Sam Lavigne spent a lot of time meditating on his own death and shopping over the course of a recent week. To different extents, we all have.
But Lavigne was doing it in support of a new project, Online Shopping Center, now on display at his studio at Red Hook’s Pioneer Works. For the project, Lavigne hooked his head up to an EEG machine during those two enormous parts of his mental activity, and built a rudimentary machine-learning program to analyze his brain’s activity during online shopping and thinking about his own death. The program began to identify patterns that were consistent with each mental activity and to form a profile of which is which.
Lavigne decided to wear the EEG hooked up to the program while he slept, and for three days he filmed it. During the night, the program would register whether his mental activity was closer to online shopping or closer to thinking about his own death. If it was closer to online shopping, the program would go to Amazon or Alibaba and add items at random to Lavigne’s cart.
“For this process I was thinking about sleep as some rare space where mental activity hasn’t yet been invaded by capitalism basically, and kind of speculating about how that space could be invaded and value could be extracted from it,” Lavigne explained in an interview.
“The science of what I’m doing is not real science, it’s bullshit.” Lavigne said. “But, in theory, if I were working with a neuroscientist, which I’d like to do in the future, you’d be able to locate the shopping portion of the brain which is an interesting activity in itself. … The next step is to do the same thing but to think about different kinds of commodities.”
In the last year, Lavigne is responsible, or partly responsible, for Smell Dating, the Animated Advice Hotline and the Stupid Shit No One Needs and Terrible Ideas Hackathon. The unifying theme through his work is that he relishes the absurdity of consumer culture. Each idea is taken to its logical extreme, as a critique of the way our economy and society works. With the idea that tech companies are making new products with little added value and, with heavy marketing, selling them at high markup, came the Stupid Shit Hackathon, where participants made literally useless tech gadgets and apps.
Lavigne seems to us most effective when he’s least didactic, making his serious political points obliquely and with a helping of nihilistic humor.
Covering technology every day, we see the truly amazing things people are working on to solve problems. We also see the extent to which people go to push and sell their product, which frequently has no correlation whatsoever with the value of the thing for the consumer. Lavigne’s work is criticism, but it doesn’t have to be criticism for its own sake. Criticism is a method through which we can improve stuff. The tech cycle is all about deciding something can be done better and working on it. Lavigne is doing the former, at least, for the tech cycle as a whole. In doing so, he’s shown himself to be one of the most interesting artists working in Brooklyn right now.