Side Note

The family dynamic, presented in a never-ending series of pop-up windows

Ryan Kuo’s “Family Maker” denaturalizes the digital.

In the best possible way, the work of digital artist Ryan Kuo instills within me a palpable sense of alienation and dread. Exploring his experiments with HTML tables, video pieces, juxtapositions of animation and text, and navigating through his applications often makes me feel like I’m using a computer for the very first time, which in turn places the unnatural nature of the digital space at the forefront. He emphasizes this sense of denaturalization, using the building blocks of various coding languages in ways that rebel against the supposed logic of their forms.

His newest work, “Family Maker,” is especially striking. In an interview with Rhizome, he described the project by saying, “[it’s] a Mac application about my family, but it’s objectively a working idea of a family, populated by windows, albeit with names like Ego and Trauma that can’t help but prompt association-making.” He continued, “Maybe the work seems personal [to the user] because I outlined the shapes, but didn't fill them with details. Maybe you reflexively filled in a vivid backstory, drawing on your own memory. That is what I would like this work to do for people.”

On first blush, “Family Maker” appears to present the family dynamic in ways that make rational sense. But as you click and slide, things behave in strange ways. Fiddle with the wrong box in the wrong way, and suddenly the “Home” window becomes toxic, its icon shifting from a house to a biohazard warning. Set the son’s “Control” slider at zero, and the “Contentment” rises while a “Guilt” meter drops to zero. Press the son’s “Try” button, however, and another window pops up, instructing you to press another button marked “work,” creating an endless cycle of pop-ups as the “Guilt” meter rises despite the original choice to cede control. Press “Cry,” on the other hand, and the “Mother” pop-up tells you to stop. Opening her “Memory” folder yields a window marked “Pain,” with options marked “Public” and “Private.” With every click, a new box pops up, and soon enough, managing the different outcomes leads to a total cessation of agency to the software itself. Just like in real-life relationships, it’s hard to predict what effect an action will have, and once a new window enters the screen, it rarely goes away.