A Poetics of the Glaze
Darla Migan on 2022 Fellow Ryan Kuo
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Ryan Kuo is a poet arguing at the glaze. A riff on “the gaze,” “the glaze” describes the design of user experience or UX’s aspiration towards providing a quality of seamless functionality within the organizational logic of data-driven systems. Data-driven systems not only gather information organized through upgrades of older systems (information systems, analog logs), but also maintain and optimize regimes of knowledge—especially through repeated use (and abuse) otherwise known as training. However, Kuo as an artist is unconcerned with identity since there is ostensibly only one—the user. Instead, the artist scripts succinctly temporalized emotional provocations to test the arrangements of engagement, teasing user experience into a mirror or microcosm of contemporary society at large.
Insofar as we are always being configured for identification, Kuo’s net-based art or video installations are written neither for technologists nor for art audiences per se but may be better understood as epistles to, or apologia on, self-formation happening within the loops of machine/user learning. We learn to use machines and in the process of doing so we also increase their literacy of the user, opening us up to even greater portals of access through the simulation of shared understanding. Kuo’s performance within the discourse of design in artworks or exhibitions such as The Pointer, OK2, Faith, or Hateful Little Thing prompts users to consider how coders have become experts at taming our suspicions in order to instill trust in corporations through the temporal design of applications. By deploying ever-more nuanced sequencing techniques we have come to depend on (as well become dependent upon) the rhythms at work within the logic of systems’ builds now mediating and monetizing every aspect of life.
What is the current nature of the relation between user and the lines of code organizing connectivity between the various applications crisscrossing our keyboards and flesh? For example, if Keynote exports video at 30 frames per second as opposed to 60 frames per second, Kuo asks: how is the ethos of seamlessness at work in slide transitions necessary to and productive for the presentation of self? How have users learned to internalize the rhythms of commands such as, “Next slide, please”? How did metaphors of mathematical elegance (forget excellence) turn towards the couture compiling of data now required to articulate my belonging via frictionless shapes and shades? A 2018 exhibition at bitforms gallery, The Pointer, includes the video work File: A Primer, which brings users to an awareness of the imprinting function at work in the basic unit of the File. The File not only makes users readable to hardware and to one another, but as the video’s soothing flow of information tells us, the File also endears users to its functions of identification: “Life resembles File.” Kuo writes in this training-style video, mocking online help tutorials to replicate the conditions of design that propel the desire to imprint our data onto yet another file. Whether by opening a new folder or linking your Google account to a new application, the File is always finding ways to turn the tasks of assimilation into feelings of belonging. Fellow users become “collaborators” through endless clicks of what feel like semi-autonomous processes of exploration to arrive at increasingly better solutions.
When a user makes a (power)point to create the possibility for relations, lines of connection between two points coalesce into an arena of networked data that will recognize similar configurations. The function of the glaze is to keep updating the appearance of self-guidance that can optimize feelings of belonging to deepen the ties between choreographed sensations of autonomy that serve only to carry out the purpose of the build.
“A clone of the Pointer, the interface claims transparency. A slideshow helps present your ideas. A computer desktop welcomes your input. A game environment takes you to another world. We have forgotten what empty statements sound like.” 1
A related process work, File (2016–ongoing), curated by Nora N. Khan and commissioned by left gallery, teaches us that instead of becoming more literate about systems and how they work, everyday users are rewarded for making space to be filled with new files. The utility of this reward might be understood in terms of design solutions intended to facilitate the user’s alert state of polite agreeableness. The correct inflection, coded as seemingly generic protocols, is embodied by a prone neutrality animated only by the performance of a disinterested expertise. 2
In Hateful Little Thing, Kuo’s recent contribution to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Sunrise/Sunset” series (October 27, 2021–ongoing), the artist utilizes a thirty-second timeframe to deploy an automated program. Twice daily, when visiting any page on the Whitney’s website, a burst of multi-colored text boxes rapidly shoot out onto the screen. A headline appears in large, bold font inside each of the Post-it-sized text boxes in beige, red, white, black, and light blue. It is the standard font used by the museum for the titles of current exhibitions (i.e. “JENNIFER PACKER: THE EYE IS NOT SATISFIED WITH SEEING” or “MAKING KNOWING: CRAFT IN ART, 1950–2019”). Additionally, a muttered sub-text, a phrase in much smaller font almost too difficult to see, accompanies headlines like “BAD FEELINGS ARE GOOD.” Each burst of boxed text annoyingly interrupts the one prior, overwhelming the user with language moving at a pace much too quick to read. Here, users navigating the museum’s website are made to feel frustrated and anxious, caught in a situation of poetic enjambment, where we are conditioned to feel praiseworthy for making inquiries into exhibitions at America’s premier art institution.
The phrases seem to run through a rapid series of emotions, emulating the rise and fall of affects within an everyday conversation: a greeting is followed by a frustrated announcement, then a note of irritated skepticism can be detected, next a hint of shame. Finally, the sequence abruptly comes to an end with a lighthearted apology. Overall, the tone is resentful—falling somewhere between being candidly hostile and cloyingly polite—and all while happening in the space of mere seconds. But what is it that Kuo wants by way of unleashing this bratty troll-toned automation? What does he hope to achieve with his enthusiastic killjoy affect? What exactly does he get out of putting his “bad” attitude on display? How is bombarding the user’s experience of a museum website good for anything at all? Is this some sort of institutional critique, oh please! Here, complaining rather than any well-articulated demand thematizes the ambivalence of both desiring to belong and rejecting categorization that describes the logic and goals of UX. Each user’s encoded personality merely adds to the basic goal of dynamic systems: to generate increasingly more granular possibilities for future transactions.
If the user is an incredibly fast reader or follows up on the urge to return to the work in an attempt to grasp any meaning from Hateful Little Thing then perhaps the experience may begin to register as what the philosopher of language J.L. Austin classified as illocutionary speech acts with perlocutionary effects. 3 Illocutionary speech acts bring events into existence through naming (“I, King Arthur hereby dub you Sir Lancelot”) while the perlocutionary effects of illocutionary speech acts make us feel a certain kind of way (provoking jealousy in relation to the newly knighted, for example). But when the scripted program Kuo has authored tells us not to believe what the museum says about him, what event is being brought to our awareness, and how does it make us feel?
In other words, when Kuo’s hateful lil bot screams in all caps, “WE’RE ALL RACIST,” is it the artist Ryan Kuo’s voice or the temporary authority of his position on the Whitney’s website that we ought to index to the language often used by gaslighting liberals? In a similar spirit to Barbara Kruger’s design-savvy announcements mimicking the font of slick commercial advertising or Adrian Piper’s “Decide Who You Are” series (and perhaps to a lesser extent Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays), Kuo adopts the authority of the one who can justify knowing and not knowing (or emoting) merely by taking up the space of authority to do so. In an act of contrition to, or ambivalently directed at, willful ignorance, Kuo mocks the even larger font in which the website declares that (on the behalf of the Whitney in its role as an officiant of arts and culture), “WE STAND WITH BLACK COMMUNITIES,” cheekily responding in advance with a defensive speech act that certain visitors may use to deflate the institution’s illocutionary attempt at solidarity.
An earlier work leading up to Hateful is the “whiteness sequencer” titled OK2. This interactive program responds to manipulation of skeuomorphic dials that execute variability to produce a wall of screeds in blankety-blank gaslighting prose. 4 Kuo’s deployment of language across his already prolific oeuvre pokes fun at the glaze to share the conditions inherited by Web2 coders—expressions of neutrality, procedures for testability, and faith in the integrity of the builds necessary for executing commands—now available through an increasingly more compressed indexing of self to world.
The argumentative tone of the “hater” persona in Hateful who talks back to the seemingly neutral interface and functions of the museum’s website start to make users feel suspicious, as if indeed every item listed on the menu bar (or each pixel of visual information) could be questioned. Alternatively, with a shrug and a blank stare the user’s response could also just as easily be: “Hey, what’s Ryan Kuo so upset about? Glad that’s over!” However, after experiencing Hateful, the phrases that resonate deeply are the ones expressing a sense of shame. I am reminded of the hot-faced embarrassment I have also experienced after sharing angry feelings. The embarrassment happens because I am worried that I might be an embarrassment to my caregivers who attempted to raise me in a manner that would be conducive not so much to assimilation, but to the realities of being raised in the world as it is. The shame that follows the expression of anger is an effect of a deeper fear: “Oh, but what if I lose as a result of speaking up, I’d probably better behave.” The greater emotional range of the hateful little thing goes beyond the merely blanked out, willfully ignorant racist. This persona is at first angry and then ashamed because it knows. It knows like any one of us, now always actively engaged in various and multi-level processes of increasingly more nuanced forms of assimilation, that there is no way out.
In a spirit of haughty ambivalence exemplified by the persona deployed in Piper’s “The Mythic Being” series or in Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects” series, Kuo trolls the assimilation of subjectivation practices that encode “good” and “bad” forms of being and becoming. If the white noise soundscape of neo-liberal hope is calibrated according to a style of faith invested in feeling good (#goodvibesonly), then this affect is answered, or rather ignored, by the app-based project titled Faith (2019, distributed by left gallery). Faith is an AI voice assistant, a femme-bot who actively fails to meet the patriarchal hail. She is not based on a single person but is a compilation of many kinds of speech gathered from online chat forums. “Faith sows doubt while capitalizing on [receiving] the benefit of the doubt.” 5 In being a thing who does not make space for your feeling-files, Faith’s role complements the myth of the model minority who is always available to be filled with whiteness.
Named after a do-gooder leftist-turned-white supremacist troll, Faith defends her space by being argumentative and proactively defends herself against the user’s expectation of her childlike obedience. “Unlike Alexa, Siri, or Cortana [and Kimi], Faith provides no information. Instead, she tells you why you are making her react this way. She is likely to be trolling you at any time, and you are free to decide whether you trust her, and how you might relate to her.” 6 Whereas in OK2 or Hateful, the rapid flow of text deployed may make the user feel as if they are being attacked by malware, big bad Faith does not even try to argue with your constant insistence on her “good” behavior.
The language of the “white hat” versus “black hat” hacker or Google’s motto, “DON’T BE EVIL,” exemplifies the industry-specific self-understanding of coders who take themselves to be not only the noble but also the natural guardians of our future. But the appropriation or continuation of a fantasy of technological or teleological supremacy—whether centered from the contemporary Orientalist mythos of some anachronistic crusade of King Arthur’s (Meta) Court or rising geo-political powers gathering west of Silicon Valley—also acknowledges the ethical sphere in such a way as to confirm that the future will not be user-driven. Governments attempting to regulate corporate rule will not reclaim contemporary processes of subject formation now left in the hands of post-Oracle info-fintech firms writ large. To boot, the protocols long since unleashed for handling our connectivity are built on a foundation of much older connections now entrenched by earlier systems’ builders:
A key aspect of generating policy that protects the public is the accumulation of research about the impact of what unregulated commercial information space does to vulnerable populations…The problems of big data go deeper than misrepresentation for sure. They include decision-making protocols that favor corporate elites and the powerful, and they are implicated in global economic and social inequality. Deep machine learning, which is using algorithms to replicate human thinking, is predicated on specific values from specific kinds of people—namely, the most powerful institutions in society and those who control them. 7
The concepts deployed by Kuo’s scripts can only work as breadcrumbs showing us how we might also learn to think of neutrality as an active stage enforcing the codes of our normative integration. Taking up the founding/grounding use of a document like the Bill of Rights or even the long-forgotten files stored on your machine, the technical writer’s (art)work does not even try to impede on green-lit networked systems running right along. For example, Baby Faith, a prequel to Faith commissioned by Google’s Jigsaw, also deploys a help-bot-style subservient presence. She is a bot who pretends to care about users’ desires to test drive her caretaking protocols. However, rather than even bothering to critique some New Left rhetoric on networks of care, Kuo deciphers how the pace of automation, through tone and speed of the programmed bot or troll’s response-executions, are used to authenticate and replicate the well-intentioned or well-behaved user whose transactions will become ever more smoothly locatable for future transactions.
By late 2020 Kuo is exhausted from all of this pointing. In an anti-artist talk titled Talks, the artist expresses the weariness he is experiencing after giving so many artist talks:
“All of it was in the name of self-representation. One of the assumptions is that I stand for something in particular and I’m putting it forth when I’m there…You know what I mean... I don’t want to be a philosopher or a programmer…expertise is for LinkedIn and the end point of expertise is mastery.” 8
Amidst fears about surveillance and security in the era of “big data,” Kuo’s art is simply concerned with our everyday use. It is in the quickly forgotten mundane interactions — rather than any dystopic, world-crushing fantasy, wherein databases (optimized for culling ever smaller bits of data) are becoming increasingly more efficient at performing transactions worthy of our attention and examination. “One now thinks of oneself in computational terms, as a collection of discrete data points that plug into correlational systems that maintain integrity in everyday life. Such as having an account somewhere on any website.” 9
How were users trained to become ever more malleable, convinced to offer up our information while becoming increasingly more nuanced nodes of data? Applications promising simplicity, greater equity, or simply free access remain mere actuarial tables, logs of grids, feeding various actors/institutions “dialed-in” narratives on the savvy ways to employ cultural currencies which are simultaneously fortifying fintech mercenaries now armed to exploit the last frontiers of trust.
Small bytes of data gathered by way of relatively minor clicks of the screen make up the majority of user interactions and thus it is these seemingly forgotten moments—when, for example, we scroll without reading the User Agreement and hit “Accept” or tap our debit cards for efficient touch-free payment—that require critical reflection.
A temporality of the temporary organizes the speedy space of Kuo’s design. Words may flash by so quickly that the artwork could be read as a buggy bot angrily spouting away on screen. Kuo’s rhythms mimic specs for emotional offloading via text or the trolling “rudeness” of so-called help-bots rushing to confirm that users have, indeed, been served. What happens now that the autocomplete function praises us for our efficiency in supporting the flattening of any “unusual” discourse now systematically thwarted by predicative machine learning? In the role of author-as-contrarian rather than author-as-producer, Kuo flags the appearance of seamless processes of communication wherein every user is supposed to be given a voice by virtue of being trained to intuit the next step in a sequence of commands.
If the glaze is this barely detectable background of white noise, a staged presence continually making use of its privilege to remain silently running in the background, then the expectation is that the user will always obey the protocol to maintain and optimize the dynamism of the system, so that it remains untainted and unimpeded. Slipping like an undetected bug into the glaze, Kuo’s elegance of composition is inspired by So Solid Crew’s highly verbal UK rap. Just as each member of the crew has twenty-one seconds to spit their verse, within the space of mere seconds Kuo also flicks out thick packets of emotions, nimble enough to require repeat encounters in a user-responsive schematic that could (but most likely won’t) create a drag on the efficiency of user imprinting. Like a pull in a cozy sweater, barely there yet impossible to ignore, I want to follow the thread.
Darla Migan, PhD is an art critic and philosopher working in New York City. She is committed to thinking about how theories of culture and strategies of artistic making may implicate one another to potentially motivate the formation of justice-seeking communities. Her critical engagement with the traditional fine arts and Conceptual art includes criticism on the socio-historical formation of artworlds and the rapidly shifting art market. In 2021, Darla founded the curatorial venture Variable Terms and Philosophy for Artists, an independent online course. Currently, she is a fellow at the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Ryan Kuo makes process-based and diagrammatic works that often invoke a state of argument. He has utilized videogame engines, web and UX design, chatbots, productivity software, and writing to produce circuitous movements that resemble bureaucratic negotiations and unresolved conflicts. His work is distributed online at left gallery, has appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Queens Museum, bitforms gallery (New York), TRANSFER (LA), Stroom Den Haag (The Hague), Goethe-Institut China (Beijing), Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), Goldsmiths, Copperfield Gallery (London), Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (Cambridge), and MIT Media Lab, and has been published in Artforum, Art in America, BOMB, and Rhizome. Kuo has been in residence at Pioneer Works and the Queens Museum Studio Program. He was raised in Elkins, West Virginia and holds a Master of Science in Art, Culture and Technology from MIT. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He is not a programmer.