Australian artist Tully Arnot works at the intersection of sculpture, nature and technology. Exploring the interface between virtual and so-called real life is a project that runs parallel to the tech industry itself, but where the industry strives to 'solve' the problem or make life easier, Tully’s work tends to complicate the collision. Whether he is animating fake plants or taking social media to its absurd limits, Tully’s objects continually confuse reality, even after we return to it. It’s an effect he calls an 'uncanny residue'. Tully has shown work in exhibitions across Australia, UK, Germany, Belgium, Italy, China, Russia, and New Zealand. He recently relocated to China, to undertake a residency at Organhaus in Chongqing, and will also undertake the Australia Council Greene St Studio Residency in New York next year. We caught up with Tully to ask him more about his work.
The Creators Project: Your work initially began as being sculptural and performance based, but has grown to include programming, technology and electronics. Why do you think it has evolved in this way?
Tully Arnot: I've always seen my work as an extension of Arte Povera or other movements dealing with the everyday; art that manipulates familiar objects to explore our relationship with technology or culture. The everyday is now as much online and mediated by digital interfaces as it is by real life physical objects, so it was natural for my work to move towards this.
Using a mould of your finger, your 'Lonely Sculpture' artwork is programmed to infinitely swipe right on every Tinder profile. How did you make this piece?
I wasn't exactly sure how to construct the piece, but using my basic knowledge of Arduino and watching some YouTube videos I was able to figure it out. I think that this approach is really important with art that uses technology–I'll see artists doing similar things but where the technology drives the work, and sometimes it can end up fetishising the technology and speaking only to a small group of people within that sphere who can appreciate the technical beauty or complexity of the piece. That said, I guess understanding technology and finding ways to hack it can produce really interesting artworks, so there's always a balance.
What does this work address?
I come from a design background so I'm always thinking about what an object can do beyond its intended function. With the 'Lonely Sculpture' work—because that got so big online, and much of that [hype] originally came from meme or technology sites—I got a lot of attention from non-art audiences. To me, the work speaks about the isolation that comes with a hyper-connected online world, something Sherry Turkle explores in depth in Alone Together, where relationships become more of an illusion or a projection onto someone or something. But then looking at how a lot of (mostly) male users actually engage with mobile dating apps, you'll see that this detached, non sentient approach of liking everything, which is present in the work, is kind of identical to how real life humans interact with the app.
You’ve launched an online store selling replicas of the work that people can buy, so there must be a demand from said real life humans…
I had a number of requests from people who were interested in using 'Lonely Sculpture' as a functional object to automate their love life, something which led to my most recent work www.lonelysculpture.com, an online shop. It's an identical object to the artwork, but it's at a much cheaper price point. There’s a weird reverse-readymade element to the work that deconstructs the frameworks of the artworld—the limited edition, the exclusiveness, the importance of the object—and brings it into the everyday with a mass produced product.
Are you interested in interactive art, or art about interaction?
Interactive art, especially when curated around a theme of interactivity, often risks becoming a form of entertainment. Physically touching something or activating a sensor is only one form of interacting with an artwork, and I reckon the intellectual interaction we have with art is far more valuable. When I completed my MFA last year I was looking at something I called an ‘uncanny residue’. In my experience with the ‘Nervous Plants’ [a work comprising fake plants hooked up to motors that made their leaves move], I found that after spending time in the studio with them, I'd experience an uncanny sensation when I later viewed real plants naturally moving about in a breeze. I hope that for other viewers this ‘uncanny residue’ becomes part of their overall interaction with my work, in a way that is more complex and stimulating than simply activating a light sensor.
I'm wondering what your relationship to technology is, or is making the work, and the work itself, the answer to that question?
I'm more concerned with being aware of technology and how it's affecting us than making a judgment about what technology is good and bad. People have interpreted 'Lonely Sculpture' as directly condemning dating apps, but I've used Tinder and don't really have any strong feelings about it good or bad. Coming out of reading Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr, technology can look pretty bleak. The increase of text-based communication flattens the subtleties of human interaction—it presents constructed identities rather than authentic personalities, and it's a detached form of connection. To understand technology and its effect it's obviously important to look at what positions of privilege you might be coming from. I’d been chatting online with American artist Christine Sun Kim for a while and when we finally met in real life, technological mediation became something quite enabling that actually added a spontaneity and human feeling to our communication. Because Christine was born deaf and I don't know ASL, our interaction was helped by sketching and typing on an iPad; in a way that felt more naturally conversational than writing notes to each other. In that case I felt like technology was only a good thing.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently developing an app, which is based on existing software that digitally manipulates images of people to make them look older. But instead of instantaneous change, the software manipulates the image over time, at real life speed. If you waited for fifty years you'd eventually see the greyed saggy digitally manipulated image you get with other software, but in reality, each time you view it, the image is incrementally manipulated in time with your own ageing. I'd expect the app will be pretty boring, but in a way that ennui is just a reflection of real life.