t give a lot of answers; it actually makes a lot more questions. I think that art and science in conversation can be really powerful. I always advocate for having artists in conversations about technology or in the room with scientists, engineers, or policy makers, because I think that artists have a very good ability to imagine what’s possible or what hasn’t happened already. That’s part of the job description: imagine what doesn’t already exist and make it happen. That’s what you’re doing when you’re making art because you’re trying not to make this thing that already exists.

I think that’s really helpful in conversations that are about how we’re making policy or how we’re relating to each other, or our understanding of our relationship to the world and technology because it opens things up and says, “Okay, here’s the current framework that we’re in, but what if it was like this? What if we could relate to each other in this way? What if this was possible?” I think that’s the first step to making it happen. It’s just saying “what if” and letting your mind go there. So, that’s philosophically how I see those things coming together.

Practically, as an artist, I enjoy collaborating with people in really different fields. I think so much of the idea generation, and just the way these projects get made, is by talking with people and working with them and that kind of friction that comes up when you have really different ways of seeing things. I find it incredibly productive not just to be working with artists but to be working with scientists, researchers, technologists, designers, everyday people that are not doing any of those things, and students and seeing what comes out of it.

I do think of my art practice as a research practice. I am not just trying to make art about things. I’m trying to explore the boundaries of a topic and see what I can find there. So, the research often consists of experiments. I’m putting myself or maybe other people into a situation, and then we’re seeing what comes out of it and what we observe, notice, and learn.

This interview has been lightly edited for conciseness and clarity. For the full unedited transcription of the interview, please click here.