Programmable Life: Artist Ryan Kuo in Conversation
Artist Ryan Kuo created Puzzle, an M+ digital commission that draws references from video games and rebuilds conversations from his personal history. In this interview, Kate Gu, M+ Producer, Digital Special Projects, and guest curator Kerry Doran speak with Kuo to explore the thinking and process behind Puzzle, and his practice of invoking complex systems in real life and the digital.
Kerry Doran: Your work has always been informed by personal experiences, however obliquely. We see this in Family Maker (2017–2018), a Mac application that helps the user navigate family dynamics; Faith (2019), a white supremacist chatbot; The Pointer (2018), a group of software works that emulate whiteness; and Hateful Little Thing (2021), a web-based work that overtakes its host and itself through performative politics of institutional inclusion. These threads come together in Puzzle, which is your most explicitly personal work. What motivated you to incorporate more autobiography?
Ryan Kuo: I think of autobiography as a dial that I turn up or down to adjust the level of transparency or opacity that I bring to an encounter. In the earlier projects that you named, my approach was deliberately oblique. I displaced my position behind software interactions that likely present as cold or technical. My position is sometimes conflated with that of the unemotional object, which can be a racialised perception.
This racialised perception, of a calculating Asian male, is a sort of learned automation that I want to present as such. My real interests are therefore outside of software. In each of these earlier works, I wanted to foreground what a given relation, situation, or institution was doing to train the user, and most importantly, what I felt it was doing to me.
Puzzle is more complex, as it addresses multiple channels of these automations, how they each manifest in breakdowns of language, and how these intersect on a single body over time. I know these as ruminative loops that have coursed through my body for decades without resolution.
In 2020, I had a triggering episode that strained me so much that I was finally prepared to show what the loops had been doing to me all this time. In order to transpose them clearly onto the screen, I had to let my guard down, or have it broken down. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought autobiography into my work, as you’ve mentioned. But I composed Puzzle in a heightened state of transparency, although of course parts have been amended or redacted.
Doran: Language, (mis)translation, and (mis)understanding are central to Puzzle. How did conversations from your life inform the dialogue in the work?
Kuo: Many of the dialogues are (mis)quoted directly from memory, but others only ever happened in my mind. All were written from a bilingual mindset, with valuable help from Zhong Yuling, the editor at M+. For me, each dialogue is already broken, as I lost fluency in my mother tongue very early on. Like many immigrants, my family and I communicate across more than one language. This is why the displayed text is a combination of Chinese and English, no matter which language is selected.
In either case, the language is not complex. More meaningful than what the words signify is how their intentions move against or past each other, and get caught up in ever-tightening knots or completely bypass mutual understanding. The feelings in that sense are more complex and vividly recalled, and they necessarily exceed syntax. This work wants to communicate the feelings that remain after language is gone.
Kate Gu: Compared to Family Maker, which also explores family relationships, Puzzle more specifically draws on conversations from your past experiences. Moving from Family Maker to Puzzle, have you discovered something new about yourself and your family?
Kuo: These two works are distinct for me. I can never share Family Maker with my family, whereas I made Puzzle intending to do so. Family Maker is a resolutely English-language work, in its text as well as its mentality, which knowingly plays on notions of trauma, individuation, and the father as I’ve learned to grasp them through psychotherapy. It’s important to me that Family Maker is not biographical, because when I bring my own family into its frame, the interpretation it provides is somehow alienating in its solipsism. The work is made for an armchair in a closed room.
As I mentioned, Puzzle sits at the intersection of multiple frames of understanding that don’t fit together. The emergent conflicts are often lazily described, in nationalistic terms, as interactions between opposing cultures. In the United States, it’s a cliché that a diasporic subject spends a lifetime trying to resolve this opposition. I’ve opted out of this, and prefer to show the failures of such totalising measures. When I finally shared the work with my parents, my father immediately understood that the conflicts in the work, and my act of depicting them, were an expression of their love. This has helped me reframe my activity during the past twenty years. I was very surprised that my father was the one to put words to it.
Gu: You describe yourself as a gamer and were previously a video game journalist. In Puzzle, you incorporated many video game elements. Can you talk about the specific materials and references?
Kuo: The reference point is early role-playing games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, which I haven’t really played but find visually memorable. The graphic tiles are drawn according to a system called Wang tiles developed in 1961 by Hao Wang, a Chinese American mathematician. This system is often used in RPGs to seamlessly draw environments that appear organic. They imply a coherent world that you experience as an avatar in a single position and at a single point in time. The web programmer I worked with on this project, Tommy Martinez, developed an algorithm that instructs a browser to place Wang tiles one by one in endless unique layouts. Puzzle uses this algorithm to layer multiple maps of Wang tiles like a stack, with each map representing a different theme and depicting a certain timeframe.
The dialogue boxes below the main window also quote role-playing games. In those games, a player learns about important events through dialogue, which is typed onto the screen one character at a time. I wanted each line of text in Puzzle to feel like a significant event. While the Wang tiles vertically accumulate, the dialogues run back and forth in a fruitless loop. This portrays a kind of history of feeling stuck.
Gu: Puzzle keeps bringing up the word ‘programme’ for me. Not only because it’s on a generative programme that determines and changes the course of the narrative, but also because the conversations provoke thinking about the extent to which one’s life is programmed by the past. It generates a feeling of being trapped in the digital mechanism and haunted by personal history. There is a connection between the logic of digital technology and real life. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Kuo: I was raised to feel that every choice I make today will have direct implications for my family in the future. I may be mistaken, but this is how I’ve internalised the concept of 孝順 (filial piety) and modern Confucianism. I don’t feel that my decisions are entirely my own, because they are already part of a decision-making system that goes beyond me and my family. I feel that a part of my future is foreclosed, which is why Puzzle addresses a death in the family that hasn’t yet occurred.
In the West, we assume that we act, or aspire to act, out of individual agency. This is true whether we are compliant users of digital systems or harshly criticise those systems. An uncritical stance mistakes routine usage for self-empowerment, and a critical stance imagines that one stands apart from a system, and exposes the system like an artefact lit on a pedestal.
I say this not to disavow the critical impulse, since I obviously have one and am helplessly a product of the West, but precisely because people have described my interest in technology as a critical one. To me this feels like only part of the picture. It’s self-defeating to believe that one is ever isolated from the other, because this is the same belief being sold by the present data regimes that construct each person as an atomic user within a system, with the outcome being that we’re easier to manage.
I don’t pretend to escape this trap, and I find it more realistic to work as though my position is already drawn for me. You told me that you found Puzzle chaotic and confusing, but eventually found meaning in its endless waves—this is what I wanted to convey.
Doran: The lack of interactivity in Puzzle may be surprising, or even frustrating, to some. Could you speak about that choice?
Kuo: I think the expectation of interactivity is a problem, as it’s difficult to implement clicking and scrolling in a way that isn’t already afflicted by Western principles of game and UX design. If I had provided interactivity here, the work would have simply teased a sense of agency and then taken it away. This feels like painting with crayons. It’s more meaningful to me to challenge an audience to accept that the work behaves as it does. Having to provide input feels more constrictive than being free to observe a process.
I’m also aware that the everyday web experience is a formless one, and that opening a new browser window to a dimension that scrolls infinitely and aimlessly may feel redundant. That’s why I customised Tommy’s script to give the programme a distinctive pace and rhythm, like an intangible outline. But Puzzle isn’t about the internet, and it could easily be displayed in a room. It just happens to run in a web browser.
Doran: Oppression can be violent, of course, but it is often insidiously banal. Avery Gordon discusses the various manifestations of power relations—invisible, fantastic, routine—in her Ghostly Matters. She writes: ‘We can and must call it [power] by recognizable names, but so too we need to remember that power arrives in forms that can range from blatant white supremacy and state terror to “furniture without memories”’, invoking Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. For Gordon, furniture without memories becomes a metaphor to describe power structures ‘whose existence we navigate daily without questioning it’. She refers to ‘the chair we sit in, that shapes our posture, whose structure guides what we see and how comfortable we feel’. I think this can be applicable to interfaces, or quite literally to the bland, homogeneous office furniture in The Pointer. How do you think about the relationship between banality and power in your work?
Kuo: I work as a technical writer by day, and my job is to optimise sentences until no gap exists between how an abstract system is used and why someone is using it. A product interface vanishes into cause and effect, at once projecting power and disappearing any inkling of a problem.
My artwork takes this up as its first problem: the need for there not to be a problem, which is imposed not only at the systems level but also by seemingly uncontroversial statements like ‘We must remain calm and rational’. What’s fun about working with systems is that they are so focused on contriving a certain experience that they leave new forms of erasures by the wayside. These provide novel analogies for power structures like furniture without memories.
I picture them as holes sealed within a frame, which evokes a double negation. An example would be the way that non-fungible tokens imply that a real object exists by virtually moving a number from one internet ‘location’ to another. In this case, the only trace of the object is a hole, an imaginary distance that is closed by the value of the transfer. Another example is how censorship can be accomplished in a database table. Rather than erasing a record of an inconvenient fact, one can simply choose not to display the record on the screen. This is a way of deferring a problem without technically destroying history. But it erases one’s own role in extending the problem into the future. In this case, the hole is closed by the lack of apparent conflict, an absence that has a material consequence.
Gu: I could see Puzzle as a digital body of yourself exposed to love and violence. It’s performative each time the work is enacted, as the digital self experiences a different sequence of life events. How do you relate to this digital body in constant flux and confusion?
Kuo: Puzzle is about how a single body tries to maintain harmony. The body learns to self-regulate its impulses, and it routinely erases itself. I’ve drawn this work as a body that is full of holes. But to be clear, the body isn’t entirely mine; it extends to my family and to anyone who understands where I’m coming from.
Gu: You are very analytical, and your works are layered, evoking complex systems, frames, and emotions. How do you map out the relations and think through the nuances? And what does your sketchbook for Puzzle look like?
Kuo: Composing the work is much simpler than analysing it afterward. I start with a handful of themes and draw connections between them. These become branching sequences that the programme will follow. I rely on the programme to make the effect more complex and surprising, since it chooses the branches semi-randomly.
I drew the Wang tiles in a 16 x 16 square grid. Here are some of the different sets layered together, prior to being deconstructed by the programme. I think this stack expresses some of what we’ve discussed in this interview.
Interested in understanding more about Puzzle? Start exploring the artwork.
Ryan Kuo’s Puzzle is part of a series of M+ digital commissions exploring online creative practices that sit at the intersection of visual culture and technology.
Kerry Doran is one of the external advisors on the curatorial board for M+ Digital Commissions. They are also a PhD Student in Art History at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and an independent curator. They specialise in modern and contemporary art of the Americas, and their doctoral research traces a decolonial genealogy of technological art, culture, and resistance throughout the hemisphere. Prior to doctoral study, Doran was the director of Postmasters and bitforms, respectively, and on the founding team of New Inc, the New Museum’s incubator for art, design, and technology. Their writing and curatorial projects have been featured in publications including Affidavit, Artforum, ARTnews, BOMB, Clarín, Flash Art, Modern Painters, New York Magazine, the New York Times, Página/12, Rhizome, and The Village Voice.
Kate Gu is Producer, Digital Special Projects at M+.
Ryan Kuo is an artist and writer based in New York City. His work often uses digital systems and sequences to invoke a person or people arguing. Projects have been commissioned and shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art (NYC), Queens Museum (NYC), bitforms gallery (NYC), TRANSFER (LA), Stroom Den Haag (The Hague), Goethe-Institut China (Beijing), Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), Goldsmiths (London), Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (Cambridge), and MIT Media Lab (Cambridge), and have been published in Artforum, Art in America, BOMB, and Rhizome. He was born in Elkins, West Virginia, and holds a Master of Science in Art, Culture and Technology from MIT.