Alison Nguyen: my favorite software is being here

December 9th 2020

Alison Nguyen’s exploration of the virtual void, Andra8: my favorite software is being here, is currently on view as an 18-minute video installation at the International Studio & Curatorial Program, part of its ‘The earth is blue like an orange,’ and available to view by appointment through December 11. It’s strange enough experiencing the digital realm as physical installation, but doubly so during an extended period of isolation when even the quietest IRL interaction feels hyperreal. Fortunately this just amplifies the work’s humor and ideas.

Though voiced by and based on Nguyen, digital lackey Andra8’s existence is circumscribed by presets. From body design approximated with software whose limited options outline programmers’ blind spots (a problem explored in-depth in Sondra Perry’s "Graft and Ash For A Three-Monitor Workstation"), to communication plucked from an AI fed B-tier social media influencer posts, to her free-floating apartment filled with 3D renders uploaded by users, Andra8’s dependence on others’ content to exist goes deeper than the ‘data shakes’ she sips to survive. And even with the limitations, Andra8’s existence is guided by Nguyen picking and choosing from the limited pool. Curation: it might be the only job of future media; sorting signal-to-noise in increasingly staticky digital spheres quickly becoming echo chambers of others doing the same.

Originally focused on exploring the non-content language-soup of social media (with help from programmer/researcher Achim Koh), this iteration of Andra8’s existence is more narrative, with an actual identity growing from influencer primordial data. Subsisting on shakes supplied by subscribers, performing menial tasks trapped in a setting as much to project out as live in, and constantly self-promoting in companionate couching, Andra8’s situation will feel familiar to those reliant on and resentful of the gig economy we’re trapped in.

A personal brand is neither narrative, story, nor character, though many try to build these elements into one. Watching Andra8 try and flail at crafting her own is part of the narrative, but it illuminates the flipside: when everything’s reduced to quantifiable metrics, what happens outside those metrics? Does it even matter? We get to see — the less Instagram-able room in Andra8’s apartment, where she performs mundane data-scrubbing, is a dark back room heaped with junk (uncurated/unpresented objects = junk). Turning a high-volume digital process into an undervalued physical task nicely showcases the general unawareness of all the IRL infrastructure, including human labor, required to make our online personas possible. (I’d here like to laud the technical direction and cinematography of Nguyen collaborator Jon Beilin.)

We’re constantly surveilling Andra8, but it’s hard to feel voyeuristic when her existence and livelihood depend on our attention. It just feels scummy, like a professor sleeping with a willing student. Life is precarious if you’re not being digitally noted, but that’s only a problem if, as Andra8, your entire identity relies on being seen. My favorite software ends more hopeful than other versions of Andra8’s existence, but that’s due to narrative arc more than actual hope. If you’re ok ‘not existing’ outside the markers of digital popularity perhaps, like Andra8, you might step through to the glorious, wider (maybe even analog) world.