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App close and personal: Meet Karen, she wants your data

22 April 2015

Using a series of psychological testing techniques, Karen is going to get to know you inside-out on your mobile phone. The new app, co-comissioned by The Space, has been created by Brighton-based art group Blast Theory. The Space's ELEANOR TURNEY spoke to them about why 'life coach' Karen is more than she first appears.

Karen is a life coach and she’s happy to help you work through a few things in your life.

“We’re in a moment where our awareness of how data is being produced and harvested is very high,” says Matt Adams of UK-based company, Blast Theory.

“The term ‘big data’ has been around for a few years, but it hasn’t been looked at so much in relation to culture. It’s been looked at in terms of health, buying patterns, surveillance and political uses, but it also has implications for culture.”

She develops a kind of friend-crush on you, which shifts your relationship

In its latest project, co-commissioned by The Space, Blast Theory examines these implications in a creative and fascinating way. Karen, an app available to download for iOS, takes data that users choose to share to form a picture of each user – and to produce a disturbingly personal experience.

Adams explains: “Karen is a mobile phone app where you meet ‘Karen’, who is a life coach. She offers to coach you, and through interacting with her, taking her life coaching, it very quickly becomes clear that the boundaries between Karen’s professional life and her personal life are slightly unstable.

“You start to see Karen at home, in a whole range of different settings, some of which are less appropriate than others. She develops a kind of friend-crush on you, which shifts your relationship into new places.”

Karen is both part of, and a response to, growing interest in personal data, and how valuable that can be to companies, governments and people with a product to sell. Blast Theory is interested in this use of data.

“We’re starting to have experiences – a service like Netflix is a good example – when they understand to an incredible degree what you like,” adds Adams. “Netflix knows which films you watch, which ones you quit, which ones you look at as you browse through to choose, which trailers you watch. We’re not looking to say if that’s a good thing, we’re looking to pose critical questions about it.”

Karen is part of that questioning process, and part of Blast Theory’s continuing quest to make work that is interactive in some way.

“The reason we’re interested in the ideas behind Karen, and the reason we’ve spent the last couple of years developing it, is to look at the ways in which corporations and governments are increasingly harvesting our data, manipulating it and interpreting it in ways that we don’t fully understand," says Adams.

“All of your interactions with Karen are being governed by systems of psychological profiling. We did research going back to the Second World War, going back to the origins of psychological profiling and assessment, and not surprisingly it began in the military.

“It looks at some of the assumptions and biases that are present in those different approaches to categorising and understanding people, to weighting people on, for example, whether they’re neurotic, or extrovert, or agreeable. So, those kind of scales are then built into the app, and Karen responds to you accordingly as the story develops.

“We’re essentially looking at how data is captured and manipulated. That sees its final form in the app, where the last thing you get when you finish the experience is the opportunity to buy a data report on how you interacted, how we interpreted those interactions and the science upon which those interpretations were based.”

Not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but the Karen app is part of a long line of interactive artworks – as Adams is keen to point out, humans have been making “interactive” work for thousands of years.

“Right the way through the twentieth century you have a whole range of different artistic movements that are all making work that invites the audience to interact in one form or another.

“Personally, I don’t believe there is any meaningful separation between art and technology. The average West End musical will have more computing power than was used on the Apollo mission to the Moon. Even though there’s nothing visible onstage, backstage it’s being cued and run digitally.

The average West End musical will have more computing power than was used on the mission to the Moon

“Even areas we don’t think of as super-high tech are actually technological, even before we get into the more obvious places where technology is changing what culture is doing. Live-streaming of theatre and opera, those kind of things. So for me, it’s a slightly artificial distinction.

"It’s important to say that I am not interested in art that is inherently technological, in and of itself. That on its own doesn’t intrigue me. We’re not looking to make technological work. What we’re looking to do is to think about the new reality in which we’re all operating.”

For some, this new reality is willingly entered into, and for others it’s a frightening thing, to be avoided. For Adams, there is a fascination with the way technology shapes our lives, but also a heightened awareness of how it is being used. “Digital art”, of the kind that Blast Theory makes, is not new either, though, and Adams points out that the lineage goes back a long way:

“Digital art goes back to the 1960s, and it has a long history across a range of different sectors. It’s important not to assume that this work originates with the internet or in the last ten years. For us, there is a social and political dimension to making interactive work, which is that it is in some way an anti-modernist project to suggest that all art and artists are context-specific. It only has meaning within a certain framework to a certain audience.”

“There’s no such thing as an inherently great piece of art that’s just great wherever it is. There’s this idea that, say, Picasso’s work is equally great wherever it goes, but it’s not, of course, it’s a cultural thing. We’re looking to make work that has meaning for a very particular audience in a very particular context.”

For Karen, that audience might be those looking for a new experience, those keen to try something different – and those willing to allow an app access to their data. “For the most devoted participants in this experience,” says Adams, “there will also be an opportunity to attend a secret rendezvous with Karen somewhere in the UK over the summer.”

Intrigued? Download Karen and start chatting – she’s waiting for your call.

Karen is a new work by Blast Theory co-commissioned by The Space, National Theatre Wales and 539 Kickstarter backers. It has been developed with support from the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham and in collaboration with Dr Kelly Page.

Karen can be downloaded for free from the iOS App Store now, and will be available for Android devices soon.

What is Karen?

You interact with Karen through an iOS app. She asks questions about your outlook on the world to get an understanding of you. Her questions are drawn from psychological profiling questionnaires.

The software is profiling you and Karen gives you advice based on your answers. It is soon clear that she is slightly chaotic with few boundaries between her personal and professional lives.

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