Jesse Darling

Episode 2 - Magic In Action

A conversation with artist Jesse Darling. We discuss art and the ways in which we can creatively re-imagine an approach to technology, outside mythologies of disruption and upgrade cycles.


Jesse Darling

Gravity Road



On Informer episode 2, I had the immense pleasure of taking part in a wide-ranging conversation with Jesse Darling, a Berlin-based artist whose work has been featured in numerous exhibitions at key galleries and museums, including the Serpentine Gallery and the Tate Britain. I mostly listened, as Jesse generously served sharp, insightful observations on how we define technology, the fallacy of the digital commons, and life as an artist in an increasingly precarious world.

Jesse's lived experience of exploring embodiment through performativity, from online sex work to playing in bands, allows for insights into issues such as how we all are forced to run our own business and brand, not to mention our sex lives, from our computers and phones. I left the conversation with a shift in my perception of the world; Jesse's words illicit profound awareness of the fragility of things in the same manner as their visual work.

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Roddy: Hello, this is Informer a show that reveals the latest ideas from artists, thinkers, and technologists, and former invites you behind the screen to meet the people, sketching, hacking, and imagining the next versions of our world. I'm Roddy, Schrock your host. And in each episode, I spotlight creative minds grappling with a changing world through art technology, or often both. And I hope you'll subscribe to this, where you can also find show notes, links, and more information on all of the artists and projects that we discuss. Jesse darling is an artist based in London and Berlin, working in sculpture, installation, text and sound. I'm so pleased to be able to speak to them as I feel their work only becomes more relevant as time passes. I first learned about Jesse darling in the early 2010s. That was a time when a number of artists in my orbit were explicitly making a big deal about the fact that we were past the tipping point of the internet, being a shared cultural experience.

Roddy: This group of artists flew under the flag of post-internet art. A term I always found to be a bit self-contradictory. How are we past the age of the internet when that is the thing that's being explicitly set in contrast at any rate I found Jesse's work writings and responses from that time to be illuminating. So it's a real treat to catch up with them today. And it's under surprising to see that they've distanced themselves from some of their contemporaries of that period. Jesse's work has always been about fully encompassing human experience as the primary issue, rather than leading with a technophilic approach as Jesse puts it, they described their relationship to that period in our conversation today, as well as their continued dialogue with the machines around us. So on the line to Berlin, I began asking Jesse to share more about their early experiences with the internet.

Jesse: Oh yeah. You know, the minute that the internet, you know, something, not even web 2.0, but the minute that the internet started to become mainstreamed, I loved it. There was a video, there was a, like a, an internet cafe on the main road in my hometown. And I used to go there and play well Logan to something which was called worlds chat, which was also kind of like an avatar chat bit like second life. And now the, I think that the interface must have been extremely basic, but I liked it. I also liked computer games. I like point and click. And there was something really exciting about that for me,

Roddy: You know, what, as I think about your work and think about what you've written and so forth, I often get the sense that while you're not necessarily explicitly employing technologies like the internet, or sort of referencing it in a very kind of direct way in your work, you're in kind of an ongoing dialogue with our relationships to technology. Your relationships with technology is particularly when it comes to thinking through new senses of embodiment that technologies are allowing, or sort of forcing perhaps at this,

Jesse: Oh, wait. I know, I think it's totally, that's a very legit reading. I mean, maybe, you know, that when I started out in the art world proper, I did not make objects. Mainly I wrote texts and I used social media and I sort of like turned my back on kind of, I suppose a certain audience and a certain reading of those things as work. I mean, the texts where we're kind of work, if you like, and in one of my texts I wrote, and it was kind of widely quoted at the time every artists working today, as opposed into the artist and that for me, you know, just holds true. And in that sense, there's also nothing that interesting about the condition of being post-internet or, you know, it's by now so much as sort of, I won't say universal, but it's so widespread and experience or a condition that you know, very quickly I realized that, that the, the kind of you know, the attitude of newness and radicality around it was just in some way, reactionary kind of celebrating of the wrong things, you know, was sort of techno Fillic and even a bit for shift stick in terms of what, what was found to be exciting about the possibilities of the space.

Jesse: And indeed some of, some of what that discourse grew into was what I call a sovereign paranoia, which is when, you know, mainly white cis-gendered and often heterosexual men who are also middle-class kind of realize, oh my body, my data body, or my etheric body does not belong to me without my consent. It's being, it's being parceled up, bought and sold. I'm being gazed at and being surveilled. And then they evoke things like the commons. Once this all was grass, I kind of like primordial, you know, yeah. A primal the garden of the internet when, before all the conglomerates moved into town or whatever. And to some extent I'm sympathetic to, to the gentrification of the internet discourse. But on the other hand, I'm like, look, what commons, you know, you grow up as a woman, as a trans person, you grew up a as a black person or a person of color in a white supremacist world.

Jesse: And the commons is not where you're safe, you're continually surveilled, you're continually gazed at your body in a sense does not belong to you. And the history of the enslaved and colonized is, is a, you know, also a history of, of, of, of personhood despite the fact that, you know, the body was not one's own property or at least with someone else's property that that would as a history of the body as property, right? So this is not unprecedented. And I absolutely reject the outrage in some way, even though it's a real thing that conglomerates are, you know, doing whatever they want with our data. But again, like post nine 11, there was a whole new world of surveillance came in, but not for those white guys who wrote about it. And largely they ignore that when they're writing about it. You know, so that's one thing I would say this is also, I guess, informed my turn away from those discourses that I found it also basic after awhile, basic reactionary and bourgeois. And I think that's changed now. And of course, the light most interesting discourses around the internet or not are now not being produced from that perspective on subjectivity.

Roddy: Some of the shifts that you're pointing to is actually extraordinarily recent. And maybe just in the last few years, are there theorists and writers that are inspiring you right now?

Jesse: American artists, I think about Nora con, you know, there are a lot of people who are like you could also say Cameron Rowland is working in find out, not necessarily talking about the internet, but just talking about I suppose like how, how, how property circulate, and it does in a way refute this eutopic comments, certainly nor economists I think explicitly written about that and plenty other people too. And I think that I, I guess that you know, on the subject of technology, I remain really fascinated with this category you know, techno that which has made and I think as I always say as well, you know, hammers and nails or technology as well, bicycles, condoms hormones, you know, like to, to think about technology as the automobile and the airplane and the drone and the computer is also like a partial history of, of human, you know, tech technology. And of course it it's an Imperial history as a patriarchal capitalist history. And so I also kind of want to, I just, that is very much something that informs my way of working and way of thinking. It's like anti accelerationist and anti futurist, but that doesn't make me an anti technologist and not at all a Luddite I'm really interested and pretty much every aspect of technology. It's like a kind of magic magic in, in action. You know,

Roddy: The definition of technology is magic and action. I think I'm going to start using that myself if that's okay. Sure. Thanks. Great.

Jesse: But you know what I mean, though? It's like I, do we understand that we don't, we never understand enough. I also think that this attribution of the radical break or the, or the sudden technological advancement of the west is it's basically a kind of racist narratives. I would also say like provocatively that you know, playing cards or a technology, there's pretty much nothing that we do that is not, and that's the interesting thing. Right.

Roddy: And that removes it from this notion of there being this radical break.

Jesse: Yeah, totally, totally. And what's interesting as well. And I found this out when I was researching a show a few years ago that I made with the artist and Phoebe Collins, James that basically certain, certain technologies that we use now have been in use for like sometimes hundreds of years. While other things just keep on upgrading, you know, your apple products and your Android products and whatever else, your Nike sneakers and the various new kinds of machine weaves and whatever, but we've been flying the same airplanes since you know, for probably now like almost a hundred years and haven't changed so much in hundreds of years. I mean, you know, like there's, there's so many counter examples. And the one that I really liked to use, which I learned from a book called I think the shock of the old, which is, which is kind of a kind of pop history book, which counters the whole acceleration is perspective. There were more courses than tanks in world war two,

Roddy: A word that keeps coming to mind for me is the word prop in thinking about how you work with objects. And and I guess for me, that was resonant in terms of looking at your work, because it is this word that means both an object that stands in for the real thing, but objects that are also supportive. And I wonder if that's something you think about in, in the way that you source materials?

Jesse: I think so, but I think, I don't think about it so consciously I, I keep on thinking and thinking about the fallibility or collapsibility or fungibility of things, systems, bodies, ideas, and civilizations. And, and although I, although I find this frightening and also sometimes sad, I kind of take comfort from the idea that nothing's too big to fail and that really everything is dying, especially right now, everything's dying around here. You know, like whatever this, that the epoch is really this particular phase is well on his way out so that the pendulum's shifting and there's something new coming, and then it may not be pretty, but it is certain I think, and I think on some level, you know, in the body or whatever, I think basically everyone knows that and people are going, you know reacting in all kinds of ways, put it that way.

Jesse: And I, I think that the object is not to keep standing necessarily when it comes to the idea of a prop, you know, we default to, to, to getting back up and we default to dragging ourselves along and to basically to, to trying to keep standing, which is what we do. I think there's a, there's a tendency towards survival, or at least trying to survive and it will be in the end, always thought it, but we try. And in this trying a lot of things happen, you know, you could say that is that literally what, what the human condition is, is trying to survive where we will certainly fail. So there's this metaphor of like precariousness is it's like yeah, I mean, that's how I experienced life. That's all I know of living actually that like nothing stays you really, you never get too comfortable because you know, you come in, come in for a fall. And I think that this is like, when I think about making sculpture, I want to say that, but I also don't want to say that the fall is tragic. That's just part of it. You fall and you get back up and you try it and you try, and sometimes you fail and ultimately you always fail.

Roddy: I have to say one of the pieces that I was so happy to learn about as I was preparing to talk to you today was your work gravity road which if I'm understanding correctly opened during the pandemic period in Germany. And I guess from what I learned online it's essentially a roller coaster track that's bent out of joint and sort of winds back on itself at a reduced scale. I understand also that it was installed in a subterranean, residential swimming pool and a home that had been built during the third Reich.

Jesse: No, it's not, it's not a home. It was a swimming pool. It was built as a swimming pool. It's not really subterranean, but it, it looks that way. So you walk in it's like street level, but there's also a balcony at the top. And the balcony would be just like, you know, I mean, it was the third, right? So the balcony from wince, you can surveil gaze upon the perfect bodies or the, you know, imperfect bodies or your fellow swimmers, like very reef installed, you know, but you walk in that place and it's got these big like, you know, sansera fascist columns and the swimming pool balcony, and it, and it really just, you know, it, I just thought you know, it's also a huge, and the institution doesn't have a lot of money. And so this was also a problem of site specificity.

Jesse: Like what can you do without much money in a really huge place that, that is somehow not too polite? You know, I felt like I really had to engage with what the architecture there and not just pretend that like I wasn't in standing in a fascist swimming pool and make some nice stuff. And the rollercoaster, you know, steel is cheap. And my labor was, I think like the people who worked on it with me probably got paid more than me, or made more money out of it so far than I did, which is that's fine, it's the way it should be. But because I was going to be making it myself, it wasn't like fabricated. So that was the way to do it. And we just built it without any CAD drawings or like sketches. We'd like literally build that thing in the metal workshop bit by bit and then put it all together. And that's what it looked like.

Roddy: And how long was the piece

Jesse: Up thinking normal you know, show length, but very few people saw it, which was fine. The, you know, the thing about the rollercoaster talking of technology and, you know, this, the effect of the moment I learned so much about roller coasters when I was, I wanted to make this rollercoaster. And then I started learning as I was building it. And it turns out that my gravity road was the first rollercoaster in Pennsylvania, and it was extrapolated, as you can imagine from the mining train. And it's very literally leisure as a history of extraction. And I'm sure it's controversial to say this, but when I look now at what's happening in Silvan in Jerusalem, which has been kind of cleared to make way for a theme park and people being evicted by the military at gunpoint and made to demolish their own homes there is also something about the history of extraction and settling, which seems to, you know, which continues and continues. There's this modernity and steel of course, and metal ores are a big part of that history.

Roddy: Well, I just spoke to Kate Crawford who wrote the book Atlas of AI, which is kind of topographic map of extraction in all of its forms as the main components, driving the kind of unfathomable scale of machine learning and big data and so forth. And, and her, her thesis is that extractive economy as sort of an engine for maternity is something that continues to this day to the present and our reliance on minerals and ores and so forth from the earth is at a level that it's never even been in any time in history. And I, I would, you know, and I think she even goes further to say that the idea of extraction is now being essentially applied to kind of our individual psyches as humans move from individuals to infrastructure is the way that she phrases it.

Jesse: You know, this, the, the extraction has absolutely penetrated to the level of the psyche and indeed level of the social, the transactional nature of relationships and the, the kind of individualized increasingly individualized, but also alienated developments in the field of work, the gig economy you know, like the, the influence of the only fans. And I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with any of those things or like, I don't the object of critique is not it's not the, the influences or whoever, you know, whoever like the, the, the individual self is brand, you know, people who, who, who work those gigs among other gigs, but it's just, I think it's true that it's, it's, it, it is a form of self extraction, you know, and that is becoming more and more prevalent.

Roddy: You talk more about that idea of self extraction.

Jesse: Well I think, I don't know, I'm actually still trying to work it out, like what it means for, for me, what it means for a certain generation, not so much my generation, but who comes after you know, there's things that I feel like I can't, I can't fully understand about it. This is where the, you know, it does become a bit generational because it was not quite like that when I was growing up, but it is really like that now. And if I know a bit about it, it's because I've been working as an artist and because I've been, you know, among other things, let's say, you know, a sex worker and emotional labor in other way, you know, I've like worked some, some, some jobs which you would say tend to be gendered labor. I think a lot about the way that parenthood is taken up, I should say motherhood.

Jesse: Even though I don't feel interpolated, but it's taken up as this extremely alienated and indeed extractive process in which like the child ends up being like the product, because there's no other product to show for this labor. And I mean, it's kind of classic Marxist model trickled down oppression stuff, but this is now being understood as, as like, this is, this is now mother culture, you know, particularly online. I have a lot to say about that, and I'm very critical of it, but I think I'm not going to do it now. I'm still trying to get the right words because it's kind of a sensitive issue. I mean, I don't care particularly about offending people. I just want to say exactly what I mean, and I'm still trying to work that out.

Roddy: I wonder if you could talk a little bit maybe about some of your performance work as well, because I have also enjoyed learning more about that component of, of your work and and learning about Antigony. And and I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that work and also perhaps just how you approach performance in general?

Jesse: Well, the first question, or the last question I can answer very quickly is that I did used to think about myself as a performer, and I started making the objects because I was becoming, you know, overly extracted over extracted. I was kind of flying around all the time in the emerging artists, shuffle, you know, nice hotels, but very small fees, always on the plane. I didn't pay for the trip, but I paid for it in energy. And I would always have to front up and be myself, you know, like on the road as the traveling creatures slash emerging artists JD, and it was just exhausting. And I just thought, I can't do this. I cannot, I'm not strong enough. And the man enough to do it. And I, you know, not good enough at what I'm doing to do it, not a good enough performance I had to admit and not charismatic enough and all the rest of it.

Jesse: So I started making these objects and then I thought they can do their little turn. And in my first experiments with steel, I really was thinking very much about like, what, how can I like fix these guys, these bodies, these steals in this most uncomfortable effect, then they can just stay there. They can stay there, they can stay like I won't hurt them and it won't hurt me, but there will be the sense of, yeah. You know, this is what it looks like when someone's gotta be doing this eternal curtsy, poetic performance of the self, always, always, always on. And you know, I mean, it's been much more recently only that I realized that you don't really have to do that. You don't even have to attend the opening or the dinner or whatever. And I, and I, and I don't. So that's that, and I think that as to the question about performance, there's a bit of a fraught question because I feel like my performativity was in some ways tied to, and we liked the word dysphoria, but I suppose I was trying to make the best of agenda position.

Jesse: And I don't have the same position now. I'm like hormonally probably, you know, mostly well, I'm not, I don't feel very, I don't feel interpolated into the feminine these days. And increasingly the way I'm being taken up in the world is also changing, which is ambivalent and complicated and also a bit difficult, but it's at least different. And with the less femme I look and am, and maybe it's an age thing as well, the less, I want to put myself in public. And it's really like something like the opposite of shame. And I don't know how to talk about that very well, except to say that, you know, doing porn at the age of 17 was not the thing that began. It, it was like a symptom of like you know, the way I was living anyway, the way I felt like I had to live the way that all girls have to live, which is kind of always in public and always in some sense, conscious of what is of, of, of, of the performance that you're giving and how, how good an account of it, you know?

Jesse: So I think that I you know, I enjoyed some kind of online performance or like the persona. And then after a while people started to talk about it as a persona, you know, my Twitter and my Instagram. And, and then I got off and I said, it's not a persona. It's just, I'm just having fun online, like got a persona online. Like your cousin, your granny, a guy at the fish shop, don't make it whole thing. I'm just like anybody else, which I also think is true. And I said that it was a sexist and reductive reading that nobody talks about war holes, diaries, or [inaudible] diaries as performance. There was just some kind of like a secondary practice of, of you know, of a larger art project. And I said, it's just like that. Don't, don't get it twisted. Don't get hung up on it.

Jesse: And indeed that symptom, you know, that that was a corrective. And then yeah, that like the work in Tiffany is like the one work of its kind and Hey, maybe I'll do it again someday, but what was really fun about it was that it wasn't really about me. It was, there was a lot of other people in that performance. And yeah, I mean also controversial. I was trying to respond to the nine 11 myth through the myth of Antigony who of course like, yeah, she is going to be punished for having insisted that her brother, like the two brothers fight, one of them's buried, the other one is arbitrarily chucked outside the city gates to rock because, you know, somebody has to be an example and then Tiffany says, no, I'm going to bury him. I want to mourn him. And the king says, well, then you're going to die for it.

Jesse: And she says, all right, I'll die for it. And I thought about, again, very on the nose, the twin towers, the two brothers and who we are allowed to mourn and you know, yes, several thousand, a couple of thousand people lost their lives in New York on that day. And subsequently in Afghanistan and Iran and Iraq, many, many, many more thousands, you know, and those who didn't die have had to pay for it in other ways. And, you know, it's, again, this question, which I often think about is who gets to be innocent, which is related to this sort of surveillance, paranoia that I think about spell, you know,

Roddy: I'd love to just know kind of what projects are you working on right now and sort of what what sort of next in terms of your either public presentation or just new undertakings that you might be working on.

Jesse: Yeah. You know, I'm really trying to do I'm really trying to keep my head down a little bit at the moment. Well, while keeping my job kind of thing I I'm really, I really want to take some time to read and research because I want to actually think more about this history of extraction. I want to think about something like, I think it has something to do with the, the European project to banish death. And I think the extraction and exhumation have something in common. And I think that the question of who is innocent is also related to the question of who gets to die slash who's allowed to die as like what is allowed to die, which is also a history of monuments, which is also a history of mines. And, yeah. All right. So as you can hear, it's kind of a big thing, which as you probably also hear, I am really just pulling together really big swathes and I need to sit down and think pretty hard.

Jesse: And I want to do it just because it feels like that's the thing, like there's a lot of like half formed, but strongly felt ideas that I have. And certainly it's time for me to, to start working in a different way. I feel like I have been basically like the self extraction of my biography, my body, and my own experience has got to stop. One reason being, I'm just not as young as I used to be, and I'm tired. And the other reason being that it's just not that interesting. And I don't want to go deeper into where I haven't gone already because it's you know, some things have to be private. And so I dunno, I inevitably I'll find that it's autobiographical anyway in some way, but yeah, so I'm, I'm, I'm about to do a research fellowship, I guess, which is a kind of a ceramics fellowship, but I took from that not, I don't want to think about ceramics.

Jesse: I did want to think about clay and then I wanted to think about digging. So that's, you know, thinking again about mining and quarries and pulling things out of the ground and, you know I don't know, I, there was some shows coming up. I'm working on a show for the drawing center next year, which also, again, I don't really know what that's going to be, but it's exciting to, to think about drawing as part of my public practice. Cause it's quite new, but I am also supposed to be bringing out a book sometime next year. And the book is supposed to be a kind of I joked and said it was a non a graph, like like a kind of retrospective, but mainly of, of texts and written work, no, no docu and no like exhibition pictures or whatever, because no one cares about that.

Jesse: And I'm trying to, I'm trying to, you know, trying to figure out how to Delta, I'm thinking a lot about writing at the moment and, you know, I used to do, I used to do it much more and then I really make a very strong promise to myself and to everyone else. Again, I did it in public. Like I did bloody everything or I did. And I said that I would, no, I would, there would be no more contributions to the discourse and I kept up this promise and then the discourse kind of changed. And it's not that I feel now like that I must contribute to the discourse, but I only ever wrote and spoke. When I thought that it really, I had to say something because I didn't see it being said, and I'm starting to have that feeling again, that there's a few things that are, I just I'm like, all right. You know, waiting for someone to articulate what I want to hear said, and no one's said it yet. And if they do then then great, I don't have to do it

Roddy: Well, thank you so much, Jesse. I think that's a great place to leave the conversation today. And I want to remind everyone that you can find notes and until next time. Thanks for joining me at informer. And I hope that you'll join us again.

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