We speak to the LA-based artist on feminism, technology, and the future of sex
Artist Tara Subkoff’s Deepfake starts with a woman named Eve, played by actor Bella Thorne, wandering into the California desert. The 25-minute film, which is divided onto four screens, imagines a world where women have been replaced by sex robots, an idea she suggests might be closer than anticipated: “With the understanding of the current reality that ’Alexa’ a female voice for the ’every-home’ is programmed to function well only when yelled at aggressively and that this is only the beginning of our future of female AI sex-slave robots programmed and designed by white cis males; what mistakes will we be confronted with?”
The film is part of the artist’s exhibition of the same name at the Hole in New York, a multi-media (and multi-sensory) installation complete with animatronic eyeballs that follow you across the room; a sculptural face that spritzes perfume; and a mirror installation that casts multiple, disorientating reflections. At its centre is our heroine Eve (this time, played by musician Miranda Kilbey-Jansson) taking selfies on a rotating bed, all while admiring her reflection in a hand mirror.
For Subkoff, the work reflects the female experience, and the many traumas that come with it. She asks: “How in a post Me-Too, Times-Up, dating app, porn-obsessed and addicted era of constant distractions will we, as females and identifying females, be relevant when we may easily be replaced by deepfakes?”
Below, we speak to the LA-based artist on feminism, technology, and the future of sex.
You were talking about Alexa and the female voice, and the idea of women typically playing service roles. How do you think this project relates to the conversation?
Tara Subkoff: I think that the artwork is very much about the big trauma and small traumas of being female, and where we’re heading as a culture. How we are in a completely misogynist society even after a post-Me-Too-Times-Up supposed revolution? What have we achieved with this?
What do you mean by big and small traumas?
Tara Subkoff: I mean, how much more difficult it is to have your work seen and judged on its own merit? Why do most of the conversations I’m asked have to do with my personal life and not about the work? I applaud you for actually asking me, and diving right into my work which I think is way more interesting than anything in me personal life.
I think that we are judged by what we look like and who we’re with way more than what we do. These things are repeatedly traumatic, let alone things like the abuse. Being in any sort of abusive relationship, or a work situation, or all of the Me Too and Times Up newsworthy traumas that came out over the last three years.
I think we are in a time of realising how much trauma is a daily part of one’s work or personal life. It’s a part of the human experience, period, but definitely more often than not, part of the female experience.
“We’re in a male gaze where we’re so forced and brainwashed to focus on looking like completely digitally impossible images, that we don’t focus on what we care about, or what matters” – Tara Subkoff
Definitely. It’s a lens through which we see the world.
Tara Subkoff: Sure. What I’m talking about in terms of where we’re heading as a culture with humanoid companions for men that are being developed – actually, you can buy them online now. You can buy a humanoid companion or robot female companion right now. But where we’re heading with AI and with what’s being developed with artificial intelligence, it does make you wonder.
Remember the chatterbot-Twitterbot situation? And imagine someone in power being in love with their humanoid companion and it just goes wrong.
How do you think these themes are brought together in your work?
Tara Subkoff: I created a video artwork – that’s very much part of it. I’d love you to see it, it’s 25 minutes. That’s very much the subject of it in a non-linear and somewhat loaded way. There’s a sculpture of a bed that is rotating under a spotlight, and a sculpture of a mirror with animatronic eyes that look back at you as you look back at yourself.
That sounds crazy (in the best way). Could you tell me what’s the purpose of the eyes and the spinning bed?
Tara Subkoff: We spend all our time looking at images of big celebrities taking selfies of themselves and posting them on Instagram. It’s a cause for concern and while we’re so focused on that, we’re missing beauty, we’re missing craft, like where do we head? Into some kind of devoid, humanoid companion. Are we even becoming humanoid companions ourselves by how much we’re looking at the phones, only processing what we see on a screen and nothing else? If we don’t see it on a screen, we don’t look up from the screen that much. It’s all these questions rather than answers (that) I have.
There’s the whole idea that because we’re relying so much on algorithms and computational thinking, we’re beginning to think more like computers, therefore we’re missing the most beautiful parts of our humanity, which is to see between the binaries, I suppose.
Tara Subkoff: Exactly. That’s why I’m really fascinated with AI. I’ve also been working to develop ’Braintobot’. It’s the only company that I’m aware of that’s trying to put empathy into the world of AI. And mostly, it’s not what has been focused on or funded, so I’m incredibly lucky to work with them, but I’m mostly just helping out with aesthetics and consulting on what something should look like. But I really love working in this realm, and they’re standing up more, and that’s also why I’m fascinated with where we’re heading as a culture within this realm.
“I think we are in a time of realising how much trauma is a daily part of one’s work or personal life” – Tara Subkoff
Going back to social media, we are completely over-sensitised because there are too many sensory outputs around us that we become over-sensitised.
Tara Subkoff: We’re in a male gaze where we’re so forced and brainwashed to focus on looking like completely digitally impossible images, that we don’t focus on what we care about, or what matters, or supporting each other. It’s a very interesting thing. I put a lot of work into the world in a lot of different capacities and what I find as a female is that if I partner with a man, my work is paid attention to and heard. If I don’t, and I put work out on my own, as a single woman, my work is ignored. I find this alarming.
How did you start working with Bella Thorne?
Tara Subkoff: I think she’s a really interesting artist and very outspoken, and I thought she would be a very good humanoid companion bot, which is what she plays in piece.
Why did think she would have been good to play that role?
Tara Subkoff: She’s very emotive. I think she is very in touch with her emotions in an interesting way. She has a surreal kind of beauty and she is very raw. I wanted those qualities. My character of Eve, which is the character of the humanoid companion, is that it goes wrong. It’s actually more female than female in a way, with all these cliches that a male has programmed into a woman that they thought they wanted, but have backfired in another way.