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Karen: A life coach, a friend, a data mine, an app

A few weeks ago, I started speaking with “Karen,” a life coach and choose-your-own-adventure game combined in one iPhone app. I was alerted to Karen’s existence after a friend on social media asked “if anyone was playing with Karen,” which, of course, was an uncanny experience for anyone named Karen. My experience with Karen the life coach began as one would probably expect: she was was inquisitive but respectful of boundaries, peppy. We interacted through video, kind of like Skype, but Karen was pre-recorded in beautifully composed but quotidian mises en scène.

All screenshots of Karen taken by Karen Archey

For ten days, I would sequester myself in my bedroom for every Karen episode, each lasting a few minutes (or seconds) and released once or twice per day. I’d watch Karen dash through a park or walk around her flat while musing about life or probing about my own. I answered questions–increasingly intimate–through multiple choice answers that appeared on my screen.

I won’t go into what my experience was like too much lest you want to experience Karen yourself (and I hope you do), but I’ll note that she becomes increasingly dependent on your friendship, and is momentarily hijacked by a jealous friend. You’re also rewarded with a fascinating easter egg at the end of the app. I’ve heretofore never experienced such a range of emotion and insight provoked by my phone. This comes courtesy of Blast Theory, the group of artists who made Karen with a group of app developers and researchers, and who have been working together in Brighton since 1991.

Their bio: Based in Brighton, UK, Blast Theory is renowned internationally as one of the most adventurous artists’ groups using interactive media, creating groundbreaking new forms of performance and interactive art that mixes audiences across the internet, live performance and digital broadcasting. Led by Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj, the group’s work explores the social and political aspects of technology. Drawing on popular culture and games, the work often blurs the boundaries between the real and the fictional.

I sat down with Ju Row Farr to speak about Blast Theory, Karen, data mining, and their future projects. (WARNING: Karen spoilers below.)

E-FLUX: Who is Blast Theory’s core audience?

Audiences vary, but there’s a section of our audience that comes from a live or theater-based background. Then we have an audience who are more game or interactive technology people. Then there are people who cross over to a more “pure” visual art audience, but it’s difficult sometimes for these people to wrap their head around our work.

We’ve also got all of this data and information about our audience project by project. There are certain age groups that we know our work appeals to. Between probably 18 to 35 would be our average age. But that’s not exclusive. I think different projects definitely appeal to different people, which to some extent we know before and we market it accordingly, but we also sometimes rethink that after a project is finished.

BLAST THEORY: What kind of target audience were you thinking about with Karen?

We were thinking about not a certain demographic but a type of person who is at a certain “sorted” point in their life which will actually soon twist and turn away from you. So if you put that down to age group, that’s probably late 20s to early 30s. But I think we were looking to appeal to people who would recognize that bit of grit in your eye that made you decide to do something and that sort of questioning that you had a status quo kind of idea about how you do things. We recognized and like people who don’t follow those status quo paths and aren’t these “guided missile” people. So it’s not a specific age group really, but once we look back at that data we’ll probably learn something about who was interested.

E-FLUX: What do you do with the data that you collect?

BLAST THEORY: For this, people can obviously take back what they have given individually. They can buy a report on their data at the end of the experience. For us, I think we’ll look at the data as a point of study to see what it shows or doesn’t show, and then destroy it. We won’t keep it, or at least the personal information, but look at it as something that could be analyzed through psychological behavior. Ultimately, we might publish something but any of the personal information will be destroyed.

E-FLUX: What do you think are the ethics of artists mimicking corporations and mining data? In the context of Karen, you implicitly know that you’re giving your data to the app, but you don’t realize to what extent until the end when you’re confronted with buying your data report. It reminds me of a project by the artist Harm van den Dorpel, Ethereal Self, which is a website that prompts you to allow your camera functionality. And by allowing camera functionality, your image is split into a diamond-like arrangement, but also archived by the artist. Van den Dorpel then released Ethereal Others, which is a real-time archive of the images of all the people who visited Ethereal Self. I find it an interesting pedagogical experience that teaches its visitors the extent to which you really do give away your privacy to often-corporate website owners on a regular basis. I think this was a very important lesson amidst the mid-late naughts, when we were still getting used to social networking. For me, the experience with Karen that I had was an interesting reminder that not only have I given Blast Theory, for example, ownership of my image but also a very personal difficult to quantify set of data. So I’m interested to hear your thoughts on what an ethical artistic treatment of data collection is, or if you were thinking about the experience a user would have realizing at the end, Karen is actually a teachable data collection experience.

Screen grab of Ethereal Others and Ethereal Self courtesy ArtFCity

BLAST THEORY: I think that we’re definitely heavily flirting with these ideas, but we weren’t entering the project with the intention to hoodwink people. Within the Ethereal Self project you were describing, it seems very clear up from that you realize what you’re doing, clicking “yes” to a disclaimer that you agree for your content to be used in the project. That, for me, sits in that kind of very pronounced area of the disclaimer–we’re not trying to disguise or hide that, but play with it. This wasn’t as much about us having the power or control as much as it was about playing with these distinctions.

E-FLUX: I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative position to take on this role of the data collector. The term “hoodwinking” suggests a negative intention, and I think that when an artist mirrors the functionality of corporate technology and actually elucidates the functionality of that technology, it’s really interesting. That’s why I referred to this function as pedagogical, because it’s something that teaches us about these often-veiled processes.

Within Karen, there are a lot of layers to the project. It’s at once very emotional and intimate and very beautifully rendered with the video that you shot, but also simultaneously uncanny to experience this through your phone. So maybe you weren’t thinking as much about pedagogy, but where did the idea for Karen come from? What was the process of creating Karen like? Did you work with an app developer?

BLAST THEORY: How it started was an opportunity from the National Theatre of Wales. They have a big online community and they wanted to commission a piece of work, so that was one of the big impetuses for the project. It also came from a couple of other projects that we worked on. And we felt we had some unfinished business. We worked ona research project called Prof Tanda where we did sort of an experiment for several weeks where we created this character who could guess where you were. It was informed by time of day, who would call you, and so the character would make some sort of assumptions and some of it was based on actually knowing your location. It was all about your environment and how you could do things in your daily life to change. It had a grandiose kind of thematic, which we felt was also dry and difficult and overtrodden–no one had done anything interesting with this from an artistic perspective. We wanted to make this more fun, relevant and contemporary to us. We were trying to get people to do experiments in their lives and be more playful in what they were doing. This character evolved, who was both serious and looking at serious subject matter, and who was also quite comical. The character of Karen came from that and part of the interest in looking at something important and empowering people came from that project.

We did a project with Channel 4’s education department called Ivy4Evr that was aimed at 16 year olds. It was basically an interactive drama. That also kind of helped to inform this project because we were trying to make the language of the response of natural casting as realistic and meaningful as possible. We’re also not interested in making a character or fiction that is just entertaining. Trying to keep this intimate other or this other who seems to be reliant or dependent on you and vice versa came from that project with the 16 year olds. But Karen also came from an interest in psychological profiles and an interest for years on how corporations are compiling psychological data–how could we flip that over and do it ourselves and help people learn about themselves? There were a lot of roots to the project.

E-FLUX: What do you have in store for future projects?

BLAST THEORY: Our main project will happen at the end of June in Toronto. It’s an hour-and-a-half long film which will be streamed online and at a cinema in Toronto. It’s one take and a single track–it’s totally live with a live narrator. It’s a story about unrequited love and also about the Occupy movement, and titled My One Demand. We’re also working on a project called Operation Black Antler, which is about signing up people to go undercover in a far right gig, which is a very interactive project. We’re working on a secret rendezvous for Karen and to release the app for Android in July or August. We’ve just done a project in Manchester called Too Much Information. It was a mobile piece with smart phones looking for recordings. It was intergenerational, we worked with teenagers and people over the age of 65 and I talked with them for over four weeks about their sex lives and their relationships and we recorded lots of stories and walk out into the city and dump into some of these conversations and these incredible conversations people would tell us. We’ve never done anything like that before, so it was an odd one but fantastically good fun.