September 26, 2022

The Lumen Interview | Nye Thompson and UBERMORGEN

Last year’s Gold Award Winners speak to Mila Askarova about art and life after The Lumen Prize
Credit: Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN, UNINVITED Stills: Courtship Triptych (R), 2022. Courtesy of the artists
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The Lumen Interview | Nye Thompson and UBERMORGEN

Following their victory in last year’s Lumen Prize, Jury Panel member Boris Magrini observed of Nye Thompson and UBERMORGEN’s work, UNINVITED (2018-ongoing):

This absurd and grotesque work is successful in that it exaggerates the darker aspects of new technologies such as surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence. By creating [...] a film not intended for a human audience, the artists actually put their finger on the horror of the surveillance society.

The problems of ubiquitous surveillance and data capture are the live legacy of Web2. To confront them, as these artists do, is vital to safeguarding Web3 as a space in which human and nonhuman agents can coexist in a mutually supportive ecosystem. This year, the inaugural Lumen Prize NFT Award finalists will feature in an exhibition at GAZELL.iO Project Space prior to the Award Ceremony. GAZELL.iO’s founder, Mila Askarova, has been supporting digital artists since 2015 through the gallery’s online residency. Here, she speaks to last year’s Gold Award Winners about how The Lumen Prize has impacted their lives and work.

Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN, UNINVITED Stills: Courtship Triptych (L), 2022. Courtesy of the artists

Mila Askarova: How do you reflect on the experience of winning last year’s Lumen Prize Gold Award for UNINVITED, and its subsequent display at GAZELL.iO?

UBERMORGEN (Liz Katlein and Luzius Bernhard): It was a really superb and authentic experience. There are wonderful people working with The Lumen Prize and at GAZELL.iO, which is also a female-led company. But since Nye is the Brit in the team, we want to pass this question on to her for more context and deep emotional insight.

Nye Thompson: Winning The Lumen Prize was huge for me. Having the work recognized by such a prestigious international platform was an incredible experience. The display at GAZELL.iO was also a really important milestone for me as well, as it was the first time I’d worked with a commercial gallery. You, India [Price], and your team were so supportive, and it turned out to be a very fruitful experience. Together with GAZELL.iO, we created the UNINVITED Stills (2021), comprising three stills that were allowed to expand their own internal narrative. This triptych — my first NFTs — then evolved into a series, with one for each chapter of UNINVITED. It was a real revelation for me to produce a “film” with both dramatic progression and visual density that was only about 20 seconds long. This is something that excites me deeply about the NFT format. 

Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN, UNINVITED Stills: Courtship Triptych (M), 2022. Courtesy of the artists

MA: Artistic collaborations aren’t always fruitful. Why was yours so successful, and what lessons can you share for other digital collaborators?

NT: When we first began our collaboration back in 2018 it was really just a lightweight experiment, we had no real expectations of where it might go. The project itself just evolved organically, working through several phases before the film that won The Lumen Prize. Maybe one of the reasons it was so successful is that we all came into it with prior experience of working as part of collectives, understanding the value of working in that way. 

All the usual rules of teamwork apply: shared goals, clarity over emotive issues like money and recognition, mutual support, kindness…

U: We were successful with UNINVITED because we started super slowly, building trust and understanding for each other’s histories, personalities, artistic identities, ambitions, skill sets, savage high-risk tolerances, fears, and personal weaknesses. As UBERMORGEN, we already have extensive experience with a wide variety of collaborative methods and have become quite pragmatic in this regard. Very successful collaborations are often personally disastrous and destructive, while situations of love and respect might not produce a successful project. 

With Nye, we have a unique situation where all aspects work out nice and sweet. Nye and lizvlx also developed a subunit and secret label within our collaboration. We would love to expand a bit more, but it is TOPSEC! What we can say is that this is the ultimate blueprint. Our partnership is intimate and intense, but structured as a relationship of openness and professional collusion.

MA: UNINVITED began as a project back in 2018. Did the pandemic alter the work, and did it even cement digital art as a mainstream cultural form?

NT: In a weird way the project actually anticipated aspects of the pandemic. From the outset, we’d been talking about making art for a machine audience. We’d even speculated about robot avatars of the UNINVITED network sharing the experience with others in different physical spaces. Our initial presentation of the film was planned as a public exhibition at Furtherfield Gallery in the summer of 2020, but as the reality of lockdown set in we ended up doing something much closer to our early speculations. Ultimately, we set up an installation comprising the film and a mobile projecting robot within the locked space of the gallery. The exhibition could only be experienced by humans in a network-mediated form via a purpose-built website. At a subsequent exhibition with ElectroPutere Gallery in Romania, we turned the entire building into a channel for our quarantined artwork by projecting the film across the frontage.

Lockdown certainly forced the mainstream art world to engage more directly with digital practice, and I think the growth of the NFT as an art medium has exerted a similar pressure, or at least continues a trend.

U: For us, 2021 was the year viral cement became an ingredient of universal digital concrete. Alt-right crypto-libertarians merged and society went forcibly into isolation. The pandemic was a personal and collaborative catapult for the UNINVITED project, prompting an atomization of thought and direction. AI, machine learning, and synthetic CCTV horror organisms manifested themselves as tiny explosions, with our brain-movies overlaid with weird new forms of instability and existence. 

Our collaboration moved steadily as we created parallel universes through cold fusion — envision-create-mend-blend produced an organic compound as we became an organism of experimental imagination and inexact vision. This was only possible in such extreme circumstances and the emotional evolution they prompted. The pandemic therefore had a huge influence on UNINVITED and the way we think, work, and communicate. 

Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN, UNINVITED Stills: Relaxing Triptych (L), 2022. Courtesy of the artists

MA: Nye, your work addresses power, surveillance, and machine agency. How might these concepts, which have become so central to the operations of Web2, mutate in Web3?

NT: When I’m thinking about such concerns I’m more interested in the wider heterogeneous network of hardware, software, and wetware as well as the behaviors that bind it together. It’s a powerfully emergent arena in which web technologies are only one component. Web1 and, to an extent, Web2 began as democratic exercises in which everyone could contribute; barriers to entry were low. Of course, in both cases power and ownership gradually flowed into the hands of a few big players. 

Web3, however one defines it, feels different — barriers to entry are very high in terms of money and knowledge, and it’s already a dangerous space even for those who understand it. 

Power, whether decentralized or not, is already very explicit. It’s all around you and it equates directly to money and a highly niche skillset. Power is also inherent to blockchain technology, which fixes both meaning and states. Should this be misapplied, it risks immutably embedding a set of beliefs and values in a way far beyond current concerns about data bias in machine learning.

Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN, UNINVITED Stills: Relaxing Triptych (M), 2022. Courtesy of the artists

MA: UBERMORGEN, what do you consider to be the legacy of Web1 net art for Web3?

U: We disagree with the idea of legacies in general. One can point out the sweet similarity between the dynamics of net.art ’95 and NFT ’21 — the rush, the sudden rise of new communities, and the compound networks of platforms, sites, and locations. In 1995, openness and collaboration were the looming threat used by The Californian Ideology to groom the Web for corporate takeover and domination. A special form of 24-hour-ness, and an incredible feeling of time compression were also ever-present. 

Net.art was born out of low-tech, 8-bit bandwidth and, initially at least, without demand or visibility, therefore zero capitalist reality. 

Manifesting itself as the ultimate digital avant-garde, it was the result of a new medium explored with everything available at the time, at a very high risk to body and mind. Our early ideology was: If you don’t get help from us, please get help from somewhere

In the days of net.art, we calculated a time factor of 52x. In today’s crypto reality we compute a factor of 365x, which applies directly to our recent show, “The D1cks,” curated by Alonso Cedillo. It was on view at Aparador CDMX for three IRL days, which is equal to three crypto years. Today’s NFT community is a sphere and medium that not only comprises new technology, but also merges neoliberalism with hypercapitalism and unregulated technology. This is producing a masculinist ideology of money production, losses, and scams, as well as new genres of “born digital” art that do not deserve the characterization “avant-garde.” Perhaps these are the defining visual manifestations of late-stage capitalism, in which the now has already happened and the future is already history. Repeat, adapt, speed up — this is basically the 1980s on steroids with AWS, Colab, and DALL·E 2.

Nye Thompson & UBERMORGEN, UNINVITED Stills: Relaxing Triptych (R), 2022. Courtesy of the artists

MA: Are you able to share details of any forthcoming projects that you are excited about?

NT: Outside of our collaboration, I’m about to release a new video work, INSULAE (The Jaggy Horizon), a reversioning of my 2019 work, INSULAE [Of the Island]. I’m also currently in the middle of a residency with Mostyn Gallery, where I’m doing experimental research for a new film about my current obsession, ghost satellites.

U: Together with Nye, we are currently working on an NFT collection called UNINVITED Zoomies, using AI and machine learning to explore the possibility of seeing sideways out of dystopia. When AI zooms endlessly while auto-converting 2D images into 3D, an alternative world emerges. The Zoomies look deep around the corner in search of digital objects, synthetic organisms, and a way out of the bleak reality of 30,000 CCTV images.

As UBERMORGEN, we are currently expanding our NFT lines with regular L’Origine du pixel drops. A feature project is “The D1cks,” which are hand-pixelated one-of-one haute couture NFTs with a PFP background. These are currently standing tall, growing, and shrinking in our minds — a sin to put ’em in, a shame to pull ’em out. Every D1ck is carefully handcrafted by lizvlx’s tender feminine hands. “The D1cks” is one of the earliest and prickliest examples of the ERC-721 “NFT,” an early driver of modern crypto art and the de facto standard powering most post-apocalyptic digital art and collectibles. Everybody needs a D1ck with proof of ownership. Go ahead, be and buy a D1ck! 

🎴🎴🎴

An installation of works by the inaugural Lumen Prize NFT Award finalists will feature in a one-week exhibition at GAZELL.iO Project Space from 13 October, 2022, leading up to the final Lumen Prize Award Ceremony on 19 October, 2022. The winner of the NFT Award will be featured exclusively in the Project Space for a solo exhibition until 19 November, 2022.

Nye Thompson is an artist-turned-software-designer-turned-artist. She is known for her experimental software architectures exploring network-embedded power dynamics and machinic visions of the world. Following a Fine Art degree at YBA-era Goldsmiths, University of London, Thompson took a sideways step to immerse herself in the newly-created World Wide Web. She spent the next two decades designing software, focused on the human-machine interface and big data analytics. In 2012, she returned to art college to do a Masters degree, subsequently quitting her corporate software career to become an artist. Thompson is based in the UK and operates between London and Mid Wales. She initially came to public attention in 2016 for her first solo show, Backdoored.io, an exploration of the secret life of security cameras and the global phenomenon of self-surveillance. The exhibition, described by Channel 4 News as “too shocking to broadcast,” became global clickbait and triggered an international government complaint. Since then, Thompson has exhibited globally, including at Tate Modern, the Barbican, and The V&A, London; The Lowry, Salford; The Louvre, Paris; ZKM, Karlsruhe; and Ars Electronica, Linz.

UBERMORGEN is an artist duo with a worldwide presence, a synthesis of autistic actionist lizvlx (Liz Katlein) and pragmatic visionary Luzius Bernhard (formerly Hans Bernhard). They are net.art pioneers and “media hackers” widely recognized for their Online Actionism, Haute Couture NFTs and Websites, Polarizing Social Experiments, Radical Research, Dark AI, Binary Primitivism, and Conceptualism. During their Vote-Auction project, which reached 500 million people worldwide and challenged the FBI, CIA, and NSA, CNN called them “Maverick Austrian Business People.” A series of conceptual hacks (EKMRZ Trlgy, 2005-08) also challenged the dominant e-commerce giants. In 2021, The Next Biennial Should be Curated by a Machine used AI-TikTokPop to catapult visitors into 64 twisted parallel universes. UBERMORGEN have exhibited globally at Liverpool Biennial; Serpentine Galleries and Somerset House, London; Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, and New Museum, New York; SFMOMA, San Francisco; The Louvre and Centre Pompidou, Paris; Gwangju Biennale; Biennale of Sydney; MOCA Taipei; ICA Miami; The National Museum of China, Beijing; Kunsthal Aarhus; Chronus Art Center, Shanghai; Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid; Haifa Museum of Art, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; Wei-Ling Contemporary, Kuala Lumpur; HKW, Berlin; ZKM, Karlsruhe; National Art Gallery, Sofia; Ars Electronica, Linz; MAMBO, Bogotá ; ArtScience Museum, Singapore; ICC and 3331 Arts Chiyoda, Tokyo; WRO Media Art Biennale, Wroclaw; Prague Biennale; and in digital spaces.

Mila Askarova is the founder and CEO of Gazelli Art House, a contemporary art gallery based in London, established in 2010 as an additional space to its Baku gallery. The gallery has built a consistent and diverse programme with artists working in sculpture, photography, painting, performance, video, and virtual reality. In 2015, Askarova launched GAZELL.iO, the digital arm of the gallery, starting with an online residency for artists working in the digital realm. In 2020, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the successful VR group exhibition series, “Enter Through the Headset,” she launched the GAZELL.iO VR Library. The GAZELL.iO Project Space was also created in 2020 to provide digital artists with a permanent space to showcase their works physically at a commercial gallery.