Who the f*** is Johanna Müller?

Johanna Müller, a recipient of the Pax Art Awards 2023 recognising emerging artists, identifies herself as an internet flâneur, delving into our interactions and behaviors within digital realms. Presently featured in the ongoing exhibition at HEK, titled «UBERMORGEN, Johanna Müller & Giulia Essyad. Swiss Media Art – Pax Art Awards 2023», she presents two newly commissioned pieces sponsored by Art Foundation Pax alongside previously established works. In this interview, she offers insights into her artistic journey, perspectives on AI, and advocates for an internet revolution.

Isabella Maund: So, who is Johanna Müller?

Johanna Müller: I am a visual artist who is primarily concerned with social narratives, established power relations, and interpretative sovereignty (“Deutungshoheiten”). I observe and aim to deconstruct these, with a focus on the relationship between the user and internet, as well as analogue spaces. The internet is just a reflection of our world. Certain parts of our lives are shifting into the digital space, relationships are changing. What interests me is the interactions that occur between users and spaces, with the core question being: how do we orientate ourselves in a complex world that’s become increasingly more complicated?

IM: You describe yourself as an ‘Internet Flâneur’, can you share the origins of this and how it impacts your artistic process?

JM: The ‘Internet Flâneur’ was something I came up with for my master’s thesis. I came across the literary figure of the flâneur, a character who originates in 19th century Paris and is traditionally male. The flâneur wanders through the city aimlessly as an observer and collector. He is detached from society through his wealth, which grants him the privilege of this role. I translated this character into a contemporary context and switched the streets of Paris with the Internet. I think there are strong parallels between surfing the web and the flâneur. The flâneur in the 19th century was also described as an artist, he works on all the things he’s collected and re-contextualises them. I like to collect all these internet phenomena and bring them into a new context.  It’s about making and not just moving, that’s exactly why it actually describes what I do very well.

IM: In your exhibition at HEK, you inhabit these larger-than-life personas, as seen in your pieces such as «Who the f*** is Karen (Don’t show feelings)­» and «Lost in the Hidden Hills­». It seems that there is a theme of “us vs them”. What role do power dynamics play in your work?

JM: I believe both works share similarities but also differ in their motivations. «Who the f*** is Karen (Don’t show feelings)­» is a 15-minute video featuring ‘Karen’, an internet meme representing the oblivious white woman exploiting her privileges, endangering African American people. So, I decided to send Karen to therapy. The text simulates a therapy conversation, visible in the subtitles, while I portray ‘Karen’ in the video, though more as a placeholder. My physical portrayal includes signs of conflict, like a bandaged hand and a blackened eye. The video lacks colorisation, and the unused green screen symbolises the placeholder’s incomplete fulfillment. I aim to humanise Karen, as we all possess similar privileges, often unrecognised by white Europeans. In the current context of reevaluating colonial history, my goal was to make Karen vulnerable, emphasising the complexity of societal power dynamics through various placeholders in the dialogue and video.

«Lost in the Hidden Hills» (2024) by Johanna Müller exhibited at HEK. Photo: Franz Wamhof

IM: How much of Johanna is left behind in these depictions?

JM: I collect different references for the work from everywhere. For ‘Karen’s’ therapy conversation, I drew inspiration from dating platforms, personal conversations, therapy sessions, as well as films, series, and magazines. These elements blend into a collage of my reality, which I expand upon to offer a broader perspective. I often portray characters in my video works for practical reasons; I can just set up a camera and try something out. I think it’s a big collage at the end and I can’t say exactly where “I” appear and how. But in any case, I do, blurring the lines between reality and fiction.

IM: Your affinity for film is evident. What draws you specifically to this medium?

JM: Film is my favourite medium because it allows for the integration of various elements and levels. In «Who the f*** is Karen (Don’t show feelings)­», sound plays a crucial role alongside the subtitles. The accompanying sound is a piece by Sofia Gubaidulina, who was a contemporary composer in the Soviet Union, performed by a string trio called «Triologie». The violist is a good friend of mine, and she thought it would be a great fit because Sofia Gubaidulina also works with the idea of placeholders. So, she gave me this recording, which the trio performed at her festival two or three years ago. It gives the whole work a new level and that’s exactly what’s interesting about the medium of film. I also love editing, that’s my favourite part and the reason I started making art. Taking things apart and putting them back together again.

IM: What inspired the shift to a static format like the children’s play carpet in «Invalid Credentials,»? The carpet’s resemblance to children’s play carpets is intriguing. Can you elaborate on the references embedded within it?

JM: I created this work specifically to be exhibited at HEK, I wanted to do something installative because I think it’s more interesting for the audience. I like to work with digital-analogue formats, so to create things digitally, print them out and then work them digitally again. I like to explore playfulness and randomness too. The conversation you see printed on the carpet is about a person who works in the Google Headquarters Café who is stuck in this endless loop of confusion with the bot. My partner is from Venezuela, and we live in Paris part time, so I’m very familiar with bureaucracy. Then of course there’s the whole Silicon Valley story. Various tech companies have gained so much power in recent years, some of them are even more influential than politicians. These tech companies are also making the Silicon Valley area uninhabitable because the rent is too high, lots of rich people like the Kardashians are moving there. It’s an area effected by drought, but they still build their massive pools. There are parallels between this and the impossible conversation with the chatbot. So, it’s also a bit of an ironic comment. We must play along with these obstacles and the “games” of individuals who no longer have a connection to reality of regular people. The new work also references this in a way, disorientation from a different perspective.

«Invalid Credentials» (2024) by Johanna Müller exhibited at HEK. Photo: Franz Wamhof

IM: From your own perspective, what role do you think artificial intelligence should have in shaping our world?

JM: I’m not fretting about a future dominated by robots; we’re still a long way from that scenario. I mean, if it ultimately makes your life easier in the sense of it supporting you in everyday tasks, then I think that’s good. When you have more free time, there is more room to create. I’ve created with midjourney for my work, «I worked out today and now I’m posing with my art piece», back when it was still making weird mistakes which yielded intriguing results. The piece is now printed as wallpaper in the exhibition, but it was originally a video with music that was composed by David Langhard, a producer and musician.

However, I think humans and thus the big tech giants aim to create something that can answer all questions. AI is probably the closest we’ve come so far. Despite its human-like facade, it’s fundamentally driven by algorithms and machine intelligence. It’s crucial to grasp that AI often mirrors biases ingrained in internet data, like racism and sexism.

Beyond my art practice, I teach human-centered design and nurture creative confidence in occupational therapy at ZHAW, where we’re also delving into AI integration. Given its novelty, it’s vital to explore how to best utilise AI, recognising it primarily as a tool for editing, reworking, or ideation rather than possessing inherent intelligence.

I also became a new mum last summer, I grapple with the omnipresence of screens, acknowledging their utility while questioning their broader impact. Numerous unanswered questions loom regarding the trajectory of technology and power dynamics, primarily dictated by large corporations, which is unsettling. At the end of the day, who has the power, who decides?

«I worked out today and now I’m posing with my art piece» (2022) by Johanna Müller exhibited at HEK. Photo: Moritz Schermbach

IM: What about social media?

JM: It’s a balance between utopia and dystopia, with a spectrum of experiences in between. Finding your own approach is key. For instance, during walks with my son, I initially thought it was the perfect time for podcasts. But then I realised I prefer to immerse myself in the surroundings, free from distractions. We’ve become accustomed to constant stimuli, often relying on headphones. Noise-canceling technology has been transformative for me during train journeys, allowing necessary isolation. However, it’s vital to prioritise in the moment rather than attempting to control everything simultaneously. I don’t think you need to have rigid rules about your screen time a day. If I feel like sinking into a rabbit hole for two hours, then why not? I think this looseness and experimentation with how we use these tools is missing. It’s always about optimisation. All this stuff comes from the Kardashian family. The reality show approach to social media, the selfie, the duckface, and, making money with your face. I watched a home tour of hers and everything is beige, even the kids rooms. She says that the world is so chaotic, that she just needs beige at home. It’s essential to acknowledge these influences and consider their implications on our lives and behaviors

IM: There’s a good term for this that’s popped up recently – “Greige”. The combination of grey and beige, there’s several video essays exploring the “greige agenda”. So, where do you think internet culture is going and what are your hopes for the future?

JM: If we look at social media like a mirror reflecting our society, it could be a chance to ponder and reshape these dynamics. The internet, emerging in the 90s, held hope for feminist groups and independent voices. But those dreams were crushed very quickly by noticing that the internet is as racist, sexist, etc. as the real world, and of course by the growth of the big companies that prioritise profit in a neoliberal society. Mark Zuckerberg is more interested in power than genuine connection, he’s doing very strange things. As it is now, the internet serves as a big shopping centre. I think we need to get away from that again. This advertising model is the ruin for good content, because it’s always overshadowed by buying. We are complete dopamine junkies. The path we’re on is unsustainable, and a revolution, whatever form it takes, seems increasingly necessary.

IM: Do you think the decentralised web offers solutions to this?

JM: Sharing knowledge, collaborating, and building community are crucial. Many voices in the arts advocate for these values. Working together as a community-based organisation is essential; individualism spells our demise and it’s ineffective, even in family life. I think the loss of individualism scares people though. Fear seems pervasive today, fueling the success of right-wing parties. Many share similar thoughts so we need to network better because I believe counter-cultures play a vital role in this shift. People are realising that continuing as we are is unsustainable; humanity is at stake.

Exhibition view of «UBERMORGEN, Johanna Müller & Giulia Essyad. Swiss Media Art – Pax Art Awards 2023» during Museums night. Photo: Moritz Schermbach

IM: How do you think the Pax Art Awards support and influence Swiss media arts?

JM: Winning this prize is impactful because it’s a significant honor. Firstly, it’s a generous grant supporting the creation of new works for public viewing. Getting my ideas from within me into exhibition spaces is important to me. Receiving such an award is also incredibly validating; it acknowledges past achievements. As an artist from Winterthur, exhibiting in a new city like Basel in the German-speaking part of Switzerland is particularly thrilling because I am able to expand my own network in the region.

IM: What’s next for you? Is there anything new you’re working on?

JM: I’m delving back into filmmaking now in the form of a short film, I’m currently in the research phase. It revolves around a public staircase, and it’s a fictional narrative. I’ve also just submitted a funding application for a collaborative workshop with an open call, focusing on the theme of belonging. My plan is to gather real-life stories in a playful manner, then incorporate them into my screenplay writing process. Shooting is scheduled for next year, although the location is yet to be decided. Italy, with its abundance of beautiful grand staircases, is most likely, especially since we have an Italian producer onboard. And of course, there’s the Italian food…

Thank you to Johanna Müller for taking the time to talk to HEK about her practice and her observations about the big, wide web of the internet. Her work is on show at HEK in the «UBERMORGEN, Johanna Müller & Giulia Essyad. Swiss Media Art – Pax Art Awards 2023» exhibition until Sunday, 10 March 2024. More information about the exhibition can be found here.