How Lauren Lee McCarthy's "Testing" Urges Double-Takes

Flyer announcing Lauren Lee McCarthy's artist lecture and screening of *Testing* at the University of Maryland, College Park

This flyer caught my eye on the way to class last week. Since starting UR LOCAL CYBORG, I haven't had as much a chance to get out into the city, so I've been keeping an eye out for things I can attend closer to campus, or to my home, both on the outer ends of the Metrorail. But the name "Lauren Lee McCarthy" pulled me in—it felt familiar. If I'd read the flyer a bit more closely before snapping the picture, I'd know why. She created p5.js.

Professor Lauren Lee McCarthy lectures at UCLA and embodies performance art about living within algorithms. I marked my calendar with the time and place of her lecture but on the day of, received an email saying that the lecture had been canceled. At around 6PM I popped my head into ASY2203 just to confirm, and sure enough, there was some club doing their general body meeting. I always hated those things. I moped about for a few minutes outside of the lecture hall, trying to decide how to spend my evening, when some girl scurried in asking where ASY2203 was. "In there," I said, gesturing towards the door I'd just drearily shut. "But if you're looking for the artist's lecture, it's been canceled."

The girl looked much more put-together than myself, and especially my freshman self, who was still trying their darndest to enjoy social clubs with treasurers and lecture hall GBMs. Bless her heart. She was there for the GBM.

It was still light outside, and I thought sundown would be a better ambiance for the outdoor video screening, so I spent an hour at the poetry club open mic that I thought I wouldn't make it to. I wish I'd prepared a poem, but I haven't been writing poetry lately. It was Halloween-themed. I pocketed some candy and had a good time.

Photo of "Testing" with text "...BRIGHTER THAN YOU SHOULD BE?" displayed on the installation, which is projected onto a large brick wall outdoors.

When I returned to the Clarvit Courtyard—an elevated outdoor space surrounded by the brick of the Art-Sociology Building, and overlooking the parking lot behind the athletic facilities—it was dark. Lauren Lee McCarthy's video installation Testing lit up a two-story high wall, projected from a window on the third floor. Two students sat chatting at one of the Courtyard's tables. There was no other sound.

The first thing I noticed about the installation was the big block text: it scrolled against a white background inside the outline of an application window. The premise was simple: a question or command came into, then out of view, replaced by another in a few seconds. After a couple of minutes observing, you would realize that the phrases sometimes repeated themselves in structure.

We covered this genre briefly in my introductory digital storytelling class, reviewing work like Forever Gwen Brooks and Voyage of Owl and Girl and tools like Multiverse.js that shuffle selected words and phrases to fit into a pre-programmed grammar. Imagine cutting up selections of text—the corpus—and throwing them into a hat. Then imagine pulling strips from the hat and placing them into a template—the grammar. The result is sometimes striking and sometimes nonsensical, sometimes strikingly nonsensical, leaving you scrambling to take a screenshot or scribble down the bizarre combination that surfaced as one out of multitudes.

Here are a few from Testing that I wrote down:

Testing reminded me of a thread I'd seen on Yoko Ono's Grapefruit and the joy of generative text. Grapefruit similarly notates instructions for conceptual pieces that are both subversive and absurd (see my favorites: CUT PIECE and PAINTING TO BE WORN). Dr. Kate Compton (a.k.a. GalaxyKate, the creator of Tracery) argued that it is Yoko's masterful juxtaposition that makes her "instructions" so compelling, and the same applies to generative text. See the below analysis of texts generated by Twitter bots:

Lets look at this @LostTesla tweet:
Its telling a story (accidentally). There are sense words (rubs, wet) that are pleasurable to imagine.

When you put together the story (it hit a deer) you reread the tweet and see it differently (like the Sixth Sense)https://t.co/PvbgkQd6nh

— Dr Kate Compton puts a hex on you: #B00000 (@GalaxyKate) May 23, 2018

Conversely, if its too opaque or unintuitive or dissociated from experience to imagine, its not fun either.

You want the user to see something normal, in a new way that recontextualizes it, that builds an unexpected yet readable story.

— Dr Kate Compton puts a hex on you: #B00000 (@GalaxyKate) May 23, 2018

When combining two concepts, there is a magical space in between being too incoherent and too predictable, and Yoko plays with this space to create prompts that are subversive and whimsical. When creating generative texts, it is easy to create a corpus so wide-reaching that when you shuffle this corpus, the resulting text is too detached to be interesting. But if you narrow down this corpus, curate the concepts you are placing beside each other, you can challenge the reader to bridge these concepts with their own imagination. In Testing, McCarthy challenges us to examine our consciousness, to do a double-take on our reality.

And many times, I did do a double-take because I wasn't fully present. I was thinking about my blog, jotting down notes and snatching glimpses of the installation in-between. And sometimes, I would look up and find the text in a slightly different color, or the font slightly blurrier, than I remembered seeing just a second ago. If my eyes stayed on the screen the whole time, I would have caught the transition. There was a smooth fade from green to red; at times the text eased in and out of focus like a digital camera still figuring itself out. But when I took in the installation in discrete snapshots, my attention jumping from my notes to the screen, the difference in style was stark. My brain attempted to justify the change: maybe you misremembered. Maybe the words were blurry the whole time.

I don't know if it's a result of the Internet, and my constant drifting between this flat blue-lit world and physical space, but I space out constantly. I carry myself across campus on autopilot. Testing, I believe, was a commentary on how our devices muddy what we consider to be real. Are our followers real? Our Internet friends? Is the caption of this Instagram infographic true? With everything recorded, how can we live in the present? It was fitting, then, to be gaslit by this art piece. Was it just because I was multitasking, or was Testing designed to gaslight me?

Too bad I couldn't ask the artist. I hope Lauren Lee McCarthy comes back to the DMV someday; I would have loved to hear the lecture.

Photo of the sign for the Clarvit Courtyard at the University of Maryland

Testing screened at the University of Maryland's Clarvit Courtyard from October 22–29, 2023. More information about the screening can be found here. Admission: free. View more works by Lauren Lee McCarthy here.

#1000-1500 words #ephemeral #generative #installation art #umd