There is nothing artists won't use as a medium—invent it, they're on it. Susie Lee got her first smartphone a year ago, and immediately it became the latest vehicle for her favorite subject: the longing to connect, especially across the digital-physical divide.
Her sculptures and installations have paired video, audio, light, and complex technological systems with earthy elements like water, sand, wood, and fabric. In 2011, for example, she created Contact, a beautifully handcrafted wooden box that you could call or text and it would communicate back to you. That was the 1.0 version of the project she's doing now.
Leaving behind the antiquated wood and the dumbphone, she's transitioned to 21st-century materials, and scaled up from a standalone interactive sculpture to a potentially limitless platform. She's created a free mobile dating app called Siren that's out there playing with the big boys: Grindr, Tinder, Match. Checking those out, she noticed there were services just for hookups and for long-term relationships, but none explicitly for both that served straight people but didn't rely on the physical objectification of women for male enjoyment.
Lee is a Korean American woman, and she found it impossible to create a fluid enough self-portrait in the static pictures-and-bio formats of existing mediums. No matter what she entered, she was seen as "the fantasy Asian woman."
"I'm loud, I eat a lot, and I'm bossy," Lee says. "I didn't feel safe on those sites, I didn't feel like I could be myself, and I didn't believe anybody else's self-portraits either."
The name Siren refers to the mythological Sirens, whose irresistible calls lured sailors to their deaths. Siren doesn't want to defeat men, it wants to empower women, Lee laughs. But the name retains that slight edge of implied danger at the hands of a powerful woman, and it made Greg Bishop wonder. He's one of the first 450 people to join Siren in its first two weeks. An architect in Seattle, Bishop was attracted to Siren by its lovely, sinuous graphics. A curl of smoke rises and becomes an elongated S when it loads, and the pages were designed by Lee and her design director, Katrina Hess, for visual beauty. Bishop decided the name is "both apt and ironic," he said. "I think it evokes the complexity of our sexuality. Maybe there is a natural Siren within each woman and each man. I do a lot of social dancing, and the whole idea of males as leads and females as follows has totally broken down. Everything's opened up, and everyone's playing whatever roles they want to play."
On Siren, it's actually the men singing the tempting songs. You sign up through iTunes, fill out a minimal bio, then are given the chance to add your only photo: a black-and-white self-portrait taken in-app with your phone. Pictures aren't the main focus; what you do is. Profiles get built up over time, as your performances pile up. There are two formats for your performances. You can answer a question of the day posed by a rotating cast of Seattle artists, and/or you can create, using the video program in the app, a short video responding to a specific prompt. Bishop's favorite video prompt was "Show us something that's just a little 'wrong' in the right way." (He posted a work of art he owns that has perplexed him ever since he got it.) Megan Griffiths, a filmmaker, posed recent questions of the day, including "What are the three most important characteristics of a leader?"
Your profile contains all your answers and videos. Women can try to imagine what kind of thinker, writer, and creator a man is by watching him over time, then unlocking her own profile to him, at which point things begin. Or, a woman can put out a "Siren call" that expires overnight, announcing she's ready to get together now, whether for coffee or sex. Like the queer apps that got there first, Siren doesn't judge, and true love and marriage are not the goals unless you want them to be. One woman e-mailed Lee to say she went on a date and didn't like the guy, but that it was the first time she'd enjoyed meeting a man online. "That's all I want," Lee says.
It's fun to go on Siren to look at the responses and videos even if you're not dating. The way you can do that is by signing up as a "Wing Woman." Wing Women can also watch the performances and make recommendations by forwarding men's profiles to their female friends on Siren.
Lee thinks of Siren as a collaborative sculpture. She directed its design and function with a team of assistants, and now it's built by users and reshaped by Lee as she watches and responds to feedback. It's like marble-sculpting, she says, where she messes with it, then steps away to assess, then goes back in again. You might also consider it a performance, or public art, or architecture, and it fits right in with "social practice" art, where artists behave as directors who create situations where people interact under set conditions.
But it's also a corporation that can live on if Lee dies. She can't write a single line of code. She's got engineers to do that. And designers and managers. Her "studio" is meetings. Meetings with other startup entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, in cafes, or at "meetups" and conferences, sometimes even over whiskey and cigars in penthouse clubs in skyscrapers. To network, she's had to learn the favored terms of the tech startup world: "pivot," "innovation," "biz dev," "repeatable and scalable." Her "smock" is a T-shirt she had mass-produced and that she wears around town that says: "Siren: Charm Someone's Pants Off." (Imagine Monet sporting his water lilies to the market in Giverny; what would the motto be? "Everything looks better blurry"?)
Lee pays her engineers and designers out of the $400,000 she's been able to raise from angel investors in all those meetings. She hasn't made money herself yet, and has spent her savings, which sounds like any startup CEO.
She's currently in the running for a significant art grant, but keeps waiting for the art world to say, "This is not an art project," she says. Will she be cut off and kicked out by the art world?
"At the same time, I'm an artist, I'm always supposed to challenge the judge," she says. "The soul of the artist—we think of it as tortured or connecting with the sublime, but maybe the actual soul shares more sensibility with a prisoner looking for escape routes and hustlers trying to cobble things together and then running away. How you begin to escape those bonds of establishment, in whatever way you do it—that is where the art lies, and when the establishment comes, you keep running away."
If Lee can pull it off, Siren will be Lee's "commentary on portraiture, and a desire machine," says artist C. Davida Ingram.
In the sense that it is ongoing and open, Siren is like a "happening," an art term coined in the mid-1950s to indicate art events that are similar to performances but usually nonlinear and improvisational, and blur the lines between the work of art and the viewer by allowing the viewer to use and alter the art. Another "happening"-like mobile app by an artist is Somebody by multimedia maker Miranda July. On Somebody (which, like Siren, is free), you write a message you want delivered to a friend, and the app finds a stranger in your area to deliver your message to your friend in person. July is legendary at instigating awkward situations, and Somebody is another form of her open-ended anthropology. Like Siren, Somebody is a playful stage for the meeting of two people.
But Siren is based on the existing dynamics of desire and gender online; Siren is more about control. It fits the terms of the recently written Pugetopolis Manifesto, written by Seattle artist Meghan Trainor and posted at medium.com, calling for the Northwest to become a center for "Liberation Technology." The Northwest is a center for "artists working with and about technology," and along with the rest of "the Philosophy wing of the Seattle Art & Technology Workshop," "we observe that technology spaces are increasingly homogenous... We declare that homogeneity begets homogeneity" and "That people unlike you may be missing from your spaces for reasons that you need to fix."
Trainor is on Siren, and she's interested in how the other creative people on it might hack it for unexpected uses; she used it right after Michael Brown was killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, to host a mixed-gender, online town hall rather than a flirting session. Then she returned to Siren's regular programming.
Lee is asking for all kinds of interesting trouble with Siren.
Most of the artists doing social-engagement projects "are doing it outside the corporate or business world," says Seattle artist Tivon Rice, who like Lee works extensively with technology. As an example, he mentioned artist Shaina Anand's installation of video networks that connected people within one of the poorest parts of New Delhi. "But Susie's project is inside a two-billion-dollar industry that people choose to go into," Rice said. "I'm so much more used to thinking about criticism of that way of thinking, as opposed to being proactive."
"Siren could have been a little web site that I put on a gallery wall, and we talk about how horrible these [mainstream] sites are," Lee says. Digital artists who clamor to get into museums are missing "the power of what digital art can do. Digital art has a huge audience, and it's on 24/7."
But that huge audience brings a new level of risk. Recently, Lee was interviewed and Siren was featured on CNN.com. CNN didn't mention that Lee is an artist, or that Siren is an art project—Lee was wearing her CEO drag—but instead focused on Siren's reversal of the traditional role of females waiting to be seen and invited to sex by males.
The story got 15 comments. While those 15 comments may not be a sample of the population, their overwhelming hostility was notable. 1woody59 wrote, "Sounds like another reason for women to lie." Gus Hodges wrote, "LOL, men should request a site that requires females to take an in-app full body photo in order to pass muster." YouDeserveThis wrote, "If a man can't see the merchandise, he ain't buying it... I can go pretty much anywhere and decide whether or not I am visually interested in a woman WITHOUT her snarky permission to do so... Men won't use this app and the user base will turn into a lonely, angry clam fest." Rotary Rocket, with an avatar of an expensive Japanese sports car, was the one who wrote, "Wont work, women are the prey by biological design, it's not broken so it's doesn't need to be fixed [sic]."
If in the world that's broader than Seattle and broader than art, female consent is dismissable snark, and women are fishy liars and prey who deserve to be hunted, then perhaps Lee is onto something.
But there are still more layers of criticism waiting for Lee. I called Eric Fredericksen, former director of the widely respected contemporary art space Western Bridge and now manager of the high-profile public art coming to the restored Seattle waterfront, to ask what he thinks of Siren. He was hesitant, like several artists I asked.
"The sticking point would be the question of practical use," Fredericksen said. "I wouldn't say, 'Oh, well, something that is functional is therefore something that is other than art,' but that hangs in the air a lot of the time... There was this conversation years ago between [artist] Roy McMakin and [curator] Michael Darling where they came up with this formulation that the difference between an artist and a designer is that a designer solves problems and an artist creates them, and I do still have an attachment to that idea."
The business world is "ruthless but clear," Lee says. She finds it more supportive than the art world. "There's a culture of scarcity and fear in the art world that tears it apart," she says. "When you think there is a small pie and only so many opportunities, then you hoard... The gatekeepers become prophets of culture, taste, and conversation... You begin to hear yourself resent others, and you feel impoverished, even if not financially, then certainly as a citizen that often feels like it has no real function except to be at the whim of some courtly upper class."
Dylan Neuwirth, another Seattle artist who uses online media in his work, agrees with Lee and loves Siren.
"I think it's quaint to think of an artist as a person who creates problems—I think that's a romantic view of the situation," Neuwirth told me. "She perceives this thing happening in the world and she uses her own wherewithal to comprehend, digest, and produce something that relates to it and communicates to people on a mass scale. I don't know what could be more artistic."
He compared Lee, CEO, to Jeff Koons, CEO. As a young man, Koons quit his job on Wall Street, became an artist, and founded a new empire of manufactured expensive commodities—his artworks. When we spoke, Neuwirth had just returned from New York, where he saw Koons's gold-plated survey exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. Koons joins many other artist-CEOs, like Takashi Murakami or Damien Hirst.
The way Koons capitalized on the "greed is good" era, Lee is reflecting on the worship of the startup and tech entrepreneur. But Siren is ultimately designed to facilitate satisfying connection, not excess. "If Siren fails big, it's still not a failure," she said, distinguishing it from a business meant to turn profit. If it does become lucrative, it probably doesn't need an artist at the helm and it would probably make the most sense, Lee says, for her to step aside and move on to her next project. Lee also has a different path than Koons or Hirst or Murakami, both by choice and not. She's a Korean American feminist woman artist working online, not an alpha male playing within the small world of art.
Siren may be as far outside the art world as Lee has gone, but it's also part of yet another art lineage, going back at least to 1978, of "telematic" art, or art that conjoins computers and communication. Just like Contact was—that dumbphone-enabled wooden box from 2011. When you opened the lid, you saw a sort of old-fashioned circuit board inside. There were three rows of little glass tubes, each holding a filament of graphite, the kind you'd see in a mechanical pencil. Lee gave you the box's phone number, then invited you to call or text it. When you did, a digital system hidden beneath the grid of glass tubes triggered a jolt of electricity that shot through the pencil lead. The lead turned a bright, burning red, just for a moment, then cooled and sent up a puff of smoke as your phone received a text in return. It said, "We've made a connection."
In the days that followed, Contact would send you nice little notes. You'd have fun trying to imagine the best way to write to a machine, and you'd wonder how it would respond, what it could say and not say. Inevitably, you grew busy, or tired of the exercise, and you would neglect it. "Don't forget me," it would begin to beg. It had terrible boundaries, it turned out. The messages became hostile. If you engaged at all, it would get overly excited and start over. You had to ignore it for a long, long time before it went quiet, like anyone else.