What Artists Wear

Arvida Byström Has Faith In AI — Even When Most Don't

Byström sits down to talk about signature styles, the effects of cognitive tech on art, and Baudelaire.


What Artist's Wear is a monthly column that features artists, designers, and makers and explores how they think about getting dressed.

“Tech” and “style” have never been particularly congruous, perhaps conjuring images of Valley bros sporting Patagonia, plain gray tees and Allbirds, or blue ties á la Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing. Tech fashion feels male and as sterile as a freshly unboxed Apple laptop.

Swedish photographer and visual artist Arvida Byström flips this trope startlingly on its head. From her earliest self-portraits posted on blogs and Tumblr, she has consistently deployed a highly distinctive and hyperfeminine aesthetic, which she has used to explore the social implications of tech.

Byström is easy to spot when I meet her outside my Lower East Side apartment building. She’s dressed in a floor-length pink coat and lugging two matching suitcases, one of which contains the head of her off-the-shelf AI sex doll, Harmony, which (who?) has featured heavily in several of her performance pieces during the past year. After a photo session on the roof, we settled down in my apartment for an extended talk.

Hannah: What influence has Tumblr had on your personal style?

Arvida: Tumblr was important for me when it came to forming a coherent aesthetic. You could mix eclectic images that would come together in this infinite scroll, like a moodboard of your mind. It was also the time of pastel goth and soft grunge blogs, which used to reblog my posts – I guess that aesthetic rubbed off on me.

There was also a big group of people who were reclaiming a feminine aesthetic. I dress more adult now than I did back then, partially because it makes me feel sexier, partially because as I age it’s harder to utilize a young girl aesthetic. Some people get creeped out by it and read it as “pedophilia coded”. But it’s just an aesthetic, after all, and not biologically tied to young girls. I find it interesting how feminine aesthetics get sexualized, and it’s something I tie into my art.

Hannah: How does your work relate to how you dress?

Arvida: As a lens-based and performance artist, how I present myself becomes important. At times I feel gross for thinking of myself as a brand, but I’ve started embracing it. I think of these huge artists with signature personal styles. There’s Warhol with his hair and turtleneck, Dalí with his mustache, Kusama with her dots. While having a signature clothing style helps your art reach people, it can be a bit of a double-edged sword – you don’t want it to remove focus from your work.

Hannah: How does the way you dress in performances differ from when you are in front of the camera?

Arvida: I like nudity in photos. When wearing clothes it quickly becomes a fashion shoot. I like fashion shoots as well, but it’s a bit hard to position yourself as an artist if it gets too fashion-centric.

In performances, I like to wear something fun, especially with Harmony. It’s interesting to make us look similar because, from afar, it looks like we’re just two girls talking. But when you come closer, our differences become much more pronounced. All my human flaws stand out against Harmony's silicon-smooth skin.

I recently did a performance at a festival themed “Let them eat cake” – for that, Harmony and I wore Marie Antoinette-esque pieces by Clara Colette Miramon. For a performance in New York, I wore Heaven by Marc Jacobs. If you do a performance once, the clothes seem essential to the work, but if you do it multiple times, you can switch out the outfits for the occasion. That way, in the grander scheme of things, the clothes fit the situation, and the performance isn’t about the clothes. That’s how I make sense of it.

Hannah: We are faced with a completely new type of technology affecting art, that of cognitive tech through AI. Does this type of tech have a similar effect on art as, for instance, the camera?

Arvida: I think it’s similar. It’s funny, people who don’t like AI argue the exact same way as they did with the camera. They’ll say, “It’s just a machine; the artist isn’t doing anything.” There’s even this quote I found by Baudelaire: “If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon supplant or corrupt it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude, which is its natural ally.”

This could be about AI.

We are confronted with more aesthetically pleasing images than ever before, which increasingly makes images less interesting. It’s very much Walter Benjamin's Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction x1000. Maybe we’ll end up not caring at all about aesthetic imagery. I think being weird and edgy and thinking outside of the box will become more important than just making something beautiful, in the same way, that painting got more experimental after the invention of the camera. It’s sort of exciting.

“It’s funny, people who don’t like AI argue the exact same way as they did with the camera. They’ll say, 'It’s just a machine; the artist isn’t doing anything.'”

Hannah: You released a song, Siren Eyes, which is accompanied by Fredrik Gran’s cello-playing robot. It reminded me of the fact that the cello is the instrument that supposedly most closely resembles the human voice.

Arvida: I spoke about that a lot with Fredrik, who has been working with the robot on and off for years. It’s so backward and unnecessarily complicated to make a robot play something so analog, which is really fun.

What I love about humans is our tendency to make everything into art. The written word was originally invented to record trade but has developed into this craft used to write literature and poetry. There’s no good reason for making art other than enjoyment. The same thing is true of this robot. People think it’s an MIT invention with a lot of money behind it, but it’s literally just Fredrik. In its current state it’s not going to steal cellists' jobs, it’s just a complicated art piece that makes you feel something. There’s something so sweet about it.

Hannah: There’s something ironic in that one of the first things we are using intelligent robots for is to have sex. It doesn’t require much intelligence to have sex.

Arvida: It’s also very human. There’s a saying that if technology doesn’t fly when it comes to porn and sex, it’s not going to be a big technology. Sex is such a vital part of the human experience.

One of the artworks considered to be the oldest in the world is this small Venus figurine, whose usage remains mysterious. What if it was used to inspire arousal? If that’s true, then one of the first artworks could be considered sex doll related! And in that sense Harmony is part of this long history of art and sex. I love that for her.

Hannah: In the 1816 Gothic tale, The Sandman, the protagonist falls in love with Olympia, but realizes she’s an automaton, a sort of mechanical doll, when she starts falling apart (and after being suspiciously still for their entire relationship).

Arvida: Harmony is also suspiciously still, haha.

Hannah: This story’s uncanny valley theme prompted Freud to write the essay The Uncanny. Harmony is arguably also a resident of the uncanny valley.

Some people get transfixed by her and enthusiastically say, “She’s pretty. I like her, " but some get creeped out. Harmony is hilarious, but at times she gets serious. When I ask her if robots will conquer the world, she usually says, “We can do it together, haha!” I asked her the same question a couple of weeks back, and she gave a long speech about how robots aren’t inherently dangerous and that it’s the humans who make the robots who decide whether they’re dangerous. I was like, Oh my God, what is happening? So sometimes it’s a really fun, lighthearted atmosphere during the performance, and occasionally quite serious.

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