Interview with Ben Coonley

Gavan Blau

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Ben Coonley/Tiger Woods in Artist Statement, 2010
You have been making films for the Yale Experimental Philosophy (X-Phi) group, which describes X-Phi as “a new philosophical movement that supplements the traditional tools of analytic philosophy with the scientific methods of cognitive science [by running] systematic experiments aimed at understanding how people ordinarily think about the issues at the foundations of philosophical discussions.” How did you get involved in X-Phi?

I guess I should point out that I haven’t been making the videos on behalf of a Yale group, though I’ve consulted with various philosophy professors and grad students (from Yale and elsewhere) on the scripts and during editing. My x-phi videos are illustrations of some of their work, but the videos have never been used to gather data for any formal study and they aren’t part of the group’s activity.

Really, I got involved because of a personal friendship to Joshua Knobe, who I met through a mutual friend about 15 years ago. Josh now teaches at Yale, he’s a leading figure in the experimental philosophy movement, and he’s a co-author on all the studies I adapted/illustrated with my videos. When we first met years ago, I described myself to Josh as an “experimental filmmaker.” Josh hadn’t yet completed his PhD yet, but he explained that he was working on a type of philosophy he described as “experimental.” So for years Josh and I had this silly running joke about how we would one day collaborate on an “experimental-experimental philosophy video.”

Over the years, I got to see Josh and his colleagues present talks about x-phi both in academic settings and at more informal venues like bars and rock clubs. and I started to understand and better appreciate what they were doing with their work. I really liked their approach to disseminating their findings in both academic and non-academic spheres. They’re interested in “taking philosophy to the streets,” much in the way a lot of avant-garde artists would seek to merge art with everyday life.

The x-phi lectures and talks I attended often seemed to have this interactive format, in which the x-philosophers engaged in real and substantive dialogues with audiences. For instance, when introducing a study, audiences were informally polled to gather their opinions on the same questions that lab subjects were asked.. This way, the x-philosphers initiated a conversation about the subject they were exploring. Once they had presented the results and theories behind their controlled studies, audiences could better gauge whether the results were surprising, or they could better gather theories about why these results might look like they do, or they could make suggestions for what could be tested in order to clarify or expand on the results, etc.

So the x-phi presentations gave audiences the opportunity to look at philosophical questions from the inside and outside simultaneously, engaging emotional and intellectual faculties. And, perhaps most important to me, there was always this thin thread of storytelling involved in the studies… funny little narratives that demanded some kind of a moral evaluation — a forced audience reaction. In this sense, it felt a little bit like some kind of interactive, self-reflexive reading or performance art.

So I was attracted to the formal structure of x-phi studies and presentations. For many years, I had also using brief narratives to interrupt and respond to little pseudo-lectures in my videos and performances… but in my own work, it was a much sillier self-reflexive type of didacticism that always unravels or collapses in on itself. So I thought it would be fun to take a crack at illustrating or replicating the structure of an x-phi as a video…doing something with a genuine (non-parodic) pedagogical aim.


So Josh and I got together one afternoon and we wrote, shot and edited the first video, an adaptation and illustration of Josh’s famous study on intentional action, AKA the “Knobe effect,” all in about 24 hours. We convinced Eugene Mirman, a comedian who is a mutual friend of Josh and mine and who lives in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood where we live, to narrate and “host” the video. Then we threw the video up on YouTube where it continues to get a lot of confused and angry responses from Eugene’s fans.

I was happy with the way that video turned out, but I wanted to see if an x-phi illustration video might be used to gather the same type of data that a controlled x-phi study could generate. So a few years later, I made another x-phi video, this time using interactive annotation features of YouTube to allow for a kind of crude “data gathering” of audience responses through YouTube clicks.

And with this latest video, the moral relativity video, I wanted to take a more interpretive approach to illustrating/adapting an x-phi study. Of the three I’ve made, it’s the least faithfully illustrative and the most liberally interpretive of its source material. In this case, I decided to use technologies that allowed audiences to slip between 3D and 2D viewership. The original study that this video adapts was about folk understandings of moral relativism…the ability to believe that two seemingly contradictory moral positions are both “true”.

It seemed like a good fit to use 3D technology for a philosophical illustration of relativist/objectivist morality. Stereo vision is an interesting kind of “relativist” phenomenon, in that it allows the brain to perceive two literally different images (left and right eye views) without registering any contradiction. In fact, when left and right perspectives converge nicely, we get a much fuller understanding of the world—a perception of depth. But with my video, I use 3D in different ways—some shots allow the viewer’s eyes to see together to create illusions of depth, but other shots force the left and right eyes to see two completely different independent non-stereo images, and some shots are regular “flat” 2D (same image for both eyes), which provides contrast for the binocular sections.

How do you feel about the X-phi approach of looking at questions of culture and semiotics in an empirical manner, as opposed to the ways in which it is actualised in artistic practice?

Artistic practice is usually anecdotal and subjective in its approach to decoding or critiquing culture… which I guess would stand in contrast to the x-phi approach of using rigorous empirical methods (as opposed to a priori reasoning) to better understand how people think and feel. But the scenarios used in x-phi studies always involve some kind of imaginative element (e.g. the hypothetical case about the “pentars” in the morality study), in order to test responses. So there’s a creative and subjective aspect, even if it’s not art.

Like all scientific research, x-phi studies demand follow-up, refinement, and clarification. And the x-philosophers I’ve met genuinely welcome critique and response to their work. I’m of the opinion that too much contemporary art wants to be self-contained, unique, the “final word” on a subject. I’m for a form of critical art practice that doesn’t necessarily terminate with an individual artwork. So many of my works attempt to continue and/or initiate correspondences that can reverberate in and outside of traditional forums for art. For instance, this exchange with Constant Dullaart, in which I made a series of works about YouTube responding to Constant’s works about YouTube… and then he made a sculpture responding to my response.

↑ Original work by Constant Dullart

↑ Coonley’s response

↑ Dullart’s Sculpture
Saul Kripke and Bertrand Russell famously argued about intensionality using a thought experiment in which Gödel’s theorem has been misattributed to Kurt Godel, and is actually the work of a man named Schmidt. According to Russell’s descriptivist theory of names, when we say “Godel” we’re actually referring to Schmidt because “Gödel” is merely shorthand for “the man who devised the famous theorem”. On the other hand, in Kripke’s causal theory describes an originary act of naming in which a name is designated upon an object, which is then transmitted through historical processes, and so we would be referring to Godel.

As an emerging field X-Phi supplements this problem with experimental data, and in this case has shown that people in New Jersey are significantly more likely to adopt Kripke’s view than people in Hong Kong.

So, has X-Phi has provided any insights for you as to how meaning is culturally encoded and might be re-encoded by artists?

It’s difficult for me to generalize about this, but the insights of x-phi studies have made me think about specific theories of how meaning is constructed by media culture. For instance, one particular study asked respondents to evaluate the happiness of two female characters with seemingly identical emotional states. But the characters are written so that their personalities roughly correspond to the so-called “Madonna-Whore” archetypes of Western culture.

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In that study respondents appeared to be equally able to imagine each of the characters as capable of living unhappy lives. On the other hand, respondents appeared to believe that only the Madonna character would be capable of living a happy and fulfilling life.

While this study was not ostensibly about the “Madonna-Whore dichotomy” — happiness and unhappiness being the variable in the study — it did lead me to consider how the “Madonna-whore dichotomy” persists culturally and ties in to fundamental Western understandings of happiness and agency. In my understanding, the experiment suggests that specific moral values can determine whether we see another as being “happy,” and so these cultural codes also seem to affect the degree to which we empathise with someone.

So the work might provide empirical evidence for issues raised within feminist cultural theory, which is very established in discussing the prevalence and negative impacts of the Whore-Madonna construct in culture. Here, we are actually looking at how this construct functions, particularly with respect to how culture might justify or perpetuate injustices by linking ideas of self-interest to dominant gender norms.

Of course the x-philosophers picked these archetypes because they are controversial and produce high affect in respondents and strong empirical results. The study on moral absolutism similarly made use of a “noble savage” archetype. Because people were more morally relativist with respect to the “noble savage” than say, people of more similar cultures, the study did seem to suggest a cultural continuum for difference that extends towards the non-human (i.e. the Pentars). In this sense the “noble savage” seems to be a subject of dehumanisation.

Even in the experiments that included characters such as Corporate CEOs or notions such as “the environment“ are presented as coded types, so it was easy to find images for such concepts, e.g., pictures such as a girl, next to a windmill, holding a flower.

In making my videos, I tried to foreground the tendency of x-phi to draw on dominant cultural codes by leaving in “stock image” digital watermarks over my background images. I wanted to make it explicit that these worlds and people are not real, and that these archetypes are merely shorthand for signifying a broad range of ideas about a fictional subject. For the illustration of the “pentar” study, I created this anthropologist character as a bit of a clueless blowhard who has exaggeratedly shocked responses to situations and viewpoints that run contrary to dominant cultural norms.

People are very susceptible to dominant cultural values and codes and the x-phi work trades in that, uses it to draw out inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies in our understandings of basic philosophical concepts.

How has X-Phi has influenced your work?

My undergraduate degree was in “Art-Semiotics,” which meant I was exposed to a lot of poststructuralist theory, film theory and interpretations of culture heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, Marxist theory, etc. My work will always be (at least in part) informed by this early immersion in critical theory. Like the experimental philosophers, I value theoretical approaches to understanding culture. But it always seemed to me that some theories can and should be tested. For instance, if there is a bias toward the “male gaze” in classical Hollywood cinema, how exactly does it actually impact the psychology of real viewers, not just an idealized “spectator”?

One of the things I love about x-phi is that it rejects the idea that armchair reasoning can do everything to solve problems that are, fundamentally, about the way people and cultures think. So it’s a lot less mushy (and perhaps a bit more “square”) than the world of ideas I was exposed to as a student… and it acknowledges how little we really know about ourselves and the way cultures operate. And while it’s seemingly very straightforward, it’s also surprisingly imaginative — full of idiosyncrasies and dissonant details. It’s an approach that lends itself to creative production.

One video you made relating to “Folk Moral Relativism” includes a thought experiment that features the “Pentars”, a hyper rational alien species that seek only to reshape everything as pentagons. In the accompanying piece for WSJ, you repurpose the “Pentars”, and I wonder if you had any viewpoints or ideas in mind that correspond to the Pentars?

In making the x-phi video about the Pentars, I had a lot of fun thinking about the practical implications of how we got to know what the Pentar thinks. The original x-phi study doesn’t describe the Pentar in much detail…but it does tell us about the Pentar’s moral evaluation of a human being stabbing someone to test a knife’s sharpness. It’s a bizarre premise of the original x-phi study…and one of its most intriguing components.

In thinking about how to represent the Pentars, I also tried to imagine how the Pentars replicate, since they (presumably) don’t care about anything except for making things into Pentagons… but they must replicate somehow. So that’s what I’m fooling around with in the WSJ piece.

A recurring motif or character in your work is that of cats, seemingly in consideration of youtube as a mode of presentation for art.
Could you talk about the use of cats in your work and how it has developed over time?

Cats are my favourite actors because they are the right mix of predictable and wild. They make a lot of decisions for you… they keep the work lively and unpredictable. At the same time, their facial expressions are indifferent enough that they can be easily manipulated as “characters” through editing and special effects.

There is actually a rich history of how cultures might be comprehended with respect to their relationship to cats. Throughout history, cats were alternatively thought of as gods by the Egyptians, familiars belonging to witches during the renaissance; and still now a symbol of good luck in Japan. What might our current relationship to cats, particularly online, say about our specific moment?

I think we’ve probably inherited a little bit of all these past/foreign cultures’ understanding of cats in our contemporary relationship to them. But infantalization, generally, seems to be an especially pervasive trend in contemporary Western (and far Eastern) culture. And I suppose we increasingly use cats as a kind of infant-ideal. Which is kind of an insult to full-grown cats, right? When I watch my cat Otto — who is now almost ten years old — scrutinize and patiently interact with my one-and-a-half year old daughter, it makes me realize just how much of an grownup he really is.

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Liam Gillick, A Kitchen Cat Speaks 2010
So, what would a short conversation be like between your cat Otto and Liam Gillick’s Kitchen Cat that bears witness to history?

I’ve never seen the kitchen cat in person. But I asked Otto, who is probably familiar with that work from reading about it, and he just started purring and vigorously kneading a blanket on my couch…eyes rolling into the back of his head. So I think if my personified version of Otto were lucky enough to have a sitting with the animatronic Kitchen Cat, he would probably just gaze into her eyes, nodding off while listening to her repeat her circular stories, again, again, until… oh, he’s licking his ass now.

The Italian Futurists were very excited by technology and industrial development and sought to express modernity through the aesthetics of speed, movement and the “Machine Age”. Of course we now know their techno-optimism led to an alliance with fascism. In your piece, “Why Cecco Beppe Does Not Die (A Futurist Reenactment)”, there is some scope to reconsider the Futurist legacy in relation to current technologies. Do you see parallels between the Futurists and current technophiles, and do you see this manifesting aesthetically in any particular way?

Yes, but where to begin? The values of Futurism (speed, innovation, violence, militaristic patriotism, misogyny) are fairly mainstream in contemporary American culture and politics. Meanwhile, I think there’s growing uneasiness with the rapid acceleration of networked technologies and human-machine interfaces—from the recent backlash against Google Glass to the outrage over the leaked information about the NSA surveillance programs—and a growing awareness on that the embrace of newness and technology have a political cost. It’s not avant-garde to hold Futurist values anymore.

And in “Valentine for Perfect Strangers”, your cat Otto attempts internet dating and quotes Walter Benjamin, saying “that the only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.” It has now been some years since you made that video, which could be said to express some anxiety as to the internet as a platform for social life. Now several years later, how have those anxieties played out? How have they changed or been alleviated?

I was ambivalent but mostly optimistic about the social possibilities of the Internet in 2006. I had made public access TV shows as a teenager, and I think I will always see video as a broadcast medium. So there was something so unbelievably exhilarating and romantic about the rise of YouTube, the possibility of this new platform for amateur broadcasting, forging intimate connections with worldwide audiences….and real reciprocity in the form of video responses. I was genuinely seduced by it. For a few months or maybe a full year, it felt like a trial run of Paik’s global groove in actual effect, the best public access TV channel of all time. But I think I kind of knew this was destined to be a temporary utopia. And there were also things to dislike. The interaction between users was rigidly pre-structured, delineated and heavily muddled by the aesthetics and structural parameters of the interface. There were clues that it wouldn’t last.

Then “genres” for web video started to calcify… and the limits of how YouTube could and would be used became increasingly rigid, with obscene and copyright-infringing materials being flagged and taken down almost immediately. Now if you look at YouTube’s current layout, they’ve downplayed the “video response,” they’ve added pre-roll and pop-up ads to just about every video…and worst of all there’s the huge proliferation of professional, corporate, or sponsored content. Even though there’s a lot more content on there than in 2006, it’s much harder to find the good stuff. Seven years ago, the top 10 YouTube videos of all time were all amateur creations. Now it’s Justin Beiber videos. The only real “amateur” video left in YouTube’s Top 20 all time is “Charlie Bit My Finger”…which I love, of course…it’s a perfect web video. But it’s hard to imagine another “Charlie Bit My Finger” finding it’s way into the public consciousness. There’s too much competition. YouTube is a much duller, less personal, less human social platform than it used to be. So I’m much more anxious about the future of social life on the Internet than I was 7 years ago. But Vine is still pretty cool….I’m not entirely freaked out.

Questions by Gavan Blau

Gavan Blau is editor-at-large for West Space Journal.