The year is 2019. As we look around, how could we not feel vexed, to put it mildly, with the current state of affairs? As a popular IG meme articulates in one short sentence, there abounds a sense of the diabolical with regards to art practice of any kind: “I feel ridiculous going to the studio every day while the world burns and society crumbles,” it declares in 8 different fonts. So what’s up? Why is art so impotent in the face of our precarious present?

    It was probably always like this, but the insidious market forces propelling contemporary art’s circulation have become its most visible dimension. The channels of validation that lead to “success” for emerging artists feel a lot like an impoverished replica of corporate innovation pipelines. It seems as though there is actually very little distance today, at least in Los Angeles where we live, between startup culture ideology and the ways in which young contemporary artists organize themselves— both rely on keen rhetorical and aesthetic rouses to engage audiences, both rely on heavily curated branding and marketing strategies, usually through corporate or institutional infrastructure, and both distort their politics to meet audience demand. Startups obviously want to turn profit, and while most young artists will say they are less concerned with this aspect of their practice, they continue to engage with—or see no alternative than to engage with—a market system that explicitly contradicts their earnest intentions.

    Thinking through this overlap, we started with theorist Stephen Wright’s ideas around de-ontologizing art, liberating it from its “Art” context so it to can become actualized on a 1:1 scale — instead of mimetics, instead of representation, the actual. For a long time artists have been arguing for art beyond art, art that’s not art and yet not, not art — but the notion of the scalable prompted a new line of inquiry. It’s possible to trace this (admittedly) quasi-accelerationist agenda back to the failed project of social practice art in the U.S. that took hold in the mid-aughts through 2010, and which largely operated from within a localized and experiential framework. Now, from our post-2011 perspective and in the midst of a global communications takeover, it could not be any clearer that no amount of nu-wicca anti-gentrification assemblies in Frogtown (quietly sponsored by <name_your_commercial_gallery>) are going to halt L.A.’s housing crisis. We are firmly post-pot luck.

    The question then: how does art—how do artists—compete with a planetary scale visioning of the 21st century? Where do we locate art’s relevancy in a cultural environment that feels increasingly dominated by complex and alarming technological innovation, especially when artists are graduating from U.S. art schools with more than $100K of debt and few specialized skills to intervene in the advanced technological sphere? Can artists seize the reigns from big tech? Should this be our primary agenda? Or, as one gallery advocates in their recent press for L.A. painter Justin John Greene, should we concede that art is nothing but the worship of powers we can’t control, a chilling sense of unease, and the conspiracy that hides in plain sight as we recklessly speed by it?

    We aren’t sure, but such ambivalence and resignation feels like a cop out. We made Esse as a rudimentary foray into the contested territory of corporate infrastructure, hoping to learn something from the inside out. The concept of Esse is this: a speculative startup that explores the possibilities for temporal disruption posed by Google’s Scheduled Send feature for email. Immediately struck by Gmail’s new organizational tool, we thought about how it might be used in renegade fashion, say, to facilitate a 21st-century, mass-recipient suicide note, or to aid the clandestine activity of a whistleblower...

    Originally we wanted to make a video in response to this idea. At the same time, we were struck by the frequency of similarly designed IG ads haunting our feeds, all touting a repetition of certain words, phrases, and syntax. We imagined a Semiotics of the Startup — Martha Rosler reincarnate as an AI avatar influencer. From here, it felt necessary to examine the power that these linguistic motifs possess, and to think through the role and function of the interface as the mediator between narrative and reality. The work, we realized, could not be video, could not be photography, but had to take the form of the interface itself.

    The difficulty is figuring out how to make work in this space without casually valorizing technocapitalist aesthetics—akin to the risk of diving into ANCAP meme culture without getting red pilled. If we can anticipate where tech is heading, can we avert, subvert, or intervene, as Metahaven propose, before the dystopic, profiteering arrival of the real thing? Is this speculative art’s potential? Or are we reenforcing our entrenchment in these complex, interconnected, accelerationist networks of information and capital?