Mary Truong My relationship to technology as a developer complicates my position as an artist.
By Mary Truong July 23rd, 2020
Mary Truong positions her artwork from the perspective of the viewer; she admits it as one of her flaws. “My favorite professor from college once told me to think less of the audience. It’s good advice, but I could never seem to take it.” She explains that this framing partially stems her background in human-computer interaction— in undergrad, she spent extensive time researching users' interactions with technology. For her, the "user" in technology is interchangeable with the "viewer" in her art. She likes to pose the question: what is the goal of the viewer/user?
Another reason Truong so heavily considers the viewer is her own experience with dissatisfying encounters with art in galleries and museums. She says, “When I see static artwork, like paintings or sculptures, I often feel that it’s overly didactic, like a lecture that your senses are subjected to. Other times, the artwork is too evasive, and you never know what the artist intended without a museum label.” From these experiences, she decided to cultivate a new dynamic between artists, artwork, and viewer.
“I want viewers to have agency within their art experience.”
Her background in computer science lends itself well to this desire for viewer agency. When Truong works, she describes computers as transformative machines. "By nature, they're necessarily designed to take inputs to produce programmatic outputs." By allowing users/viewers to provide inputs to her programs, Truong gives them a measure of control over their art experience. Although her practice includes painting and drawing, she emphasizes the medium specificity of interactio found in her websites, video games, and installations.
Despite Truong’s intention to give viewers/users agency through her artwork, she acknowledges computer programs are fundamentally constrained in nature and that it is her job as the developer to create limits. “As much as my programs reveal your choices, they also reveal my decisions. What I allow the user to do, how I restrict them… my artwork exposes my control.” She emphasizes that this doesn't detract from her artwork; rather, it provides nuance to her ideas of freedom and control within her artwork.
“My relationship to technology as a developer complicates my position as an artist. ”
Truong’s artwork often explicitly critiques how current software systems reinforce capitalistic structures or subjugate users through hidden mechanisms. Still, she recognizes the hypocrisy in her position: she participates in these software systems as both a developer and a user. However, she believes that within her problematic position, there is room for resistance, which is why her artwork often includes explanatory theoretical text and why she allows her code is openly accessible for anyone to view and source from. “Through transparency, I hope to give people tools to question current oppressive systems. Developer, user, artist, and viewer... these roles aren't polarized extremes of active/passive or complicit/exploited. Every one of them can become a position of resistance.”
Currently, the aesthetics in Truong’s work are heavily influenced by Vaporwave, and more broadly, Internet culture. She is fascinated by how the Internet acts a collage of hyperlinks, ads, images, and text, and how jarring juxtapositions occur through the unintentional placement of these pieces. The vibrant colors used in her websites point to cyberpunk influences but also animate child-like imagery (she also cites Wong Ping as a particular influence). Her work emerges from disparate sources: lived experiences, the application of theoretical texts on current technology, or musings about the Internet.
“I want to examine technology through the medium of computation.”
Mary Truong is a creator: she feels most at ease when building something, whether it be a computer program or an artwork. Although she often considers a career in software development, she continues to make artwork. She says, “It’s hard to love art because it’s so selfish, and it can make you selfish, but I want to keep making. Art makes me consider the world; it makes me deeper and more human. I don’t think there is any other way for me to live.”
In her artist statement, Truong writes, “As an artist, developer, user, and viewer, I aim to construct technology that exposes utopic possibilities. I do this with the knowledge that my code constrains viewers/users to my utopic possibilities.” That statement can be appended with this: “Although my artwork reveals this vast, technological world, it is also meant to reveal my intimate, human world.”
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