“At Present, Many of Us are Living in the Conditions of My Speculative Fiction…”: Alison Nguyen on Her Isolated, Computer-Simulated Character, “Andra8”
In April, as we began to put together the Summer, 2020 issue of Filmmaker, we asked directors, cinematographers, editors and other film workers to send us their thoughts on the quarantine and their own creative lives. The responses printed here were collected from April through mid-June — personal statements that speak variously to individual filmmaking practices, films halted mid-production, politics, art and life. Read all the responses here. — Editor
In 2019, I began making a video work about a computer-generated woman living and working in isolation in a virtual void. From the apartment where she’s been placed, this simulacral subaltern, known online as “Andra8,” survives through digital labor–working as a virtual assistant, a data cleanser, a content creator and a life coach. The domestic space from which she is constantly surveilled and monitored looks like a sick, inoffensive love child of the results of a “mid-century Modern” Pinterest search, a hospital waiting room and an L.A. Airbnb on the eighth or ninth floor. In other words: a kind of antiseptic neoliberal purgatory.
At the time, I thought this premise was fantastical though not entirely unrelatable. Issues surrounding outsourced digital labor, surveillance and algorithmic cultural flattening are hardly new to public discourse. Yet, in contemporary life, the effects of these on the individual psyche get drowned out or de-scaled by a multitude of distractions. Creating a world where these elements exist in a sort of vacuum was compelling to me.
I could not have predicted that within a few swift and bewildering weeks in March 2020, elements of my work-in-progress would quickly come too close to our reality. At present, many of us are living in conditions similar to those of Andra8—we reside in state-mandated isolated conditions, the very privileged are able to work remotely and we are more dependent on privatized technology from which we’re constantly surveilled more than ever before. We interact with .jpegs and pixels, holograms of our friends and family and coworkers. The screens of various devices have become our windows, with cyberspace as the great outdoors. We’re deprived of physical touch but overdosing on an abstract onslaught of information and sensation. And, in these conditions, there are suggested playlists for every mood and captions for every banality.
I’m lucky in that the pandemic and quarantine did not have a huge impact on my ability to do creative work. I make videos and installations, more or less as a one-woman show. Come to think of it, I’ve always worked a bit like I’m in quarantine, spending the majority of my studio time doing research, working digitally and telling myself bad jokes. Until I get knee-deep in the installation phase, to someone passing, I could look like I do absolutely nothing in my studio. I’ve always enjoyed this.
Before the pandemic, I offset the solitary nature of my practice by going out a lot and seeing a lot of things—showing up for other artists, keeping it cheap and cheerful. When the pandemic hit, all of this died, jobs went away and my studio closed; fortunately, I was able to set up shop in my childhood attic in New Jersey. Televisions are omnipresent here and I spent the first few weeks in a stupor watching news channels as I would the Theater of the Absurd. I limited my intake but this did not subdue my contradictory feeling that things are overdetermined and uncertain at the same time. The formula for a hit thriller. I wanted to regain a sense of normalcy but also to get rid of it.
Save for the psychopolitical din of mass media, quarantine’s relative absence of stimuli has opened up space in my brain. There’s been more time for detours and experiments in my process. After a 10-year hiatus I’m writing again. And my current video project revolving around Andra8 has changed, given the global context. Before, ideas of digital labor and gender were more or less subtext. Now, they’re foregrounded with a new sense of importance.
The self-reflexive loop of prosumer-driven technological acceleration combined with the pandemic-sprung work from home (WFH) force has produced a bland culture where labor and consumerism are staged in the private domestic realm. Infantilism, a uniting design aesthetic in the tech industry, has reached its logical extreme as WFH employees quietly tread around the house in slippers and pajamas with AirPods in, taking meetings and fixing snacks—tall children home on a four-month sick day. Executives have suddenly realized their potential as video artists, as they apply photo backgrounds to Zoom chats and gesture into the cold gaze of the webcam. Employees once shy about crossing the work/home boundary have learned to relax and embrace personal broadcasting from an unkempt kitchen. Your authenticity has become part of your charm. The obligation to self-design identity and self-regulate performance has never been more complicated in its coding and more mediated in its means. At home, within virtual conveyor belts, workers are constantly multitasking, monitored, optimized and surveilled.
But at home, workers are safe. The hospital overflowing with COVID-19 patients isn’t near them, just on their iPhone screens. And anyway, wasn’t that footage from an Italian hospital—not a U.S. one? In WFH culture, everything is subject to post-production, so there is little distinction between a hospital and a film set and a battleground these days. What disturbs me most about quarantine is the ready quickness with which people have adapted to it. Maybe it’s the driving moralization: WFH is to save one’s ass as well as the asses of others.
In my speculative fiction, Andra8, the character I created, lives in isolation and knows no other life. In the pandemic, the public, on the other hand, is forgetting any other life. Our state of mass hypochondria has us constantly weighing out the odds, the risks, the costs and the benefits. To go to the store or not. To blow the remains of a week’s unemployment check on overpriced nitrile gloves or not. To cancel 2021 or not. In my piece, Andra8 revolts against the quietly oppressive conditions of her surveilled isolation and refuses to take part in the production and consumption of human data. She is a kind of modern-day Bartleby. As quarantine causes me to question more than ever before the conditions I will accept, I wonder with what greater frequency I will continue to say, “I would prefer not to.”
Alison Nguyen is a New York–based artist working in video, installation and new media.