Interview with Justin McKeown (creator of R.A.T.I.S.M.)

Justin McKeown, an Irish artist based in York, England, is the mind behind SPART Action Group. This year in the Pixelache Festival, SPART presents the tourist information kiosk R.A.T.I.S.M. (Random Alternative Tourist Information Service Machine) which will provide unusual information on Helsinki attractions. You will be able to see R.A.T.I.S.M. at Sörnäinen, in a glass vitrine next to the Lidl, and you can interact with it through text/SMS message. R.A.T.I.S.M. is part of Gaming the System, organised by These Animals, which opens this Thursday (17.09). We asked Justin a few questions about his work and this project in particular.

Pixelache: The SPART project explicitly deals with 'leisure' as part of your mission statement. But you are a professional artist; this is your 'work'. Are you turning other people's pleasure into your means of living? Is there a certain playfulness intended, or does this distance give you a benefit, such as objectivity?

Justin McKeown: The original idea with situating SPART within a discourse of leisure, as opposed to a discourse of work, was born from the observation that many artists have to work other jobs to support their creative endeavours. Further that many often end up working for free as project budgets, if examined in the cold light of day, don’t tend to cover the labour costs involved in the creation of artworks. Therefore, I was questioning if what artists do is actually ‘work’ or a subsidised ‘hobby’. This is not an idea that sits easily with many people. There is a lot of pressure on the arts and artists to demonstrate their usefulness in the world and such a blatant statement on my part can be misconstrued as a counterproductive attack on the idea of Art as a professional endeavour. I however would see it in other terms. 

It would seem to me that western society undervalues emotional labour. One need only look at the difference in pay between doctors and nurses in the UK for an example of this, or the way in which the nurturing of children by their mothers is not viewed by the UK government as a ‘job’ in the strict sense of the term. There are other good examples of what I’m talking about, but to discuss them would be something of a tangent.  The bottom line is that the arts have adopted a rhetoric of ‘business' and with it ‘professionalism’. Is this the correct rhetoric for the Arts and artists to think about and discuss what they do? Are the arts about profit, return on investment, share holders, services, etc.? Or are they about something else, and do we need another language - which is not a language of business - to appraise and discern their value? 

In western civilisation the function of art - at least when considered from a capitalist perspective - is to turn wealth into prestige. Whether it’s national museums buying and exhibiting artworks that materialise and articulate the imaginative and creative wealth of the nation's populace; or some tourist buying a piece of art from a local shop while on holiday to take home, put on their wall, look at and tell their friends about; this rule of transmogrification does not change. It is interesting to consider that we learn about past extinct civilisations not through their sciences, but through their arts. Their arts give us the keys to access their knowledge and contextualise it within their way of life. Today, the Arts justify the ferociousness of modern life, they allow us to experience complex emotions from trajectories outside our own agency and through this we gain a more rounded experience of life in the 21st century. This enables us to believe that for all the cruelty and hardship we create and endure as a species, that their is some kind of transcended aspect of our beings that somehow has a higher purpose than the havoc we have unleashed on this planet. The arts are kind of amazing in this respect, and as such their value equals that of any other field of activity. 

So, to try and answer the question: with SPART, I’m not so much turning people’s leisure into my means of living as I am inviting them to consider the sociopolitical complexity of the relationship between value, art, leisure and work. The way I do this is definitely playful. I am a fan of play and of humour. We need to laugh every opportunity we get as many of the things we do to each other as a species are so frankly absurd.

SPART Winter Action Games, Belfast, 2008.

Assuming we get R.A.T.I.S.M. installed in a busy thoroughfare (the current plan, pending approval, is right in the central station metro stop), do you hope that it provides some sort of distraction from the everyday hustle and bustle of that space? Or do you prefer that it becomes part of the everyday situation, right against the metro ticket vending machines and free newspaper-ads?

I’d like R.A.T.I.S.M to blend in till it’s nearly unnoticeable. It will make it all the more effective when people realise what it actually is and does. Hopefully then it will cause some amusing distraction for bored commuters and burned out tourists.  

Will the R.A.T.I.S.M. kiosk be disinct to Helsinki, or is this a generic tourism information service? What do you think might be the differences in the habits between tourists in Helsinki and those of another destination?

I’ve made this specifically with Helsinki in mind, though many of the things it proposes could be enacted anywhere. I did some research into the culture and took advice from friends who know the city, so that the things suggested by the machine will be fitting for the culture. I’m slightly disadvantaged in making this work as I’ve never been to Helsinki before, so it’s hard to say what the difference in habits between tourists may be. It’s hard to get a sense of what attracts people to visit certain locations, because people are so different in their motivations. 

We are trying to build this festival around the motif of 'decentralisation'; not having one central venue, and hopefully finding corners of the city where so-called 'culture' is not traditionally produced. Part of this involves an open platform where anyone can create their own activities, anywhere, and register it as part of the festival. But R.A.T.I.S.M. comes pre-loaded with its content; people cannot add their own suggestions. I'm curious about how the layer of 'authority' gets introduced into otherwise spontaneous happenings, or information. I fear that Pixelache Festival already might be too staid or boring in many people's eyes to want to affiliate themselves with it. Do you fear that R.A.T.I.S.M. might take away from one's sense of individualism - that people might want to keep Helsinki's numerous pleasures to themselves, rather than publicising it for any stranger to see? How do you personally feel about this boundary?

I did give this aspect of the work a lot of thought, as I had first considered making it open so people could add their own advice that other people could then pick up. But then I thought that it might be better to lock this aspect of the machine off and have it simply offer advice that is subjective, inasmuch as it was compiled and programmed by me. In this way it becomes one set of alternative proposals for what you can do with your time in the city.

The question you raise of decentralisation of power relations in relation to art is a very interesting subject. I think its a very hard thing to achieve. We can make things that look like they achieve them and then produce documentation that supports our claim, but in reality I’ve yet to see a system that does this effectively. We’re always up against the fact that to create a system of power is to impose a social dynamic. In making the system you already hold the ability to control the flow of power within it. That can be very off-putting for people, even if your intentions are good. So I’m not too worried about taking away anyone's sense of individualism. The machine makes an open proposition, offering information to anyone who wants to use it. What they then do with that information is up to them. It’s kind of like offering a new but strange public service.  

Your project is part of the Gaming the System event, which starts before Pixelache and overlaps somewhat with our themes. Do you view R.A.T.I.S.M. as a game, or as a genuine source of information? How does irony play a role in the presentation of works like this? 

I view R.A.T.I.S.M. as an invitation to think differently about how you interact with the city. I would view the whole edifice of the city as an already existing ‘game’. Here I’m thinking of the the branch of economics known as Game Theory. In a game theoretic sense, we are surrounded by and involved in games all the time. In Game Theory, games are things which have: rules, players, pay offs and common knowledge. R.A.T.I.S.M. is not a new game, but rather a means of interjecting in existing ones. I do see it as a genuine source of information, though the question of the value of that information is down to each individual who interacts with it. 

There is a definite sense of irony and satire in the types of suggestions the machine makes. I often think that because tourist boards try to appeal to the maximum number of people possible, their suggestions for what people can do in a city are often dull and anodyne. They’re also always tied up in aspects of the economy of the city in one way or another. There are other ways to construct the relationship between tourists and the local economy. There are also ways of making the tourists relationship to the local economy quite minimal . All these things can be played with, though not to some imagined subversive end, but rather to invite people to consider how these relationships are constructed. 

How is a tourist information kiosk, presented in the context of a trans-disciplinary art/culture festival, a challenge to larger societal structures?  What would be the best possible outcome of R.A.T.I.S.M., for you?

I grew up in Northern Ireland, while the Troubles were still happening. From as far back as I remember, I was used to a society where people were being shot and things were being blown up. I couldn’t fully appreciate how abnormal this was until I moved away as a young adult. I’m therefore quite wary of people and things that seek to challenge societal structures and I think any challenges should come not only with complaints but with solutions to make things better. Subversion for subversions sake is a middle class hobby, it’s the kind of thing that I like poking fun at through SPART activities. As a human being I’m much more in favour of working with existing structures. If you don’t like something become part of it and see how your input effects it. If your input is good it will help change the thing for the better, and if your input is bad, then hopefully you’ll learn something about your own beliefs and grow as a person because of this. 

The best possible outcome for R.A.T.I.S.M. for me is that people interact with it, understand the sense of humour that it’s been made with and think about how the suggestions it makes are trying to encourage you to re-imagine your relationship to urban spaces and urban dwelling. That would be a good outcome for me.  

What does the term 'Living Spaces' (our festival theme) mean to you? If you were organising Pixelache, what would you do differently than us?

It’s a really interesting idea. It has a double bind. There is the idea of living as in ‘dwelling' and also living as in being ‘alive'. So spaces that are somehow alive and spaces that are dwelled within, and, hopefully, spaces that are both. I very much like this as a theme for a festival. It’s poetic and optimistic and hopefully the works encourage people to have both these experiences in the city. therefore this can only be a good thing. 

I couldn’t really comment on what I’d do different. As I have no experience of the city, I’d be making massive presumptions about what would and would not work within the context of Helsinki, and I’ve enough sense to know that I’d probably be wrong. Hahaha.