Centre for Applied Research of the Faculty of Digital Media & Creative Industries

"Today's big problems revolve around technology"

Interview Matt Adams, of art collective Blast Theory and keynote speaker at the Society 5.0 Festival

25 Oct 2023 14:21 | Centre for Applied Research FDMCI

Espionage, bank robbery and reality shows. In Blast Theory's disruptive art, we citizens ourselves play the leading role. The adventurous British art collective scrutinises human behaviour with performance, theatre, interactive art and technology, such as smartphones, artificial intelligence and GPS tracking. "Technology is at the root of all the great social dilemmas of today," says co-founder Matt Adams. On Tuesday 31 October, he will give a talk at the Society 5.0 Festival in Amsterdam.

On Tuesday 31 October, Matt Adams will give a lecture in Amsterdam. Read more about the programma here: Society 5.0 Festival

Blast Theory creates interactive experiential art that combines theatre, art, social design and games. In doing so, the collective tackles current cultural, scientific and political issues such as technology, racism, globalisation and climate change. To make these issues palpable, everyone becomes an active participant in the narrative installations, performances and activities.

An example: A machine to see with is a radio play where, as a listener, you become part of a bank robbery. The radio play can only be listened to on the street, which makes it grimly realistic. Or Kidnap, a fictional lottery with the grand prize being a 48-hour hostage situation, where the ten 'winners' are actually locked up. These are thrilling thrills that soon degenerate into a threatening situation.

"These works explore how free will works," says Matt Adams, who started Blast Theory in 1991 with Nick Tandavanitj. "Which decisions do we make ourselves and which are made for us, whether by Big Tech or a government? To what extent do we still have control, or even insight, into how we organise our lives? And can we really trust technological information, for instance the smartphone used to eavesdrop on a radio play? There are no unequivocal answers to these questions."

Over the past three decades, Blast Theory's art has been experienced at venues as diverse as The Stedelijk Museum, the Venice Art Biennale, the Sundance Film Festival and the Royal Opera House in London. But always the works are interactive. Why?

"On a practical level, it's a way of keeping the audience engaged, haha. But because the experience comes across as real as possible and the participant makes their own choices, , their sense is enhanced that the questions we raise are really about their lives. And for ourselves, it's important because it means we're not talking to our audience but with them."

What drives your projects?

"Ignorance and a curiosity about a certain technology or, on the contrary, emotions like loneliness. We then start discussing that. Every aspect of that topic is explored and questioned, sometimes for hundreds of hours. In doing so, we seek collaboration with scientists, other artists and technicians. This is followed by further days of discussion. What do we want to convey to the audience? Which way is best suited for that? In doing so, we also draw on personal experience. How does it feel to be the only one standing still in a stream of travellers at a station? When was the last time I got lost, and how did that feel? Only at the very last moment do we make a plan. We work very slowly."

Which comes first: the social issue you want to question, the subject matter? Or the idea for the artwork, the execution so to speak?

"That varies. We were very interested in games in the late 90s, which was a new medium at the time. That research resulted in the game-like experience Kidnap. The real-life self-help project Karin arose precisely out of a personal indignation at the way social media like Facebook and also all kinds of interactive websites and apps 'scrape' our data. It's very sneaky, we just give it away ourselves. This is why we developed a fictional self-help app. In it, a real person Karin gives personal advice. But over time, she starts interfering in your life more and more. She gets more and more personal herself and before you know it, Karin invades your privacy in all sorts of ways. She calls at night and starts gossiping about her ex. Actually quite intimidating. So, to understand the ways in which our perception of intimacy and privacy is distorted online, we decided to develop an app ourselves."

A recent project Adams will explain at the Society 5.0 Festival (31 Oct & 1 Nov) is Cat Royale, a domestic installation in which cats are entertained by a smart robotic arm that learns which games the cats like best. On Facebook Live, this cat habitat could be followed, like a kind of Big Brother.

Is Cat Royale a metaphor for how we as humans are manipulated?

"It is mainly an investigation into how AI actually works. By observing how the cats play with the robotic arm, you also see how the interaction changes. Does the cat adapt to AI, or vice versa? We chose cats because these animals are close to us. Just look at the fascination with cat videos on social media. At the same time, they react very intuitively, which makes them perhaps more difficult to manipulate than humans."

Matt Adams explains Cat Royale

Technology always plays an important role in your projects. Why?

"Technology is not neutral but an outgrowth of political or economic choices. It is an ideology. All the big problems of today revolve around technology. But we use technology itself in our art only to enhance or enrich experiences. At most, it is a tool, as in the performance Rider Spoke, where participants cycle alone through a city at night. Meanwhile, they are asked very personal questions via their smartphones and headphones. Their answers they can share with other cyclists, or not. Technology in this case creates an intimate experience in a dark city."

Many projects take an advance on the future. Do you actually try to make a realistic prediction? "

No. We choose a theme based on intuition that the questions we raise could become important. We only outline a possible future. How far do we go in our lust for spectacle? A kidnapping? Or allow ourselves to be entertained by a robot? Our work is an invitation to think with us about which future we want."

Spits spreads death: the parade. The Blast Theory

Yet with one project, Blast Theory was literally overtaken by current events. In 2019, it organised the Spit Spreads Death: The Parade, a parade through Philadelphia in memory of the 20 thousand people who died here in one month in 1918 from the Spanish flu. Three months later, the covid pandemic broke out. Adams: "That was extremely alienating. The parade was conceived during an artists-in-residency at the World Health Organization in Geneva, as the first artists ever. There, the threat of a pandemic is a constant. These scientists are seriously considering that covid was not the big dreaded pandemic but one yet to come. So we were not that predictive."

What topics are currently keeping you busy?

"I can't - obviously, I would say - define that concretely yet. But in the 1950s and 1960s, government was seen as a way of holding society together. Urban planning, education, even exploring the universe - it was collectively regulated. Somewhere there was a shift towards the free market as the organisation of society. But the realisation that our future is too important to be left to big oil and a handful of tech companies is growing. How can we accelerate that process? What ideas can be an alternative to liberal market ideology?"

That sounds like an indictment. So are you activists or artists? "

Our art stems from activism. But art can raise questions. Sow doubt. Be uncomfortable ánd fun. Art can be contradictory and complex. The message of activism ultimately has to fit on a protest sign, you understand."

Society 5.0 Festival: where and when

Society 5.0 Festival. 31 October & 1 November 2023. The Social Hub Amsterdam City, Wibautstraat 129 in Amsterdam. It is organised by Center of Expertise for Creative Innovation: Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam University of the Arts, Inholland University of Applied Sciences and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

Interview by Jeroen Junte, Design Digger