The answer is another question

increasingly unclear
24 min readFeb 18, 2024

Seeking uncertainty in technology with artist Cyan D’Anjou

Unknowable Certainty by Cyan D’Anjou and Luisa do Amaral, used with permission.

In this interview we talk about robots, AI and being guided by sci fi. Read a condensed version of this article here.

Q: Tell me about your project Organic Social Capital.

A: It’s part of a larger storytelling/worldbuilding idea called Sacrifice of Motherhood – a fictional society set in 2045 where our social status is linked to how much we give back to nature. So it’s this care and dedication to nature that only really exists because we’re getting some reward in return.

I went to the Serpentine Gallery last year to see the Back to Earth exhibition, and they had the question “Is it easier to imagine the end of the world or the end of capitalism?” Superflux flipped it, saying “It’s easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world,” and everything in their “shop” was centered around that.

It made me wonder whether we could use that system that we’re used to, and turn it around to care instead for nature. I was thinking, “What if social status brings us more profit to give than to take?”

Organic Social Capital by Cyan D’Anjou, photo courtesy of the artist.

How does it work? When I walk into the gallery, what do I see?

There’s a tall altar table, in big, attention-seeking orange, that represents an abstraction of an idol figure. Then there are some 3D printed plants. I took plants from different regions, planted them around London, and also 3D scanned them – the printed ones are on the altar. Then I created a livestream of the real plants. A web app called Organic Social Capital is like a future banking system, where you can interact with the plant of your choosing.

As humans, we have blood, hair – all these things that have nutrients that plants can use to grow. The idea of self-sacrifice, we usually put into a career. Instead, here it’s fed into a plant growing system – the more you sacrifice, the more credits you get in the system.

In the livestream, there are moments when you see me gathering this liquid and feeding it to the plant. And it tells you that if you speak your name or do this breathing exercise, we will speak that name to the plant. So it’s a kind of telepresence relationship with a celebrity. Except in this future, the celebrity, the icon is a plant instead of a person.

It’s a world where, because giving gets you more than taking, it also means that regions where we traditionally extract resources from become more valuable, more protected, left alone. Knowledges in which we value a better connection with nature would be the most important and preserved, as opposed to maximisation or optimisation.

It raises the question: Do we need such an incentive to care for the environment? I was curious to see which aspects of human nature are magnified with the technologies we have – like social media. The idea is that, in 20 years, we will see an exponential change in our relationship with nature – the opposite of the exponential change we’ve seen in terms of resource extraction from nature in the past 20 years.

I showed it at Dutch Design Week in 2023, and I was able to have conversations with a lot of people, and hearing a lot of very visceral reactions to my story. Like, “I would feel so heavy if I needed to care for nature only because I get some points out of it.”

But I also had a group of schoolchildren who said, “We as a whole school could have a community garden, and contribute collectively!” So it’s not just positive or negative – people relate to the story in different ways. Including a lot of people who were very angry with me for even coming up with it!

Organic Social Capital by Cyan D’Anjou, photo courtesy of the artist.

Say something about the materiality – there seems to be a conflict between plants, natural things and 3D printing and this altar – was it acrylic?

Plexiglas, yeah. That was intentional. In that fictional world, there’s so little access to nature, including natural raw materials – even using such materials would be detrimental to the whole idea, to have a bench made out of wood, for example. Obviously plexiglas is still detrimental to nature in its own way.

I really wanted to play with that false sense of care, and create this dissonance – the plants are 3D printed, and because they’re 3D scanned, they have strange characteristics – they look like a video game. Super uncanny structures. Like, “That’s what a plant must be” if you’ve never seen one before. I wanted to create a clear separation from nature.

For Dutch Design Week, I added a greenhouse-like structure around it. I built it with my grandfather in, like, three days – it was super fun. On the outside, there are real plants all around. But once you step inside, everything is filtered through this orange light, that contrasts with green to make this very gray, very dull atmosphere.

I also had a manifesto of a fictional future company written on the sides. One of the phrases is, “Nature is the most valuable asset we own.” Mostly, though, it was me talking to people about the project, and these provocations. Do we own nature? Who exactly?

Organic Social Capital by Cyan D’Anjou, photo courtesy of the artist.

The idea of social capital has been around for a few years. China has a system where people who post more on social media score higher. And then I read this story set in 2041, in which people’s charitable work gains points. It’s similar in that you can see both good and bad sides.

This project really allowed me to touch on a couple of different themes. It started as a manifesto, in which I imagined what were the three key points of that society. It was called Sacrifice of Motherhood at first because I imagined that if, in the future, there won’t be enough resources for us to sustain a new generation, so where would we sacrifice? Where would that level of connection go instead? Maybe plants.

Apparently a lot of young people these days already don’t want to have kids because of climate change – it’s already happening.

Yeah, a lot of groups are saying “We’re not gonna do anything unless things change.”

It was so nice to be stretched on this project. One iteration was about social capital, one was about honoring the labors of care and love, and one was very scientific – what properties of our bodies can nourish plants?

I was able to take a whole year to figure out which points I wanted to focus on. Of course all of them! But I chose this mix of our interpersonal relationships with each other, and what it means to quantify our care, our relations – this transaction idea.

So you took it to Dutch Design Week. Anywhere else?

Milan – there is an artist fair called REA. That was a smaller version of the altar, with an orange tree, and a short film – a character in that world telling about her relationship with the tree. The idea of unconditional love – to not exist anymore, how she felt valued only when she was giving. Much more of a personal reflection in that way.

Then it went to Dubai Design Week. I wasn’t able to be there, but they said they had good conversations.

Now I really want to write more – a small book or essay. Throughout this process so far, I’ve done videos and sculptures. But it started with a small piece of writing, and I really want to conclude it with some writing about how the strands all come together.

I didn’t really grow up around a lot of nature, so to now be immersed in it, and to work with it – challenging, but immediately eye-opening.

Maybe it’s useful to go back in time – what did you do before?

I went to Stanford, where you have the option of designing your own major. In the engineering school, you can put together whatever courses you want. So I called my major “Human Immersive Design”. I wanted to learn as much about technologies that reminded me of science fiction, and I was guided by the question, “What does human creativity look like in an increasingly technological society?”

It ended up as a combination of product design, the ethics of bioengineering (CRISPR gene editing, cloning), some business classes, and then psychology and neuroscience. Of course I didn’t graduate as an expert in any one thing – instead I knew very little about very many things. But I was fine with that, because I knew I would do more.

It also gave me a lot of space in my schedule to take a lot of art courses. I think if I had declared it, I could have been an art major as well! I went into Stanford knowing I wanted to pursue art. But I wanted to have some background knowledge about different topics, because otherwise what would I make art about?

I loved my time there. The most interesting courses were ones where I had extra time to fill, so I just looked at what was available. I took a few courses with a Postdoctoral Mellon Fellow, Seungyeon Gabrielle Jung, from the Korean Studies department. We talked a lot about the rapid development and modernisation in Korea, and digital media, and science fiction in east Asia. She was the most amazing scholar, and it was a small seminar – ten people. And her background was also in design, so a lot of our conversations led to how we might capture this moment in history through artistic discourse, or picking apart a design object from that period.

Another class was called Intergroup Communication. That was a lot of students from a lot of different backgrounds, and every week was a different topic. We would have conversations fishbowl-style, where groups took questions from other groups. All the barriers went down, conversations overlapped, and we asked why we needed to categorize ourselves at all. A lot of introspection, and difficult conversations – that all of us signed up for, so were prepared for.

Now I’m trying to imagine what’s next. For the first time it’s completely open-ended. And for now, I really want to see what it’s like just to work as an artist. Rather than be protected by an institution, or do something because it’s part of a degree. I’m in a really nice position in that I can continue to do the art I want to do, and it’s super self-driven.

I’ve always been shy of talking about personal experiences in my art. It was always something to put research behind it and say things with some academic validation. Now I’m ready to let some personal stuff through.

That’s what I’m working on right now. I’m doing a residency with Ars Electronica. They’re building a new university, and they’re bringing together scientists, artists, policymakers, from different backgrounds and different parts of the world, to have conversations about society and address various issues.

So last summer, they brought 75 students, between their Masters and PhD. I was one of the youngest. The goal was to establish the core learning outcomes, and then how to build a network of tutors and professionals and fellows who could address these topics. So it was about presenting from students’ perspective what we need to learn about and experience.

Now we’re in the process of building the curriculum.

Unknowable Certainty by Cyan D’Anjou and Luisa do Amaral

The students are building the curriculum?

Yeah. It’s a fun approach. They’re really trying to reach out, and really sit back and listen. They have an idea and a structure, but every time we challenge it, they’re super flexible. They pay us a monthly stipend, and a project fee. It’s not full time, like ten days a month. During each ten days, there are two topics: ethics in robotics, data visualization, embodied experiences of animals. They have fellows from other institutions, and three of them teach each module together as a group. Super condensed, so fun.

They have a space at Johannes Kepler University in Linz. They gave it its own building right now, but in a field out back, a new one will be built. And they even consult us on how the architecture, the space, the facilities should be. The director of Ars Electronica talked with us about the digital media landscape.

So right now I’m working on an immersive performance there. They have a space called Deep Space, with projections on the walls and floor. The audience is divided between the floor and a balcony, so one has a really clear view of the wall, the other of the floor.

I’m collaborating with Luisa do Amaral – she’s a computational social scientist at KAIST in Korea, working with networks and language in digital communities. The most incredible person to work with, because I don’t have much background in philosophy or sociology, but they’re topics I’ve always wanted to learn. She has expanded my view of everything so much.

Now we brought in a third collaborator to help with the artistic outcome – a film-based artist. So I came to London to talk about pre-production.

It’s been such a blessing, to have just finished an MA, and now to be paid to make work, with new friends from Brazil, South Africa, India, France, Korea, everywhere. This helped to give a lot of different feedback to the organizers.

I’m living in the Netherlands, where my family is from. I was born there. I know, I have a French name. And I speak French, and Dutch. I grew up in Atlanta, I lived in Belgium for a couple of years. My dad’s family is from Guyana via Martinique, in the Caribbean – French colony.

Now that you’ve spent time in London, how does Netherlands compare?

I think I needed a restful break. I love London, but I was afraid there would be a kind of heaviness to being here – visa issues, rents going up, the weather (okay, it’s the same in the Netherlands). And one year was enough, for now. To the point where I leave still loving London, and with the idea that I’d like to come back.

Whereas I constantly complain about it, but can’t seem to leave.

The Netherlands is not that far, I’m surrounded by family so I have an inherent support system, but I don’t need that many people around me to feel happy. And a lot of people are going there from London lately. I haven’t yet interacted with the arts organizations there – there are a lot – but knowing they’re there is super comforting. I’m really excited.

I mean, they have grants just to bring international artists to the Netherlands. It’s the opposite of the UK.

What I really wanted to do in London was build a community and share our resources and ideas and spaces. That was hard, not knowing anyone yet, and with nothing really to offer except my encouragement. In Holland I know that I’m able to collect things that I can then give back to other people.

My family are builders – they’re makers. My uncle is an artist as well, my grandfather helped me build the greenhouse. We have tools and knowledge of how to make things. And one thing about the place I live – the homes are like half workshop, half home. The place my grandparents are moving into used to be a ceramics workshop. The couple that was there – he was a builder, she was a ceramicist, and they each had a workspace, plus a nice courtyard, so after the classes they gave, people could come together. This is something I noticed in many of the homes there – people have their passions alongside where they live, to the degree they’re able to sustain them.

My dream would be to create my own residency program and invite artists from everywhere to come make art together.

I like how you define art in kind of scientific terms – that it’s about figuring out things, maybe starting from some natural phenomena. I’m not sure everyone would agree.

I love figuring things out, researching a question, and then finding out that the answer is just another question, and going from there. I guess I see art as a way of observing. I’ve always struggled to see art as a form of self-expression – for me it’s not that sort of outlet. I know that’s therapeutic for some artists. For me it’s easier with research – using texts, documents that capture that emotion that I’m feeling. That’s more therapeutic for me.

Maybe that is the distinction between art and science – art embraces that subjectivity, emotional reactions, putting yourself in the work. Whereas in science – or design – you wouldn’t really do that. Not explicitly anyway.

That’s actually the core of the piece I’m working on now with Luisa. We connected because we both noticed ourselves working through emotional, lived experiences through trying to find some logical reasons behind them. Trying to rationalise everything.

So we identify the shortcomings of that approach, but also the comforts. Accepting that there doesn’t need to be a reason. It just is. It’s a human drive to identify some cause. The project is called A Knowable Certainty.

Maybe the challenge is putting yourself into the work, but then how do you engage someone else in that? Are they just learning about you, or do they somehow give something to the work too?

Yeah. But taking myself out of the work to some degree doesn’t mean it’s not about me. Maybe one of my skills is to express it in a way that is about something broader, that other people can insert themselves into.

I struggle with worldbuilding because of how many rules it takes to explain a scenario. I want to be able to enter something and immediately find some connection.

That’s maybe why I built that big orange table – even though it’s an object and represents something in that world, I also want it to be something that someone could find some meaning, or align their own experience with. Maybe my personal experience isn’t unique.

Drone performance by Cyan D’Anjou and collaborators at Founding Lab, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist, used with permission.

My students used to get really into research, but sometimes struggled to try and fit it into the work. And what helped was when I told them to make something every day – making without meaning. The ideas will naturally go into the work. Don’t overthink it, don’t force it.

I was just talking about that yesterday. Luisa’s output from our project is a research paper, so the first couple of months we just dove into her references, reading them to better understand different perspectives.

But because we were so deep in that process, it felt like that was the work itself. And I found it really hard to do it justice – how do I make something worthy of all this time we put into research?

What was so helpful was just making something fast. We did this project using a drone within two hours – here’s a drone, here’s the software, you have two hours to come up with something, and show it. Just spitball, and go with it.

So we went with: What if the robot is our sun? What if we’re children and we’re doing this ring-around-the-rosie thing, that becomes this ritual. Luisa used to play this game in Brazil, and another person from Scandinavia – they have a similar ritual in summer.

The only other element is that the drone goes up, and it goes down. Allowing ourselves to be happy with that allowed us to just execute it. We knew how to work the thing, so we could go wild with the ideas, go for it.

It was so rewarding to have a small amount of time, and make something that all of us were really proud of.

Well that’s definitely another thing that works: having a deadline. You’ve got to produce something.

A friend is going through that now: one-hour exercises, every day. Make one thing, in an hour. To be able to draw ideas out of yourself when you have a constraint like that, it’s a confidence builder.

Sitting on a project for a couple of months without making something is, like, the heaviest thing. Maybe that’s why I’m here in London – I needed something to bring me out of my routine.

This project ends soon, so I’m applying to other residencies and things. Of course I’d love to keep going around the world!

Other projects you’re thinking about?

Right now, a lot of small explorations that came out of the past couple of months – performances with robots, the people I’ve been able to meet – we all have these small experiments we want to expand on.

So the next few months will be trying to put an event or experience together where we can all share the same space again, and rather than focus on the big, long-term project, put all the small explorations into one day or festival or something.

Also, alongside the Knowable Certainty, I’m looking at something called Seeking Uncertainty – the mirror image, wanting to dive into this thing that I can’t know, and seeking acceptance that I can never know some things. I see it as participatory experiments or writings, like instructions, that I can then invite other people to do with me.

I’m trying out new art forms. After the sculpture and the building, I’m thinking how I can say things without it being a huge, logistical nightmare. The greenhouse, for example, is taken apart, in storage.

One thing the Dutch government offers is a starting research grant – it can cover a couple months of deepening your knowledge in an area, or writing a proposal, coming up with what you want to do. Then they also support the follow-up project coming out of it.

Also, I’ve been wanting to read so much. And I have this problem of buying a lot of books, adding things to my library, finding resources – and then I don’t read them. So, for the next month or so, I want to give myself time in the day to read. I feel so happy, so fulfilled, reading things.

Anything particularly interesting?

Luisa sends me a lot of things. One that I really loved was Vehicles by Valentino Braitenberg. So fun – each abstraction of a machine, and how that evolved into human life.

I’ve been reading a novel about a bookstore, and everyone who visits is making some kind of change in their life – leaving their career, questioning an ethic, dealing with disappointment in expectations. A really cozy, considerate, compassionate book.

I read No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai. It’s a really heavy story about someone who deals with depression his whole life, and he feels like not part of human society. At the end, everything he was so fearful of turned out to be true. After reading that, I was like, “Let me read the bookstore book!” Such a contrast.

I also really love short story fiction – surreal sci fi. A good collection is Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung. They’re all a little bit gruesome, but they’re reflections on capitalist structures, the sacrifices we make for who we are, our relations with other people. She’s an amazing author. She has a book coming out called Your Utopia, which is why I’m trying to catch up on this other book.

And I really like the translator Anton Hur. I’ve been super into understanding the literary world a bit better. What’s the role of the translator? How does a relationship work with a publishing house? I’m hoping that by trying different forms of literature I’ll find where I want to go with my own writing.

Another one I really love is Radical Attention by Julia Bell. It’s a nonfiction essay. I bought it at the ICA bookshop – I love to go there, I’m going later today. This book informed my Organic Social Capital project: how does attention turn into capital? The need to be seen, of giving care, paying attention to something. Really eye-opening.

Emissary’s Guide to Worlding by Ian Cheng was good. I took a class at Stanford called AI, Art and Activism, taught by Camille Utterback. We sat watching his piece at Cantor Arts Center watching it for an hour. I don’t think I would have spent as much time as I did if I didn’t know the background.

And what do you think about AI?

I think it can be a tool for understanding where we are a little bit better.

I haven’t thought too much about generative AI, but I’ve had a lot of conversations lately about bias in data. At first I was for reducing bias. But one fellow in Linz did a project in a small community in Brazil where they 3D scanned all the streets and buildings to identify where the government should invest more.

If we look at that dataset, it’s highly biased. But it’s incredibly important in context – specific, personal, necessary. What a house is in that community would not apply at all to a house here. We did an exercise where we went out into the street and counted cars. Well, Austria has trams, and these little cars that collect trash, and the model she was using from Boston doesn’t recognise those as vehicles. In contexts like that, bias is almost essential. Or rather, context is essential.

So AI is interesting in that sense – it can tell us what it’s contextualized to, where its focus is, and isn’t. Then how do we build more personalized, specific datasets for each context.

So, more than just saying no to what’s going on, more important to me is how to make the process more transparent.

Robot experiment by Cyan D’Anjou and collaborators at Founding Lab, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist, used with permission.

You’ve been using lots of different advanced technologies. Anything else exciting to work with?

The robots – the dog from Boston Dynamics. It was almost jarring to work with because it really feels like an animal. You know it’s not, but it’s designed to look and act like one. Why is it like that? Is it because it makes the most sense in terms of functionality? Is it because we might feel compassion towards it?

It was interesting to have it interact with other animals. One dog was very scared of it, another wanted to play with it.

And it really matters where you are – which side of the controller. We did an experiment where we sat inside of a perimeter and had it walk around us in a loop, as if it was protecting us. And we felt protected.

But when someone else was sitting in the center, and we changed the verbiage to be like it was observing her, she felt very intimidated. Both times, the operator of the robot was doing exactly the same action. And for the operator, that action of going around was very lighthearted. But for her, in the center, it was very scary.

Robot experiment by Cyan D’Anjou and collaborators at Founding Lab, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist, used with permission.

I think that says a lot about the gaze of technology. And the transparency. It was the first time we had been given access to such a tool – that digital agency, that knowledge that’s withheld from so many people. Knowing what it feels like to operate it. It’s made for military purposes, to go places people can’t, and it’s been used to enforce curfews. It’s quite scary what it can do, and at the same time in the form of a dog, so somehow also cute – just like a real dog.

At this stage of your career, I guess you’re thinking about building up a body of work. Do you imagine it would have certain common themes, approaches, media, ideas? If someone offered you a solo exhibition, what would you put in there?

I love thinking about this, and what’s so fun is, I never thought that the work I made five years ago would have any relevance to what I’m doing now. But I asked my uncle – the artist – who said the same thing. At the time, everything felt very individual and separate, but when he looks back, he’s like, “Wait – every piece has this element that connects it to the next one.” He didn’t realize it before. For him it was political unrest – communicating ideas about power, at a large scale.

And, if you had known? (2022) by Cyan D’Anjou, photo courtesy of the artist.

For me, when I look back at the work I’ve made so far: There’s a splintered wall with a little slot for placing flowers – a kind of “firewall” representing the care that you put into a digital being, the personhood on the other side of the screen. I had real flowers, and synthetic flowers that were all the same, which enhanced the individuality of the real ones.

I’m struck by how similar the theme is to my current work – pouring care into something and having it be mistranslated, misunderstood, altered. It was a ruin of a physical firewall that had broken down and revealed what was going on on the other side. Now I’m like, “That was such an interesting idea, I should continue with it somehow!”

In making that piece for Dutch Design Week, what I enjoyed the most was, at the last minute, they asked me to be a keynote speaker at one of their events, about the future of wellness and the environment. They really liked my work and wanted me to talk about it. There were breakout discussions afterward.

And it was the most rewarding way of presenting the work, because my work is about conversations and responses and sharing, not just showing what I made. Even in a gallery, conversations can be like one minute long. Here we went in depth and pulled something out. Everyone had different backgrounds, but we pulled out key words, and each person left with work to do for themselves – like a design brief. It felt like something was put into action.

You must have learned a lot from your uncle, grandfather, your family – practical skills in building stuff.

Oh yeah. The biggest thing is that anything can be made. Anything. In fact, anything can be made in three days! [laughs] But literally. When I was planning it, I thought, “What if it had these floating spheres,” crazy stuff. But the thing is, things might be hard, but there’s nothing you can come up with that’s impossible. So what’s nice about them is that they know how to make it possible. Being in that environment is ideal.

So growing up, I had a sense that anything was possible. When I was three, I had a tricycle that they made into a kind of steam engine, with cars attached following me around. (I love trains.) It’s not expensive or anything, it’s just wood, and knowledge.

I visited a steel factory a couple weeks ago, as part of a field trip we did in Austria. They make the little buckles on shoes – the things that shoelaces go into. Such a small item, but knowing how things are made, the whole process, is knowledge that not that many people have access to. Knowing where every part of something comes from.

Gaining that knowledge, you feel a sense of responsibility, knowing where things in your environment come from, how they’re made, how they got there. Where do the components of steel come from? For this factory, mostly Australia. What’s the impact of it traveling so far? Why from there?

Sure, and it’s not one-sided. Like plastic – it’s an amazing material that’s strong, lightweight, durable, super useful. And of course that means it lasts a long time. Only now we know the downside of that – it lasts forever.

So, thinking of your project, what if we instead treated plastic as a rare and valuable thing?

Exactly. Because of course it doesn’t go anywhere, so how should we treat it if it’s going to be around longer than we are?

My uncle, before he was an artist, he started a plastic recycling design company. So he collects plastic waste, breaks it down into chips, then re-forms it into usable material. All of our cabinets at home are made of this.

It’s a really interesting material – there are so many levels, different consistencies. It really is valuable, and I can imagine it having some sentimental value as well, as a material – when you’re done with this table, you can re-melt it and make something else out of it, keep using it over and over.

I heard a talk recently by an academic who said that we can’t simply switch from fossil fuels to something else, because they’re so embedded in our whole culture – everything in this room was made possible by fossil fuels. So it’s a deeper cultural change that needs to happen.

What I like in your film is how Jessica’s family in Jamaica share food and resources with the community – not always having to consume new things. I do think there is a big drive in our society for that deeper cultural change, especially in younger generations – very conscious how we treat things, each other, the world. It’s hopeful.

It makes me think about a study I heard about: people are doing a math tutorial on the computer, and they have to rate the quality of the instruction. When people used the teacher’s own laptop to do this, the ratings were significantly higher than people who went into a separate computer room. It’s about psychology – they felt a kind of politeness, they wanted to give back to their teacher. I keep thinking about this study, thinking about humans’ relationship with technology.

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