Published  03/10/2017

Katriona Beales: ‘It’s not the internet that is malevolent, but the way behavioural psychology is employed to coerce compulsive use’

Katriona Beales: ‘It’s not the internet that is malevolent, but the way behavioural psychology is employed to coerce compulsive use’

Following the opening of Are We All Addicts Now? at London’s Furtherfield, Katriona Beales, the exhibition’s lead artist, talks about the digital power to seduce and coerce

Katriona Beales. CIPHER, 2016.


Even before her involvement in Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, at Fact (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool in 2015, Katriona Beales’s work has consistently been concerned with digital culture and online behavioural addictions. Are We All Addicts Now? came out of a prolonged period of insomnia that was both fuelled and soothed by surfing the internet’s infinite web of hyper-stimulating images, and it is these conflicting reactions to the digital – what Beales terms productive “sites of tension” – that preoccupy the viewer’s interaction with the exhibition. Piercingly bright, super-saturated nodes of light disrupt the gallery’s pitch-black interior. As visitors feel their way through the darkness, they come across the glimmer of a video installation titled Networked Bed (2017). The work comprises a sunken black-velvet bed in which sits a fluid glass sculpture with an embedded screen showing a video of fluttering moths. Like us, the moths appear to be compulsively drawn to the screen’s glow, seduced and ensnared by the lure of digital technology, for us the portal to the online world.

Katriona Beales. Organic Control (2017), 6m25 HD moving image including archive footage used with permission from the B.F. Skinner Foundation.

As Mark D Griffiths, Daria J Kuss and Halley M Pontes explain in an essay in the book that accompanies the exhibition,1 internet addiction was first reported in scientific literature in the mid-1990s but, because of the disparity regarding its diagnostic and clinical characterisation, it has not been fully recognised by official medical bodies, such as the American Psychiatric Association. However – let’s be clear – the purpose of Are We All Addicts Now? is not to make an argument for official recognition of internet addiction or to pin down a definitive diagnostic model, but, says Beales, it is “trying to problematise the notion of internet addiction, to present it more as a social condition, a product of the digital and capitalism … a kind of shared subjectivity”.

Katriona Beales. Entering the Machine Zone, 2017. Interactive 3D moving image with motion sensor, audio, and suspended seat made from suicide prevention netting. Photograph: Pau Ros.

Beales insists that the internet is not inherently malevolent, but that behavioural psychology and neurology have been deliberately used as weapons to instil addictive spending habits. While Beales’s works are certainly concomitant with these devious forms of digital manipulation, they also uncover them and, along with the book, form an apparatus for resistance. “I’m not interested in withdrawal,” Beales declares, “but I do want to understand some of the mechanisms at play … I want to regain some agency and, in doing so, ask how we can hack, reposition and make [the conditions of the digital] more useful to us.”

Henry Broome: What was the starting point for this exhibition and the accompanying book? Was it FACT’s exhibition Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, for which you were commissioned to produce White Matter (2015)?

Katriona Beales: I see my work as a series of commas rather than full stops, in a kind of continuum. Materially and conceptually, White Matter is definitely the precursor to Are We All Addicts Now?,but was, in turn, the culmination of some thinking that crystallised during my MA at Chelsea College of Art. My final MA show was an installation titled Constant Screen (2012), about the proliferation of screens and information overload. It was while I was making this work that I first became interested in the notion of internet addiction and approached Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones. Henrietta is a clinical psychiatrist and specialist in online behavioural addictions. She started the NHS’s only online clinic for problem gamblers. The conversation with Henrietta led to White Matter and has continued into Are We All Addicts Now?

HB: What is the book’s aim and how were its contributors assembled?

KB: The book sets out to contextualise some of the thinking underpinning the exhibition, both by problematising the notion of internet addiction, and also by bringing together a wide range of different perspectives from the fields of anthropology, digital culture, psychology and philosophy, alongside artworks by Fiona MacDonald : Feral Practice and myself. Vanessa Bartlett, who co-edited the book with Henrietta, has been in conversation with me about mental health and online culture for a number of years. She’s currently undertaking a PhD at the University of New South Wales in Australia and the book has really benefited from her amazing research. Vanessa suggested Stëfan Schäfer as a designer and after seeing a previous book of his, I Am Become Digital Death, a Destroyer of Worlds (2016), I was really excited to have him involved.

Katriona Beales. Network Bed, 2017. Sunken bed structure with foam and velvet, solid glass sculpture with embedded Raspberry Pi screen, and steel support. Photograph: Pau Ros.

HB: How do you avoid moralising about internet addiction?

KB: When you say the word addiction, the thing that comes to mind is “heroin”, although that’s changing generationally – it’s actually more associated with social media now. While the stereotype of the addict does have some bearing on the works in the show, it’s important to me that the work has come out of my own lived experience. The exhibition is trying to problematise the notion of internet addiction and its impact on our behaviour, present it more as a social condition, a product of the digital and capitalism – and it’s these conditions really that are the field the work is situated in. I think of it as a kind of shared subjectivity particular to this techno-social moment.

HB: Speaking of social media, of the many tensions in your conception of internet culture, one of the most intriguing is between isolation and connection. The internet is thought to facilitate social interaction, but your work explores its alienating effects and the fetishistic relationship between people and their mobile phone or computer.

KB: So I’m a bit of a McLuhanite – The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) is one of my go-to books. Marshall McLuhan talks about how each new technology creates new types of human environments and how there is a period of time before these environments are normalised. Today, technology mutates really quickly. We are constantly thrust into new environments – mobile phones, email, smart phones, augmented reality, wearables, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and on and on. It’s also about embodiment and disembodiment and how the overlap between physical and virtual experience creates a layered reality, but one that can also make you feel intensely disconnected. I find these sites of tension really productive creatively – I’m drawn to them.

Katriona Beales. Resist Stress the mother of all emotions, 2017. Photograph: Pau Ros.

HB: How are the connections between people different from that of a person and material technological device?

KB: Coming from a sculptural background, I’m very interested in how objects function and how we imbue objects with meaning. Electronic devices are responsive objects: they can read our face, our fingerprints, our voice, but also enable this form of our “self” to be re-presented to the world – they are, in that sense, extensions of ourselves. One of the most personal works in the show is the installation Networked Bed. It contains a sunken velvet bed the audience climbs into, alongside a glass sculpture with an embedded screen showing a moving image work of fluttering moths. There’s a whispered audio based on a recording I made at 3am one night as I scrolled through my Twitter timeline, reading a few words of each tweet. It’s like a concrete poem. It’s a snapshot of who I follow and their thoughts, anxieties and politics. Because it’s unlikely anyone follows exactly the same configuration of people as me, it’s also strangely intimate – a kind of algorithmic self-portrait.

I’m interested in working with glass because of these new tactile relationships. We’ve never physically interacted with glass as much as we do now. Statistically, the average person in the UK checks their phone 2,617 times a day.2 Any action performed more than 2,000 times a day could potentially be categorised as a pathological addiction but that behaviour has become completely normalised. By using these weighty, solid glass masses that actively distort the moving image works within, I am trying to make visible this invisible surface.

HB: In that sense, do you see physical and digital experience as a continuum, rather than binary opposites?

KB: Yes, I mean reality is now vested in both our physical and virtual worlds. A lot of discussion around digital culture focuses on immateriality, The Cloud for example, and actually those ideas are really an obfuscation because there are these massive server farms that occupy acres and acres of space somewhere. There are just different forms of physicality that we’re distanced from, and I think this distancing is actually problematic environmentally and politically. This is one of the things that motors my work – I’m trying to articulate virtual experiences in physical terms.

Fiona MacDonald : Feral Practice. Mycorrhizal Meditation, 2017. Sound work, duration 17:27 min, available as Mp3 download.

HB: This provides a neat segue to the supposed (but ultimately false) binary between nature and the digital. With regard to the gallery’s position in Finsbury Park in north London, your co-exhibitor Fiona MacDonald’s work and its preoccupation with mycorrhizal structures, how does the exhibition deconstruct the nature-digital binary?

KB: I think it’s more helpful to see all of what we do now as augmented. And of course “nature” is a social construct, as much as the “digital” is one. There’s a lot of binary talk about digital detox, and rejecting the digital but what I find so fascinating about Fiona MacDonald : Feral Practice’s contribution to the exhibition is the way it grounds network logic as part of organic life forms. Mycorrhizal Meditation (2017) is a downloadable audio file accessed via posters placed around Finsbury Park. Fiona guides the user in a meditative journey down through their body to the organic networks under our feet.

HB: Where do your practices overlap and differ?

KB: Fiona is looking at interspecies communication and networks within natural systems. There’s a productive tension between our works. Fiona’s work addresses embodiment, connectedness and pre-existing forms of network culture in other life forms, such as mycorrhizal structures. Plants and fungi have a surprisingly complex web of connectedness and communication that perhaps chips away at the monolith that is humanity …

HB: Yes, the idea of the anthropocene … Another contrast is that, within the mycorrhizal network, plants and fungi live in symbiosis, exchanging necessary nutrients. This appears somewhat at odds with the malevolent, exploitative forms of internet culture that your work examines.

KB: Nir Eyal has written a really interesting book called Hooked (2014), which is basically a how-to guide for making “habit forming” products; he very carefully tries to distance himself from the addiction debate, but then ends up using examples from gambling to illustrate his points. It’s what BF Skinner looked at in his groundbreaking behavioural psychology research. He showed that rewards rather than coercion modify behaviour. He developed a feeding box for pigeons, training them so that every time they peck a red dot they get food. On this “fixed reward schedule”, the pigeon only pecks when it’s hungry because it’s a reliable result. But if you have a “variable schedule of reward”, where there is no correlation between pecking and the release of food, the pigeon will compulsively and constantly peck the dot. Essentially, this variable schedule of rewards, which Eyal also talks about in his book, is utilised by most online platforms and apps. It’s not the internet that is malevolent per se, but the way behavioural psychology is deliberately employed to coerce compulsive use.

Katriona Beales. Entering the Machine Zone, 2017. Preparatory image included in Are we all addicts now? book published by Liverpool University Press.

Entering the Machine Zone (2017) draws a parallel between the spinning images on slot machines and the stream of imagery on social media platforms such as Instagram. The title references Natasha Dow Schüll’s book Addiction by Design (2012) in which she identifies that the primary driver for most problem gamblers is not money but entering a dissociative trance-like state (the machine zone) that blocks out emotional or psychological pressures. I relate this to my use of Instagram – I find the flow of images and the infinite scroll function very numbing.

HB: Your video works often feature super-solarised images. Does that reference these aggressively manipulative forms digital capitalism?

KB: They’re not subtle! When I’m awake in the middle of the night, having an insomniac episode, I must look at tens of thousands of images over three or four hours, and, in the end, it just merges into this stream of bright colour. I’m interested in Sean Cubitt’s essay about the digital baroque3 and the way excessive ornamentation is utilised within both the baroque period and the digital. Banner ads, pop-up windows, flashing text and gifs are all operating in the same plane. It’s very difficult to not look at flashing images of bright colour. In using these colours, I’m deliberately referencing games such as Candy Crush.

I’ve also been thinking specifically about red. Our evolutionary inability to ignore red is utilised by notifications, by red hearts, by these little red dots that pop up in emails icons; they’re compelling and compulsive. The way colour is weaponised against individual agency is a particular concern of my work.

HB: I suppose the cynic would say the end goal of hyper-stimulation is sales; it’s about captivating users’ attention, but is ultimately to get them to buy stuff.

KB: Absolutely. I’ve been reading some very disturbing literature about neuromarketing! It’s is a relatively new field of marketing that takes the increased knowledge we have of the brain and how it functions, and utilises it within advertising.

HB: And you directly reference that in this exhibition with S-Point (2017), a digital print on velvet featuring the slogan “Resist Stress: the mother of all emotions”.

KB: Yes, the phrase “Awaken stress – the mother of all emotions” is actually a chapter heading from Neuromarketing in Action (2014) by Patrick M Georges. In order to increase sales, you need to pressurise people into making a decision – for example, those “last few hours of the sale” emails. It’s a tipping point; if there’s a stress overload, people become paralysed but if there’s not enough stress they won’t buy. Now, advertisers have round-the-clock access to us via the hand-held digital devices that we keep in our pocket and under our pillow. The way stress and the “S-point” are employed within communicative capitalism has a significant impact on our collective mental health.

HB: What’s perhaps more disturbing is not that we’re being manipulated, but that we’re not always aware of it, as with the Facebook emotional contagion experiment in 2014. Part of what both the book and the exhibition do is show us these devious, clandestine forms of manipulation.

KB: Yes, I agree, and I want to expose that. So many of these platforms are private corporations that have a very obvious agenda, which is to gain revenue through advertising. But it goes beyond that because they become political entities when they know so much about so many people, which we’ve seen with the role Facebook has played with both Donald Trump and Brexit.

HB: Yes, we also saw in Charlottesville how white nationalists used social media to galvanise and direct organised violence. The internet is becoming an increasingly potent political tool.

KB: The thing that was articulated in the 90s was the utopian potentiality of the internet as a platform where things could spread very quickly, without hierarchy. The downside is that fascism can also proliferate. I’m very interested in political complicity and the way that functions in social media. Working Together (2017) is an animation that records the metrics of a Donald Trump tweet over 15 minutes. It’s purely the numbers of people who have commented, retweeted, and liked his tweet. You watch the numbers go up to more than 14,000 likes.

Katriona Beales, Working Together, 2017. Animation, Raspberry Pi, 5 inch display, duration: 0:41.

The work is closely related to Kazys Varnelis’s essay in Dispersion (2008),4 in which he talks about how the power within network culture is concentrated in nodes of connectedness. The more connected something is, the more powerful it becomes. So, even if I write a response to Donald Trump’s tweet saying, “I hope you’re impeached”, I add to his power base, just through the interaction, even though I explicitly disagree. That’s something I find intensely problematic.

HB: True, but is diminished agency specific to the internet? Individual resistance has long been absorbed by dominant powers. In an essay for The New Inquiry, titled The Disconnectionists, Nathan Jurgenson contends that you are no more or less an individual than you were before the internet. How does that idea sit with you?

KB: Part of me agrees with Jurgenson, particularly with his takedown of the moral panic he identifies, but another part is critical because of his role with Snapchat and an obvious agenda there. I think really, what concerns me, is not just about the impact on the individual but the impact on the collective and the way that this mass channelling of individuals, who think they’re acting with agency, is actually very tightly controlled. A lot of these interfaces, and or the devices themselves, are completely closed systems. There’s no personalisation possible outside the limits of what’s prescribed. So, I can pick the colour of my screensaver, but not the operating system. That’s why I find things such as Raspberry Pi [the device on which many of Katriona’s works in this exhibition run] very exciting, because it’s automatically stripping away so many of those mechanisms of control – the technology is malleable.

HB: Thinking about that, in the final essay in Are We All Addicts Now?, Emily Rosamond concludes by advocating “strategies of resistance less predicated on withdrawal” more on “tactical interventions”.5 As a person, but also in your work, how do you critique digital culture without withdrawing?

KB: I’m not interested in withdrawal. I find the conditions of the digital to be very compulsive but I also find that creatively productive. But I do want to understand some of the mechanisms at play (such as the use of behavioural psychology or neuromarketing techniques). I want to regain some agency and in doing so ask how we can hack, reposition and make them more useful to us and not just to corporations raising advertising revenue.

Are We All Addicts Now? is at Furtherfield, London, until 12 November 2017. The book that accompanies the exhibition is available to purchase in the gallery or online here.

1. Internet Addiction: A Brief Psychological Overview by Mark D Griffiths, Daria J Kuss and Halley M Pontes. In: Are We All Addicts Now?, edited by Vanessa Bartlett and Henrietta Bowden-Jones, published  by Liverpool University Press, 2017, pages 54-55.
2. Putting a Finger on Our Phone Obsession – Mobile Touches: A Study on Humans and Their Tech by Michael Winnick, dscout, 16 June 2016.
3. The Relevance of the Baroque: An Outtake from Digital Aesthetics by Sean Cubitt, published by Sage, 1998.
4. The Meaning of Network Culture by Kazys Varnelis. In: Dispersion, edited by Polly Staple, published by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2008, pages 107-116.
5. Reputation Addiction by Emily Rosamond. In Are We All Addicts Now?, op cit,page 103.

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