In the studio with KA Bird

In the studio with KA Bird, a queer, visual artist whose practice is about harnessing the processes and strategies of information circulation, and investigating the human in technology. We met with KA to tell us more about growing up on a farm on the outskirts of Hartlepool, her greatest influences, and relying on instinct and intuition.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I remember first consciously feeling like an artist when I was around 6.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I grew up gay on a farm on the outskirts of Hartlepool, a town in North East England. From the living room window you could trace the river Tees from the coast across in-land stretching into a full panorama of industrial chemical plants with its alien architecture. It has a drama at night when the chimneys billow hazy vapour, flames flash and the lights of the plants radiate this lurid orange hue which sets the skyline aglow with eerie luminance.

There is an industrial influence in my methods and process. I appreciate order, rhythm and precision. I approach constructing a painting as parts to be assembled. But I am susceptible to things that are incongruous or strange. I was fixated on video games as a kid, but I still remember when we got dial-up internet at home, it was hugely significant. The internet became this formative influence; a means through which I understood myself and learned to relate to others. My work refers to the way representations are made, changed and disseminated through our technological apparatus.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? 

I didn’t really consider anything else as a serious option. I’ve always been obsessive with my interests, at the expense of everything else. It couldn’t have been any other way. As well as drawing and painting, I spent a lot of time when I was younger playing and making music, which like art is a way of communicating ideas and resolving problems that evade articulation. Representing and remixing the artefacts of my environment, digital and physical, is how I come to comprehend the world around me.

Not everything works out, it’s important to experiment and ask questions of yourself. I’ve painted myself into corners before, but I know I’m onto something because the process of painting I’ve been developing gives me pleasure, which comes through in the work. I get to indulge myself.

What’s the message of your work?  

The recurrent issues explored in the work relate to identity, autonomy and privacy within an environment of expansive digital integration into every facet of our external and internal experience.  How tech changes our bodies and how we see ourselves. How our thoughts and behaviours are captured, commodified and directed by obscure interests. The works are a tongue-in-cheek mediation on the enmeshment of the individual within natural and synthetic networks.

I’m not sure how I’d describe my aesthetic, garish?

Who are your greatest influences? 

Lynch, Singer, Steyerl. Film, music, internet culture in general.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

I’m into hotel comparison websites. It’s the user-generated content I like with its authentic, uncontrived amateur lens rather than the professional photographs. I love trawling through the images the guests post of their stays and reading their comments and ratings. I’m a holiday voyeur.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

 I try to imbue images with a sense of movement and dynamism as a way of depicting the instability and capricious nature of images. I’m looking to express the distorting journey images make as they transfer across different platforms and devices. I don’t really need the viewer to know what is being represented within an image. I want the content to be evasive, as if to avoid detection, the image may need to utilise dazzle camouflage; ostentatious hiding as a survival tactic.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practice?

I spent a lot of time at uni making digital art, video and creating temporary site-specific installations. I experimented with analogue video and VCRs, digital editing-software, found some free browser-based image generating applications as a source of ‘raw material’ and appropriated images from online. I still rely on this stuff a lot when drafting a new composition for a painting, which I arrange on photoshop.

I began to focus on painting because I needed to create work with better haptics. It was a necessary response to spending so long almost exclusively looking at screens to move towards adapting the processes into a more palpable and substantive method of making that I could realise with my physical body.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I’m trying to rely more on instinct and intuition. Good work eludes force.

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

“but which one is the gay4pay girlboss goals and which one is the computer-generated anthropomorphic AI advertisement start-up”

The title plays on that question gay women are often asked “…so like which one of you is the man?”  The question in the title of my work asks what forms of queer representation are palatable/acceptable and who gets to make them?  

The work loosely refers to an ad campaign by a famous fashion brand from 2019 in which a supermodel heiress kisses virtual Instagram influencer Lil Miquela for the purposes of selling clothes.  LM is a beautiful CGI, 19-year old girl-shaped advertising vehicle, owned and developed by a digital media start-up. She presents like a sentient robot on her social media accounts, an individual who is socially conscious and politically active, in a way that deliberately mirrors the millennial/gen-z audience she is targeted at.

The technology behind LM is unclear but she is an avatar – a fictional character with a cute backstory more comparable with the Compare the Market meerkats.  LM has advocated for charities supporting LGBTQ+ rights and BLM etc. on her Instagram but it’s difficult to reconcile the purported interest in these causes when a. she is not real and b. the company behind her has generated millions of dollars’ worth of investment from venture capital firms and ad revenues in partnering with luxury fashion brands. 

The problem of the advertising industry editing, smoothing, tucking, objectifying and/or otherwise projecting some unreality onto women’s bodies is obviously vast and well documented.  This iteration does away with the messy and corruptible female body entirely, in favour of an infinitely mutable, ageless virtual one.  I find this depiction so interesting because LM is supposed to be aspirational, “goals”, desirable etc. but without any of the drawbacks that comes with actually inhabiting a physical body unlike most of her audience.  To consider her representative of a typical teen, there first must be a pretty serious suspension of disbelief.  It’s a commodification of the sensibilities and priorities of the self-aware and socially progressive.

Like LM, the super model also embodies a type of unreality.  Profound personal wealth, physical beauty and global influence is utterly unobtainable and wholly outside the lived reality of most other people, let alone women/queers/gender non-conforming people. The overt message within the ad is of personal emancipation, which is kind of redundant when it’s delivered with a for-profit motive by someone who can claim little first-hand experience of oppression.

The issue is of course heaps more complicated.  It is absolutely necessary for non-heteronormative bodies and narratives to be represented in all facets of our visual culture.  Fashion is a constituent part of an individual’s identity and a vital means of self-expression and community building. Brands have hits as well as misses in ads geared towards the LGBTQ+ community. There are more ostensibly positive examples too.

The aim of the work is to probe at the unauthentic and profit-motivated co-opting of queer identity and issues of performative allyship broadly, with a tongue-in-cheek humour and not to attack or single-out any individual or company. The issue of representation is not just about who is standing in front of the camera, but who is standing behind it.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

The weird basement space beneath my flat.

What do you listen to while you work? Is music important to your art?

I can only work with the constant accompaniment of sound. Music, podcasts, radio, youtube etc

What is your favorite read?

I reread John Gray regular. I get off on the despair.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received (any quotes or mantras you particularly connect with)?

An old boss of mine, when trying to explain about some planned structural changes in the department, told me reassuringly that if things got really bad there would always be a bus to jump in front of. Whenever I feel fragile I imagine a bus catching me in its big strong arms.

What makes you laugh?

Anything with Julia Davis.

What makes you nervous?

The super catchphrase pyramid.

Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?

Absolutely not.

Is there anything you’ve recently tried for the first time? 

I’ve recently tried quitting vaping, and I find myself smoking again. 🙁 

Is there anything you’ve been hesitant to try in the past but you’d like to this year?

I’m being priced out of my twice yearly balayage and have been thinking about going box-dye brown fml.

Do you have any superstitions?

I cannot sleep in the dark.

Would you rather know what the future holds or be surprised?

Knowing the future would be horrible.

What palace in your everyday environment do you go to for inspiration?

Click-bait articles.

What are some things you’re most passionate about outside of your practice?

Climbing, surfing, going to gigs and to the cinema. I’m spoiled for all that in Newcastle.

What is your relationship with social media?

Reluctant. It’s a necessary evil.