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Los Angeles
Chatbots and Chance Operations: An Interview with John O'Connor
by Megan Liu Kincheloe

New York, Nov. 2013: John O’Connor is known for his colorful, intricately patterned drawings, often structured by a series of chance operations and other times informed by found text and data. Recently, O’Connor has added appropriated text from spam email and chatbots into these systems. We met on the occasion of his fourth solo exhibition at Pierogi Gallery, “The Machine and the Ghost” and his recently released catalogue featuring essays by Robert Storr, John Yau, Rick Moody, and Susan Swenson.

A devoted professor, O’Connor had invited his students from Sarah Lawrence and Pratt Institute to the gallery to see his exhibition of new works with a tour and discussion. I listened in with them while taking in the show again before our conversation. As a past student of O’Connor’s I was happy to catch up with him and talk about some new directions in the work.

John O’Connor, "Strange Loop," 2012, Acrylic and ink on epoxy clay, 29 x 13 x 11 inches; Courtesy the artist and Pierogi Gallery.

Megan Liu Kincheloe: Tell me about the exhibition’s title, “The Machine and the Ghost.”

John O’Connor: It has to do with artificial intelligence and relates to the work from the last show, dealing with the Turing Test—thinking about machines acting human. I wanted to flip it, as if these separate parts—the machine and the ghost—were equal and could talk to each other.

There’s a lot of humor in the show but I didn’t want the title to read too funny. I thought if I gave the exhibition a casual title it might make it all seem like a big joke.

MLK: What do you think about jokes in art?

JOC: I’d always thought that art had to be about serious stuff, but at Skowhegan I did these drawings about the weather and people laughed at them. I didn’t intend to be funny, but actually it’s an interesting way to get people to enter a work. I always loved comedy and comedians: the rhythm and the performance of it, and that feeling of surprise.

Language has become much more prominent in my work since then. I wanted to get more into the actual patterns of speech, thinking of language more as content and not as something that just leads to an image. I recently co-taught a class on appropriation with the writer Rick Moody. I didn’t know about the level of appropriation in writing that he was introducing us to and I began to write a lot more. It helped me understand the differences between language on the written page versus text in a painting or drawing—differentiating how we read a form versus how we read a word. Sometimes I use a clear narrative to subvert formal expectations. I realized I was most interested in the least legible parts of my written work and, conversely, in reading the images of my paintings and drawings.  

John O’Connor, Cleverbot II, 2013, Graphite and colored pencil on shaped paper, 38.5 x 28 inches; Courtesy the artist and Pierogi Gallery.


MLK: You’re using text from bots and spam emails and have created an actual artificial intelligence bot. What drew you to mine this sort of language?

JOC: Cleverbot’s language has developed through real people talking to it for years. So I think of it as collective speech that can distill some essence of the way people actually think.

Spam is even more mysterious to me. In some ways I understand it. I get it all the time—I know how they’re supposed to read, that they want something, and that it’s fake. I think they work because they’re tapping into something about the way we’re programmed to behave. I started to see that type of language as pattern recognition. I could recognize that I was being manipulated by something trying to disguise itself through language and I’m interested in how that contemporary language exploits our primitive impulses towards sex and power.

When I started using randomness, it was a way to trick myself out of making the same choices. Using chance led me to do things I normally wouldn’t. But as I’ve gotten into these questions of what makes us intelligent, how we communicate, and how computers operate, it leads to the feeling that we’re just reducible to a code or something. There are these basic limits in how we are structured.

MLK: In thinking about Portrait of a Psychopath (2012) I realized that psychopaths and chatbots both act without emotion. Is that pointed in any way?

JOC: Yeah, in a way those spam messages are a sort of psychopathic email. And all spam plays off the fear of not living up to what you’re supposed to be. In Love Letters (2013), someone says, “I knew a man who gave up the ghost when he lost his potency.” God, that’s a man’s worst nightmare: fears of emasculation and death! The language is dark, like being dominated, a perversion. And it can provoke reactions you can’t ignore.

MLK: Love Letters and other paintings pair historical letters with spam, such as spam from a character named Beyonce with Napoleon’s love letter to Josephine. Can you talk about these combinations?

JOC: The pairing of opposites goes back to Alfred Jensen for me. The point in pieces like Love Letters was taking two polar things, pushing them together, and rolling them down the street. I want to see if they fall apart or if they transform in unpredictable ways. I set an experiment and when things collide there’s this moment where it’s completely new. I feel like a forensic recorder documenting what happens when two things try to destroy each other.

John O’Connor, Scumbag, 2012, Graphite and colored pencil on shaped paper, 22 x 10 inches; Courtesy the artist and Pierogi Gallery.


MLK: With Scumbag (2012) and Idiot (2012), there’s profanity and pornographic search terms—how do you relate to those? Does it just come up as a character of the Internet?

JOC: I’m interested in how the Internet allows us to express extreme language, politics, even conspiracies. I looked up the most offensive words that you could call someone. Some of them I knew and others I had to ask my wife. My friend Ken Weathersby said this is the first show where my work gave off another persona. That’s never happened before. Many people ask me, “Did you do this thing?” It was a strange separation, but I guess that’s what you get when you write the word “meatbang.”

MLK: So what are you working toward now?

JOC: Right now, I’m making a piece for a show that the director Darren Aronofsky is organizing around the release of his new film, which should be out this winter. Aronofsky asked a group of artists to deal with a theme in any way we wanted. And then with Ken Weathersby and Noah Dillon I’m trying to organize a show around the work of Alfred Jensen. It’s good to have things in store after a show closes.


Megan Liu Kincheloe



ArtSlant would like to thank John O'Connor for his assistance in making this interview possible.


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