Game of Arts, text by Jonas Schenk

Game of Arts

Jonas Lund’s modus operandi involves creating systems and setting up parameters that either he or the viewers have to engage with. This results in various program-based works that encompass data and behavior analysis and apply the logics of the new economy, neural networks and deep learning. Once a process is initiated, it executes its task according to given algorithms or rules. Jonas’ works raise interesting questions in relation to the logic of games – which are also characterized by closure, limitation, repeatability, a finite set of possibilities and, of course, entertainment – for Jonas himself is designer, game master, and player all at the same time. Embracing these logics, Jonas exhibitions can be understood as interfaces between game and gamer, that utilize on the diversity of competence within the players for a fertile experience. While this approach is committed to the factor of coincidence, the outcome is however predictable, given that he sets up the rules of his systems himself. Unfortunately, the answer to the urgent question of how his games work and how his programs are designed remains a closely guarded secret.

The arts often remind us of a Game of Thrones, as power, sex, and money are likely to be involved in the process of Kunstwerdung, or becoming-art (though less gory). With all that scheming and plotting behind the scenes, it is up to the participants themselves to decide whether they will join in the game or not. Looking at the systematics, one tends to lose track of the ostensible object – the artwork – in favor of its interdependencies throughout the system. Dealing with the Kunstwelt or art world and its constellations, the questions is not why object A is a good work of art, how it is composed and so forth, but rather which factors participate in this process of transformation. Jonas’ work is very much defined by his interest in looking at the bigger picture of the art world’s dynamics, which circle around an ongoing and biased conversation that determines value in the field of art. As this conversation is heavily influenced by a structured hierarchy, it seems Jonas’ quest is to examine certain aspects of this network of power. His works pose the question: If I know the rules of the game, the players, and their sources and strategies, is it possible to calculate my next step? Can I subvert the game with counter-movements? But above all: Is it even possible to bluff the art market before it immunizes itself against such attacks?

In “The Game” from 2014, Jonas used scenes from stockbroker movies (and The Devil Wears Prada) in which characters explain the rules of the finance world. Simply by substituting persons and institutions from the art world with an added subtitle (e.g. broker = gallerist, stocks = artists), Jonas “reveals” certain truths about the employment of strategic behavior in parts of the art market.

Around 2013, Jonas developed several exhibitions and works using the raw data available online from various art websites. On the basis of this metadata, he presented a potentially useful list of “The Top 100 Highest Ranked Curators In The World” (2013). Using data collected and categorized from various websites such as artsy, artnet, and artfacts, Jonas’ notable exhibition “THE FEAR OF MISSING OUT” (2013) demonstrated his paradigmatic method of dealing with the nexus of authorship, authority, randomness and determination by outsourcing the process of production. Jonas has since developed various models of outsourcing that latently evoke the mercantile logics of maximization and optimization.

Along lines similar to “FOMO”, his series of digital paintings “New Now” (2016) was developed using machine learning to train a neural network of his previous works. Having been visually trained by his previous works, “New Now” is a method for predicting his own next artistic step by compiling works that are meant look like his own.

“Hype-Cycle” (2016) is a video program that constantly updates itself from various online platforms by tracking down hyped content (images, text, video) and creating from it an ever-changing collage. The given parameters define the extent of the search and filter for hot topics. His installation “Away From Vacation” (2017) presented an ongoing flow of works without being present at all. Live-streamed from his Berlin studio, viewers could see Lund’s laptop running an application that created Photoshop paintings on its own. He has also used a botnet of fake and real Twitter accounts (“It Was Fun At First”, 2016) to appropriate quotes from different sources – online communites like Reddit and tech blogs – and in this way comment on trending topics. All of these works share the principle that labor is performed for him, not physically, but by the creative process itself. Jonas uses programs and algorithms to dig through the myriad of choices and selections that artists usually need to pick through themselves in their pursuit of artistic, economic and cultural capital. Comparable to the leverage effect in finance, where borrowed funds are used to purchase assets in expectation of a higher rate of return, Jonas often draws on computational or human resources for the production of hopefully valuable objects. Liberating himself from the hassle of compositional nuisances, Jonas undermines the visual, object-based concept of art by obscuring whether it is really the concept, the programs, or their results that should count as his “works”. While products of his concepts certainly find their way to the art market, he still owns the game.

With his latest works “CRITICAL MASS” (2017) and “Your Opinion Matters” (2017), Jonas comments on the topic of participation through gamification. As gamification continues to pervade ever more aspects of daily life – tracking apps (quantified self) and the pioneering Chinese Citizen Score being rather drastic examples – the economy increasingly sees the human being as a player in a game of personal improvement. Whether such improvement is defined in terms of health, physical beauty, or political obedience is of secondary importance. Gamification capitalizes on users’ attention, handing out rewards for those who play the game. Of course, these rewards are not gifts, but just another method of rationalizing human behavior by inducing an addiction that replicates an emotional logarithm of satisfaction. It has become apparent that the quantification of daily life leads to the capitalization of community, as every common action can potentially create value.

For “CRITICAL MASS” he created an online democracy tool enabling users to propose and vote on programming in the gallery space of the École Municipale des Beaux-Arts / Galerie Édouard-Manet, Paris. As a game is only as good as the play invested in it, Jonas encouraged his users to interact with the tool as much as possible. The game rewarded users with points for every interaction (time spent, click rate, proposals and messages written), allowing them to level up and gain more voting power. The tool’s democratic scope is quickly reduced to the interface of a point-and-click game based on the economy of attention. For “Your Opinion Matters”, visitors were asked to vote for the work of their liking. But as the voting was not regulated by any means, it was simplified to the act of pushing buttons – as often as you liked.

Participation – which suggests an empowered visitor/user who is an ostensibly integral part of the artwork – is thus subjected to logics of economization that use him or her for the creation of value. The exhibition’s objective was not specifically to produce valuable artworks, but rather to be constantly played – without concern for the outcome. Benefitting from web-based anonymity, “CRITICAL MASS”, along with other of Jonas’ works, implies uncertainty about whether he has succeeded in cheating the system or not. As to whether he alters the algorithms or plays the game himself, anything is possible – and any interventions he may make in his systems remain unknown. Encounters with bots or NPCs, be they Twitter or Tinder chatbots, are just likely as they are in any other online network.

Such spoofing of user empowerment in Lund’s work reflects a scepticism towards today’s technological euphemism, where numbers and rates are glorified as a certification of quality. In a society of information, Jonas copies the logics of an intangible economy in which absolutely anything can be subjected to strategies of optimization geared solely towards efficiency. Is this what happens, he asks, when homo ludens and homo economicus make common cause?