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Human Versus Machine: An Interview with Max Dovey

The experience economy is booming and Rotterdam based artist Max Dovey is one of many practitioners now adopting new methods of art production in this field. With a cultural shift now headed towards “offline” experiences, Dovey’s practice confronts how computers, software and data affects the human condition through performance and theatre. Incorporating real-time computation, he considers the way in which live performance and Internet art is breaking away from the standard processes of production and instead generating infinite, ephemeral variations. We caught up with the artist recently to talk about digital re-appropriation and using real time data in live performances.

Why did you choose to work in a digital medium?

I’m a performance artist who works with web 2.0 and user-generated content in a live or creative context. Real-time feedback loops from an algorithm or an API and social media platforms have remained constant in my practice. The medium is always generating new material and I’m interested in trying to match it as a human. Recently, I’ve been improvising with an image tagging software called ‘Imagga,’ creating performances with computer vision and providing real-time interpretations of actions.

What kinds of challenges does the digital medium pose?

It’s super interesting how the fine art market has now adapted to incorporate digital art, where more exhibitions are containing web or browser based projects but as a performer, you get used to making something that’s live and ephemeral. Combining performance with digital felt like it was hard to reproduce and therefore hard to sell, as it (currently) doesn’t have an effective revenue model.

The Emotional Stock Market, image courtesy of the artist.

Is that something that concerns you?

No, there’s the whole experience economy. The Internet and technology only perpetuate the value of now. Festivals are booming and there seems to be a big market for experience that’s offline. Something that still escapes being captured, recorded, sold and distributed. It’s a sacred thing. The Internet brought in a whole different method of production with infinite variations.

So you don’t feel a loss of control when your work is reproduced or re-appropriated?

It worries me slightly. My role as an artist is to highlight and expose issues in order to demonstrate my concern with certain technologies but you never know who will see it or then reuse your idea. A good example of this is my piece “The Emotional Stock Market” involving three performers trading human emotion based on Twitter feeds. The concept was re-appropriated and now exists as a commercial mobile app that measures the happiness of a company’s employees. This was taken from an idea that was supposed to highlight a potential problem.

And now the concept is no longer solely attributed to you.

Yes, so you sell an idea, which can then be taken by anyone. Ideas are shared so quickly these days, making it increasingly difficult to prove your ownership.

How does the role of the gallery factor into digital art practice?

I feel there are self-sufficient artists moving away from gallery representation. It feels like an old format. I’m in talks to be represented by a label. This is an important distinction as a label shapes the artist’s brand in a similar way to the music industry. Emphasis is now on circulation of the artists’ brand identity via social networks as opposed to selling material works. Though performance is not outside of ownership. It’s taken on a fluxus instructionalist art approach. Tino Sehgal, for example, provides an undocumented conversation about the work specifications which is kind of beautiful as he’s selling this ephemeral conversation to the buyer. But also absurd from an economic point of view.

What are your thoughts on the future of digital collecting?

Gallerists are becoming producers, which means offering up more social capital. However, museums and institutions are also adapting towards collecting more digital art and collecting and archiving performances. Online art marketplaces do exist but I don’t think they necessarily accommodate digital artists. Instead, monetization for digital art is prevalent in fringe communities such as festival commissions and art events. I’m also participating in a conference on digital economy and alternative currencies in December 2015. I feel like I’ve tried to avoid the topic for a longtime but now it’s inevitable.

Diary 2013 - Max Dovey
Diary 2013, image courtesy of the artist.

What kind of impact do you think a tool like ascribe will have on the art world?

I think blockchain applications enable artists to have greater control over their work. This is especially true in music and digital streaming. As a performance artist, my work is often outside of technical reproduction, so I am interested in how the p2p blockchain network will produce more than just performance documentation. The Bitcoin ID which turns the flow of network traffic into time stamped moments that ensures authenticity – or what Walter Benjamin called the ‘Aura’ – could transform the way in which we consider live performance and digital documentation.

Max has created 52 limited editions of an earlier work available exclusively to ascribe users. For the piece, entitled Diary 2013, Max reprinted each day of a year’s worth of diary entries and overlaid them onto a single composition. Originally presented at Saratim Trust Museum Nacht, he has ascribed 52 unique editions, each representing a full week of entries within the diary. If you’d like to own a special limited edition of Diary 2013, email Max at to receive your version.

Artist Bio

Max Dovey [UK] is 28.3% man, 14.1% artist and 8.4% successful. His performances confront how computers, software and data affect the human condition. Specifically he is interested in how the meritocracy of neo-liberal ideology is embedded in technology and digital culture. He holds a BA Hons in Fine Art: Time Based Media and a MA (MDes) in Media Design from Piet Zwart Institute. His research is in liveness and real-time computation in performance and theatre. He works as a producer and creative technologist for live events and theatre in both The Netherlands and UK.