Lauren Lee McCarthy showed Surrogate during the pandemic at Sundance 2022 as an experimental web documentary and immersive performance. Here’s the synopsis: “To become a surrogate. I offer my body to carry someone else’s baby while they use an app to monitor and control me for nine months… As Roe v. Wade is overturned and gene editing opens entirely new reproductive futures, this project asks: How much control should we have over a birthing person’s body, and over a life before it’s born? What does kin mean when rapidly developing reproductive technologies—including IVF, egg and sperm donation, embryo freezing, DNA testing, and gene editing—shift our relationships? What happens when our industrialized drive for control collides with the process of birth?”
I interviewed McCarthy after the virtual Sundance screening of Surrogate in 2022 where we talked about her explorations of agency and surrender, and her history of other projects that blend the lines between virtual and physical. The medium of a web doc enabled McCarthy to break up her fragmented two-year journey of following these ideas to their logical extreme, to reflect upon the narrative themes that emerged, and then create an interactive live performance of a womb walk where she addresses the audience who virtually embody her unborn child as she walks through LA. The relationship between technology and humanity is a persistent theme in all of McCarthy’s work, and this piece dives deep into the technologies involved in reproduction and is also a deeply personal journey exploring the potential of becoming a surrogate and the pushes the limits of control and agency in a speculative thought experiment that is documented across different media and represented through the format of an experimental web documentary.
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[00:00:05.412] Lauren Lee McCarthy: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So continuing on my series of looking at a number of different XR artists across time, the last pair that I have is with Lauren Lee McCarthy, who did a piece at Sundance in 2022 called Surrogate, and then came back to Ifadoc Lab for a piece called Voice in My Head. So in both these pieces, Lauren likes to play with the boundaries of reality and start to play with what's real, what's these kind of virtual contrived performance art type of situations. And so in the past, she has done these types of experiences where she role plays as Amazon Alexa with certain families where they have installed all these cameras. And so she's observing them essentially 24-7. And if there's a certain ask that these people ask her to do, then she would do them. And this piece called Surrogate, she really got obsessed with this idea of what it would be like to be a surrogate mother for someone's baby. So she goes through this whole process of asking different people what it would be like for her to carry their baby, and then what if she created an app where they're able to control all of her different behaviors. And so she was using this as a thought experiment because she's, Lot of ways surrendering her agency and her control over the autonomy of her body With having a baby and then how far could she take that in an immersive performative art way? So she did all these different explorations and filling all these forms and went through the whole process of applying to become a surrogate. And she ended up translating all that into a web documentary that was showing at Sunday's New Frontier in 2022, where you got to see the progression of each of the chapters as she goes on this journey for two years, as she's exploring this idea of what it would mean to be a surrogate. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Lauren happened on Sunday, January 23rd, 2022, during the Sundance Film Festival that was happening virtually. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:20.252] Kent Bye: I'm Lauren Lee McCarthy and I'm an artist and I make a range of things, but I'm usually thinking about it first in terms of performance, but then there's often elements of software and film and installation. And I think the general theme is I'm thinking about what it is to be a person right now in the way that technology kind of mediates a lot of our relationships and interactions.
[00:02:47.634] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Great. Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into being an artist in this space in this way.
[00:02:54.960] Kent Bye: Sure. I guess I originally, I studied computer science and art. And so it's, I guess, fairly straightforward, just trying to like put those together and discovering like a realm of people working across both those mediums. yeah, I think it really started when I was studying computer science and feeling like the focus was so technical, so much on like what you could do and not a lot of thinking about like why we were doing it. And so I really ended up turning to art to kind of understand like, what is it that we're building and why? And I think my art practice kind of developed out of those questions.
[00:03:32.617] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Okay. Yeah. And last year we chatted about beyond the breakdown, uh, in some web technologies and this year you're also using some web technologies, but maybe you could just generally describe what the surrogate project is to you and how you explain it to other folks as to what this project is all about.
[00:03:51.985] Kent Bye: Yeah, I can try. I'm still figuring out how to, what it is to me and not to explain it. I think the surrogate project started with this kind of strange idea. Well, it started, I think, you know, I'm 34. So it was questions of whether to have kids and what that means were really front of mind. Um, the project started with this kind of funny, strange, bizarre idea of being a surrogate and then creating this app where the parents of the baby that I'd be carrying would have 24 hour access to all my live bio data and an interface to control what I'm doing, what I'm eating, when I'm sleeping, all those sorts of decisions. And this was like a strange provocation for me and I didn't know what it meant. And so the project is really the process of, I guess I thought that's sort of a crazy idea, but it was an idea that wouldn't leave me. And so the project is really the process of like trying to find a way out, you know, through that and realize it in any way that I could, or try and understand like what that desire is about and get to the bottom of that. So the piece is a, right now it's in the form of sort of like a web documentary. It plays out in your browser. And I was kind of thinking of this idea of like, you know, so much of the piece unfolded over the last a couple of years with the pandemic. So I'm like sitting at my computer screen, having all these interactions and messages and zoom calls and it's all digital, you know, yet I'm thinking about something that's like so physical. So I was trying to create some of that experience for the viewer. So you're watching it and pieces of that media or those things, conversations that I was having are popping up and it has this kind of like animated feeling as if like things are popping up across your desktop.
[00:05:32.290] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah, I thought that actually worked quite well. And part of the reason why I wanted to chat with you is because of the using medium of a web documentary is something that in talking to the, if a doc lab, Casper's son, and just listening to the 15 year history of that. And also new frontier. I think if you go back to 2006 is when it began, a lot of those early pieces were web documentaries and then it moved more into immersive technologies. I guess over the last couple of years, there's been a couple of other web based projects, but most of it is in the immersive technology. And a lot of the focus that I have on my podcast is an immersive experiences and experiential storytelling. And so I felt that the experience of watching this piece was very interesting because there's a lot of moments where you're scanning through questionnaires and PDFs. And there was something about looking at that on my laptop rather than on my say TV screen. It's a different context for the way in which you're delivering it. So I thought that was interesting. I hadn't really experience that in a long time of a piece that was specifically made for the web. That's trying to evoke this journey that you went on. So yeah, maybe you could talk a bit about those forums and all the web native type of experiences that you're translating. And because theoretically you could have made this as a documentary that I watched on a screen, but I think it gave me as a viewer, a different experience by watching it through the lens of my laptop.
[00:06:57.117] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had similar questions as I was making it. I'm like, am I just being too extra about this? And this should just really be a film. But I guess I, this has been a really difficult piece for me to just find a way through it. And so even coming to this form, it still feels like it's in progress. Yeah. So it wasn't the kind of thing where it's like, Oh, I'm building that here's step one, two, three to get there. And so when I got to this idea of web browser based documentary, some of it was just practical working with code and working with the browsers is a place I feel like super comfortable. film is a little bit less comfortable. And definitely this project has like pushed me far outside of like anything that feels comfortable to be able to bring it back and say, well, like I know how to code this, but you know, I can kind of sit down and have a certain amount of fluency, but not just fluency and making it like, it helped me think through it. So it's like, what happened next? Well, this thing popped up and then this happened and these messages were popping in. And so to be able to kind of like animate some of that and put that together. it gave me like a language, I guess, to talk about it that felt very native to the browser, but like native to me in the way that I think I communicate and interact and think a lot of the time. And I guess the other thing it did was like, again, I can imagine a version of this, that the elements are like more produced. And with this one, I think because it was in the browser, I felt like I had a freedom to work with the quality of the media that you experienced there. And so we're looking at zoom videos, we're looking at PDFs, we're looking at, you know, screenshots or images from your phone. And I felt like something about the context of it happening in your browser kind of works. Whereas if you're seeing it on your screen, you might be kind of like, Oh, okay. You know? So it felt very natural to like use it as a space considering the media that I was working with.
[00:08:40.874] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah, I think that's spot on. And I think that translated well of my own experience of watching it. I think another affordance that I see a lot within watching videos online is you have the progress bar that tells you how far along you are and watching something. I haven't seen a lot of narratives that are explicating that within the context of like, here's the individual chapters. And I think That's something that's also kind of a web-based thing that I think works particularly well. Also at the very bottom, I noticed like kind of maybe a third of the way through that you were chronologically going through time and having the date as where we're at on the timeline. And so I'm not only watching what's happening in each chapter, but I'm also keeping an eye on what the date is and what the data is now to kind of see like, okay, where's the story going? So it actually created a little bit more narrative tension as to what was going to happen in the next dispatch that you have in these blocks. And so I thought that was also very interesting in terms of as a viewer watching it, that would be different than if you were to just edit it together without having that. There's something about communicating where you're at and the overall arc of the story that helps unpack how the story is unfolding in a weird way.
[00:09:47.814] Kent Bye: Yeah. And I think that's something that's special about the browser. When you're thinking about it, like, how is that different than just a screen? You always have these toolbars, you know, that are situating you and giving you some context, you know, in the corner of your screen, it's telling you the date or the time, or you're seeing the other tabs, like as a reference of what else you're thinking about. And as I was looking back through all the media that I accumulated over this project, that was something that I was noticing was like each screenshot was like a much bigger story than just the thing in the frame. You know, I'm seeing everything else that's on my desktop or everything else. It's all that additional information. And so, yeah, just trying to play with that or bring that into it. And I think there's also something I liked about this feeling of, I think sometimes when you're sitting at your computer, it's like, there's so much going on. It's easy to just like be watching something and not be watching it at all, you know, or scanning through things. So I kind of liked putting it in that context. Like this is a thing that could just like pass you by completely, you know, it could just play while you're looking at something else. But yet the subject matter is quite, intense, I think certain parts of it, at least sort of questions it brings up. So it was kind of a funny juxtaposition for me while I was experiencing it. You know, I'm like, I get off one zoom call with like the doctor or the intended parents. And then I get onto another zoom call with like some administrators from school or something for my job. So it's like that dissonance of having your context collapse, which I think is something we all have experienced a lot for the past couple of years. And I was trying to bring some of that feeling into it also.
[00:11:17.620] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah, I think another part that I thought was interesting, at least for the press preview that you had, you were doing these womb walks and that you talk about these womb walks in the context of the surrogate piece, where you essentially built a prosthetic that you could wear and walking around. And I had a chance to experience that as well, in terms of, you know, listening to you speak to me as an audience member, as this unborn child that would presumably be you caring for somebody else. And so that was in terms of experience and experiential design, quite a unique experience. I've never had a chance to have before. So I'm just curious as an artist, as you're thinking about this, I was struck by as watching it the second time. how you said that you wanted to have this experience of being this mother in this context. And so I'm just curious if you could unpack that a little bit more, you know, it's quite an evolved thing to kind of set up and to do, but as somebody who is oriented to this type of performance, what that was like for you to not only investigate this part of yourself, but to also explore the physical embodiment of it, and then also experience that within a performative context with other people.
[00:12:29.490] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. So just to give a little more context for the listeners, like, so the one more performance, basically you described a while. So I built these prosthetics and I'm wearing this prosthetic belly and walking around the city. And then it's a performance of one person at a time. So the viewer or the listener in this case logs on and they hear an audio feed and I'm basically describing everything I'm seeing. and thinking to the baby that's inside of me, the imaginary baby. And then the person that's listening takes that role of the baby. So they're listening. And then there's also an interface to click left or right. And that triggers these motors that deliver these kicks to the sides of my belly. And then I turn when I feel our left or right kick. So we're kind of navigating together. Yeah. And that performance, where did that come from? I guess so much of this project has been a little different for me. It's been trying to work more intuitive because of the original provocation, I think felt so impossible in some ways, even though I was like so driven to do it, then I felt like there wasn't like a clear path from A to B. So I had to kind of follow every impulse or way towards it that I could. And so I think when I was thinking about the prosthetics, it was like, I was having a tough time with all of it. And I was just like, man, this is feeling like so heavy. Like, I think my mom would just call me once a week and just tell me like, the reason you're struggling with this project is because you're not having a baby yourself, you know, and these are like things that are kind of like weighing on me. So then when I had this idea with the bellies, it just made me laugh. So that's often like when I even with that original idea of being the surrogate, it was like a funny idea to me. And so I'm always looking for those moments where Yes, I'm talking about these larger questions or I'm doing some kind of like personal searching, but I'm looking for the things where there's also something that just makes me laugh. And there's just a certain amount of absurdity in it. And I love getting to do these performances and kind of like buy into that absurdity for a little bit of time with someone else. Feels like a different kind of intimacy or connection, I guess.
[00:14:24.484] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah, I think the first time I watched your web documentary, I hadn't gone through the experience myself. And so upon watching it the second time, I realized that you had already done a number of these different womb walks earlier. And so maybe take me back to the first time you started to do those womb walks. And if you invited either strangers or some of your friends to go participate in this experience with you.
[00:14:44.588] Kent Bye: Yeah. Some of the first ones were just tests with friends. And I think something that I was thinking about a lot as it was coming up was just like in my head, I would kind of collapse the idea of this imaginary baby and whoever's listening. And like, they became one person in my mind that I'm talking to. And so with each person I did it with, it was sort of different. It was definitely different when I knew the person that I was speaking to. And then when I got to show a version of this piece at info doc lab in Amsterdam, I did another series of them. And those are all with people I didn't know. And so one of the funny things about this performance is that I, I don't usually get to talk to the person on the other side in your case, I get to, but in terms of the performance, you know, like the only way you can communicate with me is by delivering these kicks. And it feels really different than some of the other performances I've done that have been so much about kind of a back and forth interaction. And so, yeah, that's been interesting to figure out how to develop this performance that is really, really improvisational and also like really about imagining both this baby in whatever conceptual or physical sense, but also imagining the person on their end and like how I'm speaking to them, you know, if they can't speak back and maybe that that that feeling I think was something I was trying to access because I think that's probably similar to the feeling of having you know a live baby inside of you and feeling like you have some connection there but of course they're not talking to you literally.
[00:16:09.030] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah, before I go into a little bit more of my own experience of that, I wanted to maybe take a step back because there was parts of your web documentary where you're almost pitching to a number of these different couples, this idea that you're going to potentially become a surrogate and by becoming a surrogate, they would have pretty much unrestrained access to certain aspects about your life, what you're eating, your schedule. And so you had built this app to communicate with them back and forth and you're pitching to them this provocation that you're almost becoming this vessel for them. And so why not take it to the full extreme of what that means? You can basically make your life as transparent as you can. there's a lot of clips that you're shooting with these various different couples. And I wanted to hear a little bit more context is like, if they knew they were being filmed and then, but also I think the other aspect of that is this aspect of your agency and your autonomy and being in dialogue and making aspects of your autonomy available for other people to take control over, which I think is symbolically a part of becoming a surrogate for someone else, but also blowing that out and more of an artistic context to expand that out to multiple contexts in your life. And what's that mean? And so maybe you could take us back to that moment where you start to have this idea and how that developed to that point where you wanted to experiment with your life to that degree.
[00:17:31.300] Kent Bye: Yeah. Well, so like I said, I had this idea and I thought that's sort of impossible. I remember telling it to my friend and collaborator, David Leonard, who I made that, the intended parents film, that short film with the parents. And when I told it to him, he was just like, Lauren, some things can't be undone. Like you can't do that. I was like, yeah, but can't I somehow? So I was just, it became a little bit of a, I don't know, an obsession in some way. So that film, when we made it was a first attempt to just say like, okay, assuming I can't just like walk away from this, whatever this is right now, what's the next step? And so we kind of thought of it It was a speculative video. So everyone that was in it knew they were being filmed. They were mostly friends or family members or people we knew. Some of them were actors, but they were all people that had some experience with reproductive technologies in some sense, or they've been thinking about it. So they had some thoughts on the matter. And I basically go to each one and have like a hour long conversation where we talk about this idea. And it wasn't seriously like pitching it to them, like, you know, but it was more like role-playing it. And like, we're kind of playing it out and talking about it and like, what would that be like? And what would you want then? So that was that. And so then the shorter four minute video is just like excerpts from those, all those different conversations. And so then the place where it kind of took an unexpected turn was at the end where my friend Dorothy, who was the last person I spoke to when she was like, well, I would actually like to do this for real. And then that kind of opened the next phase of it, but that wasn't, I guess it was one version of this where I thought maybe it was like a, a film or a. some other kind of performance, like what if, okay, so if I can't do this in real life, what if I just for nine months, like perform it like a LARP or something. And so part of those conversations was also thinking of it almost like a casting call. Like, are there people here that might want to do this like weird performance with me, but those are some of the ideas that were floating around. So then the other film has this kind of odd quality of, you don't quite know what it is. We shot it with the long lens. Cause we wanted this kind of feeling of like these conversations that are kind of happening in broad daylight that you're sort of privy to or overhearing in some sense. Yeah. And so then to the question of control, I don't know, that's just been such a big theme in my practice always. I think, you know, the project that I was doing before this was I was trying to become like Amazon Alexa. So I'd go in and install things in people's homes and then watch them and control their home for them. Like in one sense in that piece, it's like, well, I have complete control. I'm the person running their house and watching them. On the other hand, I was kind of at their beck and call like Alexa 24 hours a day. So they'd say, Lauren, turn on the lights. And I have to be at my computer ready to do that. So it's interesting that way that those lines of control blur the things that we do, like, when do we feel agency in a situation and what are the factors that lead to it? And with this piece, I think it was attractive to me because it felt in some sense like in the ultimate giving up of control, like they literally have control over my body. But then as the woman says in the video, actually, it's the baby that takes control, right? Like, One thing that became really clear while making this project was that this idea of an app, while it's a nice provocation, if I were to actually go through the surrogacy, which I got pretty close to, whether there's an app or not would be pretty meaningless compared to the amount of control it is to just give up your body to carry another person. You're responding to that. So yeah, I don't know if I answered your question, but I'm glad that you picked up on that theme because that's very central, I think, to a lot of things I'm thinking about.
[00:21:04.113] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah. Yeah. Well, just part of my experience of the womb walk was that I tuned in and it was like a 10 minute experience. And then I was pushing left and right and I wasn't hearing any immediate response from you. And so I clicked on the help button and then the help button actually kicked me out. So then when I came back, I could no longer dispatch any commands. And so then at that point you were asking direct questions and waiting for a response. And so then I felt like this tension of like, Oh no, I'm like, I've, I've lost my connection to my metaphoric mother and this experience in the context. I'm like your unborn child that you're talking to in this very intimate way, in the sense that you're just describing the world around you and all your dreams and desires of what life's going to be like in this imaginal future. And to just like embody that as a character and listen to it, it was a surreal experience. And then there is the layers of which that you're inviting me as a audience member to exert some certain agency, which, you know, in my, specific context didn't work out to be able to like play with that as much, you know, like I was thinking, Oh, I'll kick three times and see if she, she turns around and goes the other way. But I was just trying to get some sense. But anyway, it was this idea of what's it mean for one person to start to have control over another person, which I think the collider is an experience that explores that as well, where one person's in VR and the other person's not. And then you're playing with this degree that they're being manipulated or controlled. And so. Yeah, I think it's an interesting aspect of surrender or submission towards somebody else's desires or agency. And I think it's going to be kind of a universal theme as we move forward. It's just in this specific context, it was something that I had never quite experienced for. And so I wanted to just have a chance to unpack that a little bit, because for you as an artist, you know, it sounds like this is a theme that goes out throughout your work of really exploring these things. And to what degree you have control over your life, the fate and free will in some ways of the ways that you have intentional action that you can exert in your life in the ways that there's these more deterministic elements of life and culture that influence us, but then to blur that line and give a little bit more of your intentional actions over into this more deterministic realm. So anyway, I guess that's a little bit of my own experience and it being both a surreal experience of embodying that as a imaginal character and what that felt like. And then the experience of the technology glitches, you know, causing me to not feel like I had any control or agency and being in a piece where it was all about exploring this degree of agency. But for whatever reason, the tech glitches kind of preventing me from pushing it to its extreme to see what that would have been like.
[00:23:43.602] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's really well put. I mean, a couple of things that come to mind also are just the way that I think we've all had to maybe come to terms with like how little control we have over things over the past couple of years. And I think I'm at a point now where I like any fantasies I had about like what I'm controlling in my life, like they're much more reduced. Like, okay, there's a limited set of things that I actually have control over and they're, they're not large and the rest is happening. The other thing with this piece that I was trying to communicate through the room walk and through the whole thing is that in one hand, you could interpret it as like a very personal story about trying to have a baby or trying to have someone else's baby and use this app and all that. But I think the thing that I'm continuously fascinated by is just like how we find the line between ourselves and someone else. like just on like a molecular level, it's pretty blurry. We're always exchanging bits of ourselves as we've learned with the pandemic, but also like consciousness wise, like intellectually I'm saying and thinking things that are a product of my conversations with other people. Yeah, we seem to to have this feeling of like, no, this is me, that's you, or this is my family. And this is someone that's not related to me. And that was a question that seemed to come up a lot in the piece, like even with the therapist at the end, who's saying you're doing this and it's not for your family. That's weird. And I guess I pushed back on that whole idea. I think that if we could have more of an understanding of seeing ourselves and other people or seeing the relatedness, even if a person's not genetically your brother or relative, maybe that would give us a better way to understand like ourselves and what's happening around us. And so that's one of the ideas that was really central to the piece. I don't know if I made it like explicit enough in the text, but that's kind of what I was trying to go for with some of these kind of blurring of control or identities and these different aspects of the piece.
[00:25:41.009] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah, and I think another element of agency and control that I think comes up as a thematic element of this piece is the degree to which that all of the technological advances that are available now for people to potentially have children when they couldn't have children as an advancement of our technology, but also the degree to which that if you are going through all these different processes to be able to get down to the level of specific genetic risks for different diseases and to be able to take someone's character and identity and break it down to that granular level of specificity for somebody. And most of the time when reproduction happens, it hasn't had that level of agency for us to be able to control all those different aspects. And to what degree do you exert the most extreme agency you possibly could when you're in the process of creating another life, which I thought was an interesting theme that kind of emerged out of watching this piece of seeing just the advancements of technology and how it's connected to birth and the way that you were able to show that through your own process of going through all these different surveys and filling out these forms and going through these websites, again, through the context of a computer screen under which that you're experiencing this, I think was able to translate that other layer of agency when it comes to your own reproduction and for couples to potentially go through a number of different technological options to have a child.
[00:27:03.008] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm glad that that came through. That was another one of the central questions for me, just like how much control should we, should we have, can we actually have, do we want to have? And I really see this as becoming like a bigger and bigger question in the future as the possibilities get even more advanced in terms of what we want to select or how we want to make things happen. At the same time, it's still really difficult. Like sometimes I think that all that stuff can be a bit misleading, like this idea like, oh, you can freeze your eggs and then you can use them in 10 years or something. It opens up all these possibilities. It does, but it's like the chances of them being usable are not the same as doing it right now. So there are these ways that like, I think all of these processes are so expensive. So there's a way in which I think talking to people that have gone through different processes like this, that the amount of effort you're putting into decision-making, the amount of money that you're paying for it gives you this feeling that you should have a lot of control over it. And then it just doesn't work sometimes. And it doesn't work repeatedly sometimes. And that can be, really, really difficult. And, you know, compare that to a scenario in the past where we didn't have so many of these things available and it's like, well, you get pregnant or you don't, you know? Um, so yeah, those are questions on my mind. Like, where is this going? How do we, how do we feel about it? And also how do we navigate some of the decision-making it's the thing that was really interesting to me about this project was that all along the way, when I would talk to people about it, like almost everyone had some story about this. a lot of the stories are really difficult or really personal or just like really confusing what to do. And I got the sense from people sharing these stories with me that like, it's not something that they talk about a lot with a lot of people outside their kind of most immediate partner or family. So Yeah, I guess one hope was with this piece that it could just open up a little bit more space for that to realize, like, I think you can feel like you're really alone when you're going through these things and it's not working or it's tough, but it's actually like so much more common than maybe a lot of people realize. And then I think there are people that don't interact with that. And for them, it's like, hopefully there can be some awareness of like a lot of people around them are going through this. And especially in like queer communities, right. Where like, then you are more likely to have to be figuring out answers to how do we get the sperm or the egg or where do we put it? You know? So those are questions I think within like certain communities that are like very actually talked about a lot and very, very familiar, but maybe in other corners of different communities and people that like those things don't get talked about or come up so often.
[00:29:41.275] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah. I mean, this is certainly, it feels like an experience where you go down this really deep rabbit hole that many other people have gone down as well for a variety of different reasons. And it's so specific that there's a lot of things that just you doing that as a performance art piece to be able to make these reflections and reflect on both the cultural aspects and technological aspects. I thought it was just really a fascinating deep dive into a world that I had never really gone down that deep into. But another thing that it makes me think of is this Robert McKee quote that I reference a lot that I think Eric Darnell first told me back in Sundance back in 2016 or so. And the quote goes something along the lines of like stories all about characters are being put into situations under pressure. And then the choices they make are revealing certain aspects of their essential character. And the more intense the pressure, the more of their essential character that's being revealed. And I thought that as a storytelling piece, you're kind of in some ways showing and revealing different aspects of your character by this context that you find yourself in and all these decisions that you're almost in a contrived way, creating additional situations and contexts and pressures for yourself to then have to make these decisions. And it's so out of line from what most people do that it it kind of like ends up that it's sort of too far of a deviation for you to take it to the logical conclusion that you were aiming towards. But to go back to as a storytelling piece of just how, you know, you're showing this form that you've filled out and I didn't pause it to read everything, but you're basically like, here's a giant form I had to fill out and it's asking me all these intimate questions. And you're in some ways kind of sharing different aspects of your own process and being very transparent of that. But just in terms of like storytelling, it's about, these situations you put in, and almost like just how the surveillance capitalism companies, as an example, are doing all this psychographic profiling, you know, in some ways, this is a type of experience where you're going into a deep aspects of a lot of the nuances of your own psychography, just in terms of a storytelling piece. I also found that really interesting, because it's getting really specific and detailed when it comes to trying to quantify different aspects of your personality and your character, and just how much of that is a part of the process of trying to do this psychological profiling. that's just a part of what it means to become a surrogate. So anyway, I think that there's some interesting parallels for what's that mean to describe your character and reveal your character, but also for you as a character in this piece, as the main protagonist, the different choices and experiences that you're sharing are also in a lot of ways, revealing parts of your own character.
[00:32:10.572] Kent Bye: Yeah. And also like, who's the audience. It was funny to go back and look at some of the things like that form that you're mentioning and, you know, I'm scanning through it and I kind of made the decision, like, I'm not changing anything here. If there's something I want to redact, I can redact it, but I'm reading through it. And especially some of the things where they ask you these questions of like, how do you describe yourself, which you hear again in the sperm donor you know, you hear a bunch of men answer that question, but I was just reading my answers and they're funny. Cause I thought if I'm thinking about an audience of my peers or something, or the public, how I might answer those questions be quite different than like, I'm imagining parents looking at this and deciding whether they want me, they want my eggs, you know, which is like, I thought that was just such a funny construct in itself. Like, what do you say? You know, like when I would hear, when I went to the sperm donor database and listen to men answer questions of what kind of person are you? What do you like? You know, it's kind of like a dating profile, but it's not dating. It's like, you know, and so basically people are trying to say like, I'm like a really good person that has like good values and cares about stuff, but I'm not too intense, you know? I'm not too quirky. I'm pretty normal. And I looked at my answers and they're kind of the same, you know, like I'm like, Oh, I like reading and biking and running. I'm like, I don't think that's how anyone would describe me. I mean, I like all those things, but that's not the thing to know, maybe. So it's funny when you're, yeah, like you're talking about kind of revealing aspects of yourself. And I think in these processes, there are these different audiences at all these different moments, or like when I'm talking with the parents. And so you're seeing like these different angles of like how I wish to portray myself or do portray myself, or then like, you know, at the end, watching the footage from the, the therapist conversation, just watching my reaction. And I was like, Oh, wow. I really look like I'm not enjoying this. Maybe I did fail this because I didn't perform well enough, but in the moment I was just responding to what I'm hearing. So yeah, it was interesting to just watch all that. And I just, I also liked the quote that you, you started with and this idea of, I forgot exactly how you put it, but like characters like moving through these obstacles.
[00:34:21.555] Lauren Lee McCarthy: It's the Robert McKee, he talks roughly, it's around stories all about characters being put into these situations under pressure and the choices they make are revealing their essential character.
[00:34:32.170] Kent Bye: Yeah. So I've been thinking about something similar lately. Um, I was just talking to a friend the other day and I was saying like, I think that like as an artist, cause they were saying, I feel like I did these things in my practice because I didn't know what else to do. And I feel kind of ashamed about that or something. Like I should have had a better idea. Like it made me realize, I think that as an artist, like, I think your practice is really defined by the things you do when you don't know what to do. it's not so much the times where you're like, Oh, I've got the plan and I do the thing. And you know, it's like those times. And I felt that a lot with this work, which was like, I'm just like, I don't know what to do next, but I can't seem to quit this project. Like I tried, so I have to do something. And those moments actually ended up being really like key to the story moving along, but also the piece coming together or me just trying to like keep my sanity and move through this.
[00:35:23.233] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah. I mean, it's a very associative project where you're telling the stories and one thing kind of leads to the next section. So I think that comes through in the way you've been structured those different segments. And, you know, the other thing that comes up just as I hear you say that is that there's a theory of privacy called contextual integrity by Helen Nissenbaum, where she's talking about how when you go into doctor, you share some information that's appropriate. When you go into a bank, you share information that's appropriate. So just how our privacy is very contextual. And I think also there's a similar approaches of identity, of how our identity is relational to the context under which it's being shared. And so you're sharing different aspects of your identity to a medical context, but it's also within the context of people to be potential parents. but it's through the vehicle of the medical context. But then on top of that, you're sharing it within a performative context. And so you're going to have the general public and audience see that. And so it's, yeah, it's interesting to hear that comparison to like a dating profile, because that's yet another context that you might be filling things out for a partner or a job application, or here you're applying to be a potential surrogate for people. So yeah, just the ways in which based upon whatever those relational contextual dynamics are, then we're sharing different aspects of ourselves. And I think this piece in particular is exploring that in a very interesting way, because it's very deep down a very specific context that allows you to kind of reveal different aspects of yourself through the forums, but also through this piece of you kind of responding to all these different relational dynamics.
[00:36:52.093] Kent Bye: Yeah. You know, I'm always really interested in performance that kind of blends into reality. I think that's a theme in all my work. I'm really excited about films and documentaries that kind of blur that line. One really big inspiration for this work was, I think it's called Man on the Moon, where Jimmy Carrey's playing Andy Kaufman. So it's a documentary about Andy Kaufman, but in the filming of it, he like commits to this character to such an extent that people that he was working with, like the director, the crew, like at times couldn't get, they're like, I need to talk to Jim. Can we get him back here somehow? And it would just be like, Andy's there and that's, or Jim's, you know, imagination of Andy to the point that like, you know, in the end, Andy Kaufman's like dying of cancer. And then like Jim is like physically like unable to walk. So I'm interested in like how you can take performance to that extent where it's like it leaves any kind of box or frame of what the art project might be. So then I think putting this piece together then it's like trying to go back through that and figure out like at some points I felt like there was no project. This was just like some silly thing I did with my life for two years. I was like confusing and hard and weird. But sometimes having the opportunity to show it really pushed me to try to say, OK, is there a story here? How would I explain this to someone else? And it was really like talking to a couple of friends where I was like, yeah, I don't know. I just have these kind of random snippets of media. And they're like, no, you've been telling us this story in chapters for the last two years. Every time I see you, you have another chapter of it. So write those down, and then see what you got. And so, yeah, and that was the process. So then going back and trying to figure out which things go in there and which don't, which are like my life that, you know, I need to draw some boundaries around. I'm pretty open with everything, but like, especially when it comes to thinking about relationships with other people, as I watch the piece, there's a lot that's included. And there's also a lot that I think is like kind of left unsaid or left for people to imagine.
[00:38:50.641] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah. And speaking of that, you know, this is a piece that's shown within the context of the Sunday and Stone Festival. Is your plan just to leave it up or is it something that after this festival is over that you're going to take it down? And that's sort of the end of the life cycle of this piece.
[00:39:05.123] Kent Bye: I'm still figuring it out, but I would actually really like to turn it into a live performance. Like I was kind of thinking of this web documentary as like a prototype for a live kind of theater stage piece where I'm delivering the monologue and then the media is kind of brought out onto screens or there could be some aspects of reenactment of some of the performances that I mentioned within it. So that's what I would really like to do with it. We'll see how it comes together, but that's sort of the hope. I'm happy with the fact that I feel like I've kind of started to hone in on the story here and found a way to present it, but I'm interested in taking it back to a performative context and seeing what, what that opens up. Because I think also like being physically in a space with my body as this is talking could give some grounding to it also, or even like an online performance where it's more live and I'm delivering parts of the narrative.
[00:39:54.985] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Hmm. Do you imagine that you would try to potentially have the audience interact with the similar ways of being able to control you at certain points during the performance like that? Cause that seemed to be, again, like we were talking about this degree of agency and surrender.
[00:40:09.976] Kent Bye: Yeah, exactly. I'm thinking about some aspects like that. Yeah. How it gets woven in and it's tough to figure out, but that would be the hope is to bring some level of interactivity to it too.
[00:40:23.527] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Okay. Yeah. And would you say that this part of the story is over or do you think it's still ongoing in terms of how it's going to continue to develop?
[00:40:32.392] Kent Bye: Um, that's a good question. Um, I guess we'll see. It did feel like when there was sort of the no from the medical board, And that happened like right at the end of 2021, that felt like, you know, maybe it was more shifted me or something, but I felt like, okay, that's, or maybe it was this feeling actually that like up until this point, it was all these kinds of possibilities of maybe, or could I, or could I possibly, or no, you know, and then for someone to be like, no, you can't. It was like someone telling me to stop. And maybe that's why you needed to like bring this to a conclusion. So I don't know, there could be another chapter, but it feels like it's gotten to with the story. It's gotten to some place of conclusion that I hadn't felt before that moment, I guess.
[00:41:19.993] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Right. Yeah. I, part of the reason why I ask is I just imagine you performing this and then yeah, just sort of the end point, if it's sort of reliving it in a way or Yeah. It sort of changes as context when it's recorded and put into like a fixed artifact, but then the live performance seems like it's still alive in some respects. Like there's a difference there in the quality of the story, but yeah, I'm curious to see how it continues to evolve and unfold and where it goes. It sounds like you're in that same place of not quite knowing where it's going to go.
[00:41:48.836] Kent Bye: Yeah. That seems to be the place I'm always in.
[00:41:54.373] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Great. Well, just to start to wrap up here, I'm curious what you think the ultimate potential of these types of immersive performances and immersive media might be and what they might be able to enable.
[00:42:05.071] Kent Bye: That's a good question. Um, Well, I'm really excited about, it feels like people have a growing interest and capacity for things that are happening, especially online or through the internet, maybe out of just necessity. But it feels like in that there's a space opening up for more interesting performance work and storytelling. Like I felt before, like maybe the default has to be in person and now that doesn't feel true. So I'm excited about that. And I'm excited about, I think by bringing it to the internet, then you also open it to an audience that might not have engaged with this stuff so much before. So I'm always really excited about reaching people that don't necessarily consider themselves art audiences or go to art galleries and shows. So I think that in terms of potential, there's a huge potential there to like reach people that haven't had these kinds of experiences before gotten to see this kind of work and Yeah, I'm really excited about that and about just the community that builds around that over the internet, the way that I see artists collaborating or working together on some of these pieces and tools and excited and hopeful to see more of that.
[00:43:17.797] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Great. Is there anything else that's left and said, do you like to say to the broader immersive community?
[00:43:23.481] Kent Bye: Um, just thank you. Thank you for participating in and watching and taking in this work and Yeah. I mean, that is the reason for making this stuff is for people like you that, you know, listen to these things and find something in it that worth engaging with. So thank you.
[00:43:43.882] Lauren Lee McCarthy: Yeah. Well, I, this is a piece that I was struck by. I think it moved me when I was watching it. And then, you know, because my podcast is all about virtual reality, you know, there's a immersive component here in terms of the performance, but also I think there's other aspects of the context of the web and also your own explorations with agency and surrender and, you know, revealing of your character. So, you know, I'm glad I went ahead and reached out and did this interview because I didn't quite know where it was going to go because it's not a typical piece that I cover, but I'm glad that we had a chance to talk and unpack it more because I think there's a lot of aspects here that are really interesting. And also just to hear about your own creative process of you working through these different things. And I think that there's probably a lot of people that can just identify with that journey of not knowing and then just taking it one step at a time. So, but anyway, thanks for taking the time to unpack your own process and a little bit more about the story. And yeah, I look forward to seeing where it all goes.
[00:44:37.512] Kent Bye: Awesome. Thank you so much.
[00:44:39.353] Lauren Lee McCarthy: So that was Lauren Lee McCarthy. She is the creator of surrogate, which was premiering at Sundance new frontier in 2022. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, there's a lot of really interesting components about this piece. There's the web documentary, there's the immersive performance, there's filling all these different forms and expressing every identity. And the bottom line is that Lauren loves to explore this boundary between what's real. So there's some of the different pieces and clips that she had included within this web documentary that were a little bit like speculative fiction in a sense where she is interviewing these people, presumably to say that she wanted to be a surrogate to carry their baby? What would it be like if she just completely surrendered all of her autonomy and allowed them to control all of her different actions or behaviors and to really just explore these concepts of agency and control in the context of her helping to give birth? So she goes through all the different processes and fills out all these different forms and as you go through this immersive web documentary you're getting a sense of the progression of her journey onto this and the different chapters and also all the different forms that she's filling out and getting a chance to just kind of look over the different types of information and exploring these aspects of identity like what's it mean like who you are in these different contexts in the context of a dating app or job application in this case she is giving information around like whether or not she would potentially give up her eggs for other people to have children or for herself to apply to be a surrogate So in the end, she ends up not getting an opportunity to become a surrogate, but she still was completely taken by this idea for a number of years. She said a number of times that she tried to like let go of the idea, but she just kept coming back to it. And she felt like this form of a web documentary allowed the fragmented nature of all these different artifacts to be aggregated in a way that could be woven together with these narrative of telling her story of this journey that she was going on. So really quite an interesting piece and also there's elements of this kind of blending of reality that are Repeating throughout all of her work and I have another chance to catch up with her on a piece that she did Called voice in my head, which was that if a doc lab a super fascinating piece which was exploring this idea of what if you were able to use this kind of large language model AI to listen to your conversations and to kind of remix or modulate the voice in your head and Yeah, just a really fascinating experience that we'll be talking about in the next episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of their Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.