Cats, Bots & Dark Labour

What makes attention valuable? Can bots be an audience? The answer might have something to do with cats. A talk with artist and architect Curtis Roth on his current project.

Interview with Curtis Roth — Mai 18, 2017

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

Visiting architect and artist Curtis Roth’s current show at Akademie Schloss Solitude feels like coming to a party too late and finding only Diet Coke. The visitor is uncertain: Is he looking at the exhibition itself or just the aftermath of something that happened earlier? With his keen sense for the absurd, Roth this time pays tribute to the »dark labor« of an anonymous online crowd, one that he already interacted with through an online model of the exhibition before the actual physical show. What makes attention valuable? Can bots be an audience? The answer might have something to do with cats.

Clara Herrmann: You work as an artist, designer, and teacher in the field of architecture. What is your approach to architecture – and what is the role of art in your projects?

Curtis Roth: What I find most interesting about architecture is that it can’t entirely consolidate a justification for its existence through a recourse to creative culture, nor through a recourse to the economies of building alone. In other words, neither the art world, nor the world of real estate really needs architects, and yet nevertheless we have plenty of them. This peculiar circumstance leaves us narrating architecture’s histories, theorizing its aesthetic ambitions, or teaching its disciplinary techniques largely in cultural terms, even while most of us pay our rent by acting as (more-or-less superfluous) service professionals. So my work deals with the strange moments in which architecture’s metaphysical alibis come into contact with the banal bureaucracies of professional practice such as office organizations, legal responsibilities, or the operating protocols of proprietary software platforms. For me these moments are fundamental to the nature of architecture itself.

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

Some Dark Products, Curtis Roth, Publication, 2017

CH: Digital technologies and network culture have a great impact on architecture. Whereas some architects investigate on the exchange between material and immaterial systems, others are not so engaged with the »digital« and consciously decide to draw by hand and work with handmade objects. Where do you position yourself?

CR: It’s a really interesting question, but not because I ever chose to use digital technologies over more traditional analogue methods, but rather, because it was a choice that was foreclosed to me from the very beginning. At the risk of sounding slightly too grandiose, I think that my friends and I are part of the first generation of architects to never know anything but the computer. I probably couldn’t hand-draw a building to save my own life.

I would argue that this ubiquity of digital methods allows us to relate to computation today in more nuanced ways. We’re less burdened with an anxiety about what might be lost through the use of digital tools, and we don’t necessarily feel the need to justify the use of these tools through their potential to produce novelty. In this sense, the computer can be just as boring as anything else, and that’s a real relief.

»We’re less burdened with an anxiety about what might be lost through the use of digital tools, and we don’t necessarily feel the need to justify the use of these tools through their potential to produce novelty. In this sense, the computer can be just as boring as anything else, and that’s a real relief.«

For me personally, this has led to an attempt to look at computation’s role in architecture less in terms of what it allows us to produce, and more in terms of how it organizes the typically banal labor of architectural production in strange, and often, invisible ways.

CH: In your current project, exhibited at Akademie Schloss Solitude, you deal with the notion of labor in the context of art and exhibiting art, but also in the context of digitization. You produced nine instruments for making the »dark labor« that underlies digital architectural production visible. What are they about? And what is your intention or critique here?

CR: The work began with a naive question, namely: how does an architect cause things to appear in the world? As architects, we’re quite comfortable with a model of architectural causation in which an architect’s intellect is presumed to cause things, such as buildings, to appear. This is a model of thought that sees objects as the manifestation of creative intellection, and we’ve developed quite sophisticated means of analyzing, historicizing and teaching these models of authorship. These are important traditions, but in my estimation, they’re also entirely insufficient.

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

http://the-speed-of-the.earth, Curtis Roth, Website, 2016

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

A Bad Outline, Curtis Roth, 2016

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

The Wall of Jack’s Studio, Curtis Roth and Jack, 2017

In order for any work of architecture to appear in the world, the work (i.e. the labor) of design must be organized across colossal networked economies via distributed software clouds, design specifications, international legal obligations and the like. These ad hoc spatial networks are fabricated by the architectural act, but not necessarily authored in the ways in which we conventionally use that term. This means they remain largely unseen. These are what I refer to as architecture’s dark products, the spatial constructions that precede, and make possible, the specific architectural objects we’re much more comfortable talking about.

For example, Autodesk Revit, a popular networked drawing platform, makes incredibly complex »things« appear on a screen (and ultimately in the world) through the real-time coordination of geographically distributed sites of production, i.e.: a senior designer in Manhattan is working in the same screen-space as an architectural draftsperson in Ahmadabad. In order for these »things« to appear, a vast geographic construction must be simultaneously fabricated and massaged into invisibility through the smooth operating protocols of the software platform itself.

So the project I’ve been developing at Solitude revolves around the production of nine alternative digital instruments for producing architecture. Each instrument simply asks how we might consider making these spatialized transactions visible, and thus also political.

CH: You also focus on the role of an audience in your work. Before it was exhibited at Akademie Schloss Solitude, you showed your exhibition to a pool of anonymous online workers for three months. Who were they and what were the reactions and answers to your work?

»Entering the physical space of the exhibition is a bit like coming to a party too late and finding only Diet Coke, there’s certainly a lot of something there, and it may even require a close attention to various details in order to unravel, but it’s all a bit too uninteresting to derive any kind of conventional pleasure from.«

CR: Just yesterday I was accused of being a materialist, so in the most materialistic terms: we could say that the gallery is a site for a certain kind of economic exchange, one in which the creative labor of an exhibitor is recompensed by the attention paid to the work by an audience. For this exhibition, I was interested in thinking about how to treat this kind of exchange between labor and attention as an economy that might be outsourced.

I built an online model of the exhibition and hosted it on a micro-labor platform in which visitors’ attention was monetized into discrete tasks that they would perform in relation to my work. These tasks included writing analyses of the pieces, naming the pieces, or curating their placement in the gallery by ranking the pieces sequentially from more to less interesting. After this expenditure of attention and money, what’s left in the physical gallery are merely the leftovers that accompany any exhibition, such as the devices for hanging works on walls, the packaging used for shipping works, the materials used to protect works during their transport, and of course, various details that evidence the processes that transpired online over the preceding three months.

I was interested in trying to produce a situation in which it is not entirely clear who the audience ultimately is. Entering the physical space of the Hirschgang today is a bit like coming to a party too late and finding only Diet Coke, there’s certainly a lot of something there, and it may even require a close attention to various details in order to unravel, but it’s all a bit too uninteresting to derive any kind of conventional pleasure from. My hope was simply to leave the visitor uncertain as to whether they were looking at the show itself, or the aftermath of a show that has already transpired online.

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»Villa Wolves«, Curtis Roth, Video Game, 2016

CH: Thinking about this role of an anonymous online audience reminds me of what The Institute for New Feeling once asked: Can bots be an audience?

CR: It’s a great question because it implies a certain problem between attention and value. For example, if someone shows their work at the Venice Biennale, it’s relatively easy to understand the value accrued through that particular audience’s attention, and to appropriately measure the creative labor one should expend in exchange for that attention. If I show my work to my cat, it’s much more difficult to know whether she will really appreciate my subtle allusions to late-18th century romanticism, or whether my work was more-or-less wasted.

»If I show my work to my cat, it’s much more difficult to know whether she will really appreciate my subtle allusions to late-18th century romanticism, or whether my work was more-or-less wasted.«

If a bot (or an anonymous online worker) is your audience, how do prescribe a value to a bot’s attention in order to determine the amount of labor you will expend in exchange for that attention? Perhaps some standard rate of exchange could be established such as: The attention span of (10 Million Bots) = (1000 cats) = (1 International Curator). But I’ve also been told I’m altogether too fond of cats.

CH: How do the exhibition and the accompanying publication work together?

CR: The publication contains the first nine instruments that I developed at Solitude late last year. Although the show does feature elements of this earlier work, I was really thinking of the exhibition less like an overview of the research and more straightforwardly as a tenth instrument. For me, it‘s a continuation of an ongoing project, simply finished too late to be included in the publication.

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

Some Dark Products, Curtis Roth, Publication, 2017

That said, the exhibition is also slightly different, in that the publication primarily explores ways to render preexisting outsourcing economies visible, whereas the show attempts to invent a new platform for outsourcing an exhibition audience’s attention. As a result, the show is perhaps a bit more cryptic, whereas the publication lays out a fairly deliberate argument for why I wanted to look at these issues in the first place. This probably isn’t entirely on purpose, rather, I’m just more comfortable writing than I am exhibiting.

CH: You wrote a very interesting essay about your work on the University of Bad Ideas, a sort of experimental college using »truly« bad ideas to, simply said, understand what is good in your practice as architect. What is a »truly« bad idea and how is this pedagogical practice related to your current project?

CR: Well, it’s probably not the best idea to spend so much time and energy exhibiting an elaborately packed collection of cardboard boxes. But perhaps more to the point, the bad idea is a way to look at a thing’s background. In other words, to focus not on a thing itself, but on the ethics that underwrite how we understand any work of architecture as good in the first place. This project is also exploring the backgrounds of things in its own way, for example: not talking about an architectural rendering in terms of its explicit visual content, but, rather, in the geographical distribution of server farms processing the visible image.

CH: How is this project related to your topics and interests in general? How do you find inspiration for your work – is there a path you follow?

CR: The complete freedom of Solitude is an exceptional situation for anyone to find themselves in. Much more often, the projects I work on are bound by tightly defined deliverables. The more I do this, the more I become convinced that the only really difficult thing about architecture is figuring out how to say yes to every opportunity while maintaining some kind of conceptual continuity between different projects. But this is also why I find the protocols of architectural labor so useful, because they ultimately make the work less about the thing itself than about the economies of objects, tools, effort, and attention, which are somehow present in any project. So projects in the past have dealt with things like the structures of global architectural offices, the circulation of digital models, or the legal definitions of architectural authorship, even as they fulfill the more ordinary requirements that any project demands.

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

Rason Leaks, Curtis Roth, GIF, 2016

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

Superimpossible, Curtis Roth, Drawing, 2014

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

Superimpossible, Curtis Roth, Drawing, 2014

Curtis Roth, studio visit »Cats, Bots & Dark Labour«, 2017

Superimpossible, Curtis Roth, Drawing, 2014

CH: Your practice and thinking shows a keen sense for the absurd, that always comes with a twinkle, playing with the expectations of an audience, readership, or even students. What role does humor play in your work?

CR: I’m really so happy you feel that way. There was a time in which humor was a much more explicit part of my work, I even taught courses researching comedic approaches to architecture in the past, but eventually I made a really conscious effort to stop talking about comedy. Architecture is really slow, and it’s almost impossible to still find the humor in a joke after you’ve watched the sunrise over your monitor for months. Plus, lecturing about humor at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning turns out to be a special kind of hell.

»Humor is really powerful. I think that we laugh at the sudden pleasure of realizing that a familiar situation can be seen in an entirely unexpected way. Humor suspends certain conventions of looking.«

Humor is really powerful though because I think that we laugh at the sudden pleasure of realizing that a familiar situation can be seen in an entirely unexpected way. Humor suspends certain conventions of looking. So it was really important for me to maintain a slightly absurd voice in this project because much of the work is, frankly, contingent on exploiting strangers to do work for me, and I was worried that the project would illicit only a kind of pathos for the mostly underpaid workers executing my ideas. To be slightly cold, this wasn’t what I was interested in. So humor became a way of suspending certain conventional moral responses in order to (hopefully) understand the subject of the research in a broader way.

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»AfterVal«, Curtis Roth, Video, 2015

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