"Don't date me, I'm the NSA": a conversation with Mary Anderson

Adam Cecil: Do you want to explain, in your own words, who you are?

Mary Anderson: Hi, my name is Mary Anderson. I am from Florida. I currently reside in Brooklyn, New York, and I’m an artist?

Adam: Question mark?

Mary: Question mark. Yeah.

Mary Anderson’s work — whether it’s a performance, an installation, or a tweet — frequently takes everyday objects and places them into new contexts in order to examine our relationships with ourselves and with others.

Take, for example, her project “The X-Files.” Inside plain blue files — the real life version of something you might find on your Mac’s desktop — are complete logs of all of her communication with anyone she’s ever kissed. Emails, letters, mixtapes, Facebook chats — the contents of these innocuous files represent the entire written record of a relationship. When I look at her files, I think of the vague threat of a permanent record somewhere at my old high school. I think, too, of the crushing banality of bureaucracy.

It’s a theme that she also explored in her interactive installation “Office Space,” created with collaborator Kate Weigel. Here, art peacefully co-existed with half-empty boxes of CapriSun. There was a dead flower and a bed of dirt inside of a desk drawer. The X-Files, too, lived in a plain black organizer on top of a desk, surrounded by grey cubicle walls.

Both of these works explored the idea of voyeurism (which made her the perfect subject of an episode of Spacebook, my documentary web series that explores its subjects’ lives through object history), but they also bring up questions of public and private space in the Internet Era. Who owns a conversation on Facebook, or, more importantly, who owns a shared experience?

Mary and I sat down a few weeks ago to discuss that question, as well social media performances, Burger King, and what happens when you co-opt a puddle.

Adam: One of the things that I’ve dealt with in the past is finding a way to share a live performance in a way that’s more permanent. I’m wondering what you think about that and how you deal with that.

Mary: That’s such a difficult thing that I think about often. Really weird performances have so many aspects to them, and it’s hard to convey even through video or a written script of it. It’s almost impossible. They don’t accurately portray the event or the performance.

Recently, I’ve been thinking more about performance through social media. If the performance is through social media, then it’s a performance, but it’s also evidence of the performance. So if it’s both, it accurately portrays the intention more than just a piece of evidence of a performance where you’re still not clued in on what’s really going on. Who is in this performance? Were there specific moments where the performer interacted with people? That’s not portrayed in any of my stuff.

Adam: Do you think that looking back at the evidence of a social media performance is more accurate than, say, a video of a performance?

Mary: Yeah, definitely, yeah. Because there’s nothing that happens offline, really, so there’s nothing else to capture. In video, there are things that maybe the camera itself didn’t see or didn’t hear, and that’s lost. I guess that has a mysticism to it or a nice quality. But I think that when people don’t get the full story, they just get turned off by it.

Adam: But something is happening offline, though, right? Even if you’re just an individual person who’s like… I don’t know… an example that comes to mind immediately is that Periscope of the puddle. Do you know about that?

Mary: No.

Adam: It’s such an insane thing. But these people were in their office, there’s this big puddle outside their window, they called it the Drummond Puddle or something. I’ll share the Vice article with you, they did an oral history of it. But they just set up an iPhone and live-streamed it for hours. Almost half a million people live-streamed this puddle. And then it got to the point where someone went on it with a floatation device, and people were tweeting at him, and being like, “You’re a shithead. You’re a cunt. You’re ruining the puddle.”

Mary: Oh my God. That’s really funny, but also sad.

Adam: So, yes, if you save the Periscope video, that’s a record of it.

Mary: And those tweets are a record as well. But then what that guy experiences when he receives those tweets is not captured.

Adam: Right. All of those tweets exist out there, but how do you present them?

Mary: Yeah, especially since there’s so many media intertwining themselves together. You can be having a conversation that’s in reference to something that’s going on with Peach or something… even though that’s obviously a dead thing. Then you have all these different media, and what’s the best way to capture that? Multiple screenshots? That doesn’t feel right.

I guess the audience would have to just see each channel separately, looking at two paintings and acknowledging that they’re by the same artists.

Adam: To me, kind of like with this Vice article where they’re picking certain moments to share, you’re saying “These are the moments that defined the puddle.”

Mary: It’s curated, yeah.

Adam: Exactly. Inherently, by reliving it, you’re curating an aspect of it. For starters, there’s no way that one person who’s watching that Periscope can experience everything that’s also happening on Twitter, or happening somewhere else. Even if you’re following a hashtag or something. Anyone who is looking back at it later, it’s not the same experience.

Mary: Do you just accept that as part of the performance? This continual fuel of curation? Like, if it’s passed to me, I’m going to pull parts I think are funny, and then you’ll see it, and then you’ll pull parts you think are funny. It totally becomes something else.

Adam: As part of your live performances, there’s an audience there. And any performance artist is going to think, “Okay, the audience is part of this performance.” So I wonder, on social media, is there still that dichotomy between the performer and the audience? Is there a chance to break that barrier down even further?

Mary: When you say dichotomy between performer and audience in a live setting, you’re saying there’s a stage, right?

Adam: Even if there’s not, there is.

Mary: Even if there’s not, there is, right? So there’s me doing my thing to everyone else. Where in social media, maybe there’s a chance where it’s more person to person and that in itself is an artwork. It’s like me preaching or performing or acting to you or something, right?

I believe that could be a thing. I guess the thing that would stop me from totally agreeing with you right now is thinking about how many followers you have and how widely known you are. If I’m, I don’t know, Katy Perry talking to you, I’m going to be on the stage no matter what, right? Even if we’re just having a conversation, people are mostly going to be looking at me.

Adam: That reminds me of every time I see a Buzzfeed article that’s like, “12 Times J.K. Rowling Totally Owned People On Twitter.”

Mary: Yeah. And it’s like, there she is, she’s on her stage with her power. It’s about power, I think.

Adam: Thinking about that… I want to go back to the example of the puddle, but I understand that you didn’t see the puddle.

Mary: I want to see the puddle, though.

Adam: You have to go back. One of the things that happened was that Domino’s tried to co-opt it by having a delivery boy go with a Domino’s box—

Mary: Are you serious? That’s really funny.

Adam: It’s insane. Do you follow the Twitter account @BrandsSayingBae? It’s just this Twitter account that re-tweets terrible brand tweets that are trying to get in on these conversations, like Pizza Hut trying to respond to Kanye about liking anal or whatever. Why does Pizza Hut have to interject into that conversation? But it’s interesting because those brands expect to be the power player in that situation. Or expect to have the power.

Mary: But instead, they’re just laughed at. They’re the fool if they’re trying to get in on this. It’s just a weak attempt of branding or marketing.

People always talk about social media and the internet as the democratization of power. But it’s like… it’s still very much there and we’re all feeding into it in different ways.

Adam: Going back to before the puddle, what kind of social media performances have you done?

Mary: The first thing that comes to mind is a performance piece I did called “Come @ Me.” I would go to really big-name franchises like McDonald’s or the M&Ms factory or White Castle, where they have these really weird monuments of their mascot or their burger or whatever they’re trying to sell you. They’re just these weird, monolithic, ancient statues. In 2016, these things are really sad looking.

I would go in-person to these places and take weird photos with these objects, and then tweet at the company, and see if there was a conversation that would happen, or if they would tweet back at me, or if other people would tweet at it. I guess, projecting some kind of really personal loss or sadness onto such a huge, faceless company and seeing if they would respond. Is there sadness within that facelessness? Is this act of social media intervention a faceless act because they receive so many tweets all of time? Is it just screaming into the void?

There are so many things that could happen when you put something out in public. I think that’s interesting.

Adam: Did something interesting happen?

Mary: Yeah, so one of the tweets is based off Charles Ray’s Plank Piece, where he’s backed up against the wall, and the plank is hitting him and holding up against the wall. So I did that with these giant French fries that I got from Burger King. I tweeted the picture at them with the caption “You got me just where you want me” and #watchlikeaking because Burger King was having some kind of competition where they were like, “Hashtag this and you’ll get a lifetime supply of Burger King,” which I didn’t really want.

But they tweeted back at me and they were like, #satisfried. And I was just like, “Okay. Is this what you want?” It was such a funny remark and, of course, it’s a pun, and I’m sure they respond with that to other people. I responded with #saddestfry. And then they didn’t respond to me.

Adam: So, in this mode of performance, you’re specifically recognizing that Burger King has the power, and then challenging that?

Mary: Yeah, definitely. Like a little boy who throws a rock at the king.

Adam: But they still tried to co-opt that.

Mary: Yeah, just like you were saying with the puddle. They want to be in on it. They want to be cool. Even if you’re making fun of them, they’re like, “Oh, you can’t make fun of me, I’m going to tweet back and then I’m a part of it.” It’s like, okay, you could try, but you’re still the ass of this joke.

I also did a video on Instagram at the Myrtle Wyckoff Burger King. They have all of these weird cars because they’re going for a ‘50s drive-thru aesthetic. I pretended I was under the car dying. I put ketchup on my body. And this little girl who’s eating her Happy Meal or whatever is walking around the car and seeing me do this performance. She goes, “Mom, I think she’s making a joke.” And then her mom is like, “I don’t know, honey. Let’s go this way.” And then ushers her away from me.

Licking my wounds @burgerking #watchlikeaking

A video posted by mary boo anderson (@whoismaryboo) on

Adam: So the performance is not just on social media. The performance is also the act of taking it. If you didn’t document it at all, had just done it at this Burger King and then it’s gone, how does that change that aspect of the performance to you? What is the “pre-social media” part to you?

Mary: It has such a different meaning because I wanted it to be this funny thing that would at least see the eyes of the social media manager of whoever runs these crazy, giant social media handles. But if there’s no social media involved, then the only people who are seeing it is the employees, and the people around. It’s just not the right audience for this piece if social media isn’t a part of it.

Adam: But the social media manager is also just an employee, too, right?

Mary: Yeah, that’s true. But she doesn’t have to deal with this in person, you know? It’s less in her face. She didn’t have to clean up ketchup that I spilled. I didn’t spill ketchup, though; I left it clean.

Adam: Does the interaction with whoever the faceless person who’s running the account even matter? They’re reacting to it, but they’re reacting to it as the company, not as themselves. You’re both performing.

Mary: I like the idea of talking to Burger King, as a concept, instead of people doing a day job. Because people who see it on Twitter, they’re going to see it as @BurgerKing, not at their social media manager. It’s the idea of having this fictional conversation.

Adam: From what I’m hearing, it’s like, even though there is a physical reality to your performance, it’s really happening in this weird otherworld.

Mary: Yeah, it’s fiction. I’m participating in a poem or a story rather than real life. I’m trying to have this conversation with a monolithic presence that is not personal at all, trying to have a conversation with them about something real, even though you know they don’t care enough to respond or are trying to co-opt it to sell me something or sell my followers something. I think there’s something interesting there.

Adam: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is, when you’re performing something, and maybe twenty people in the world ever see it, in a way, statistically, it’s like screaming into the void. That throws away the idea that you can change the world one person at a time, which is one of the whole points of our… whatever. But on social media, the way we interact with social media can be so fleeting as well. It’s not nearly as immediate. The idea of the fictional artifice, it almost throws up a wall in-between everyone involved.

I’m wondering how you deal with that as an artist, just how different dealing with something that’s very physical versus something that’s not, that’s just totally fictional.

Mary: Online, yeah, I guess it’s fleeting. I’m sure more people will probably see this work on my website than they will on Twitter, because it’s just so far back there and no one is going to backstalk me that hard unless they’re just a stalker.

Adam: I’ll have to do it.

Mary: Oh, my God, yeah. I’m sorry. It’s on my site. Just take it from there. But yeah, I think you still have impact there. Even though people will realistically only see your tweet or Instagram for five seconds tops, that does make a difference.

I just met, recently, for the first time some people who follow me on Twitter. They reached out to me. “Mary, you seem cool. We seem cool.” And we met up. I’ve hung out with them for a few times. They took note that I was interested in the same things as them and they reached out. Somehow, it’s still possible to have a connection and make a difference through something as fleeting and mindless as scrolling through a feed.

It’s not as fun as a real performance, though. You get so much adrenaline; you can feel the people there. They give you energy, you know? Social media, you can’t give energy as easily.

Adam: There are two big pieces that you’ve done, “Office Space” and “The X-Files,” that I feel tap into this office work setting. I know, when you made them, you were a student, which means you weren’t working in an office…

Mary: I was, actually, a part-time work-study job at an NYU office.

Adam: So what’s your relationship with offices, with files, with those physical objects that then find their way into your work? How did that happen for you?

Mary: “The X-Files” came before “Office Space,” and it was just this random thing. It wasn’t even for an assignment. I was just talking to my friend Kate and walking down the street, thinking about people I’ve dated in the past, remembering them, and thinking, “There’s just so much stuff I’ve forgotten,” and feeling sad about that. I don’t really miss these people, though, I just miss knowing about them, knowing about the relationship we had.

Adam: Because it’s also your life. You’re forgetting parts of your life.

Mary: Exactly, and it’s such a scary thing to be forgetting parts of your life. So I thought, “What if I just start logging everything?” Really, manically logging every single piece of information that anyone I’ve ever dated or kissed or whatever has ever sent to me as an attempt to save or preserve what we had in some weird way. So I did.

Later, Kate and I were proposing a show. We like installations because we think they’re fun and more accessible to people who are not really into art. We were talking about weird spaces we could appropriate, and I was working in an office at the time in a branch of NYU, their insurance branch. They just had a bunch of cubicles all curved in towards each other. No one sat at these cubicles, and there were just piles of trash. They called it “The Void.” They would tell me, “Oh, go put it in the Void. No one knows what to do with that. Don’t file it. Just put it in there.” It was actually terrifying.

But anyway, I would do remedial work and would sometimes take some of their office supplies to make art. I had already collected so much office supplies, and Kate and I were thinking about how offices are such a weird, sad place. They’re grey, and people spend most of their lives there, and they’re filled with small talk and bad Keurig coffee, and dust, and sitting in chairs for ten hours. It’s such a sad idea.

As an art student looking at that idea, looking at life with an idealistic lens, you’re like, “I don’t want that to be me. That seems sad. Those people can’t be happy.” Of course, you don’t really know that.

But the idea of sadness, I think, is so greatly personified through an office. Especially this office. We created a consulting agency, because what do consultants really do? No one really knows, so no one was going to ask us. We called it “Grey Square Consulting,” which is a play off of the white cube, which is a gallery, and the black box, which is a theater, and the grey square is just a purgatory of both. We were playing with performance, but also playing with a white box, and art, and what does that mean? And, of course, playing with the idea of voyeurism.

Adam: What part of an office personifies sadness for you?

Mary: So much of it. The cubicles, the grey barriers between people in old office spaces. They’re so sad. I don’t have a cubicle and I guess most people don’t now, because everyone’s moving to open work spaces in general. Which is also scary, in a different way. With a move away from traditional office spaces, companies are like, “Oh, we’re going to have a band tonight. Let’s have a happy hour. Look, we’ll play a game.” And I personally feel, as much as I enjoy free snacks, that it’s just a way to get you to stay there longer and never leave.

Adam: With cubicles, too, even though you’re surrounded by fake walls and it’s claustrophobic, it is a space that you can carve out as your own.

Mary: Definitely. At my current work situation, I don’t have a place to tack family photos or to be by myself and know that no one’s watching me. You’re always on view for everyone. What does that do to your mental space? There’s almost something comforting now, looking at this piece. Maybe this barrier was the right idea.

Adam: That almost sounds like you’re describing social media, where you’re always performing and onstage. Going back to “The X-Files” — Do you have a filing habit? Do you file things? Is that a thing that you do?

Mary: No. I was at a job where I filed all the time, and I was always printing out labels and stuff. I actually used their labels and labeling software to make the labels for “X-Files.” But no, other than that, I can barely keep a journal. But I was just so dedicated to preserving that, specifically.

Adam: Do you feel like you’ve succeeded? As far as the goal to remember.

Mary: Kind of. I loved the objects so much, these files. I would have loved to keep them up, but I kind of let them fall by the wayside recently. I haven’t been putting stuff in them. And there’s so much that happens offline, too, that can’t be documented this way.

I e-mailed someone who is in “The X-Files” just the other day, just sending him a letter to say hi and catch up. He sent me a nice letter in return, and then he goes “P.S. none of the foregoing messages you received can be used in ‘The X-Files’ without my permission.” I never told him about it! He found out through a friend and he was not happy about it. I was just like, “Oh, man, I’m sorry.”

Adam: That raises an interesting question. Right now, digital privacy is a huge deal. And going back to that idea that everything on social media is fleeting, even though there’s a permanent record of it — in a way, “The X-Files” is playing with the idea of recording the internet.

Mary: Definitely. Don’t date me, I’m the NSA. Yeah, I e-mailed him back saying, “Look, I’m sorry. I just feel like it’s better with these things to beg for forgiveness instead of asking for permission.” And he hasn’t responded back to me.

But at the same time, who says that he owns this correspondence? Let’s be real, if he’s talking to me on Facebook, Facebook really owns it more than either of us to some extent.

Adam: You’re going to have to ask Facebook for their permission to use it.

Mary: Right — is Facebook going to get upset? It’s so interesting. Most of the other people don’t know. I asked one of my ex-boyfriends, because I gave him all of these mixtape, to take a picture of them for me. And he did. And he didn’t ask why, which was just stupid on his part. But in the photos of these CDs, you can see him with his iPhone in the reflection of the CD, which is so nice. It’s a nice little tidbit.

Adam: There is that weird expectation of privacy for these digital conversations that are both private and not private. What do you think the difference is between literally printing out a conversation or writing a poem using the conversation? Or writing a performance based on the conversation, using actual quotes?

Mary: I think people generally feel less naked when you make a painting or a poem of something than when you print out verbatim what they say. I think that’s a scary thing. Mostly, we give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re not going to use anything against us. The government, too, and Facebook. People just think, “Oh, what will they do with it?” They don’t really think much about it.

The other day, I was thinking about how I wrote a poem in high school where I literally printed out my Google search history. My teacher got really upset with me, saying, “This is not a poem.” What’s the difference between that and me writing a poem that’s just not just verbatim something?

In my eyes, they’re really not different. I think to the viewers’ eyes, as in to whomever I’m writing about or constructing art about, it makes a difference to them. That’s where things get tricky. It’s like when you write books about people, and you don’t really change their names, and there’s lawsuits. Who owns a shared experience?

In a way, it’s kind of unbiased to just print out everything. I’m sure there’s a lot of bad stuff I’ve said.

Adam: But because you’re presenting it, do we have a bias towards you?

Mary: Yeah, exactly. I do have a resume for each person, which is totally biased. And the people who see this are going to be people who know me, or somehow hear about me, right? So there’s that bias.

There’s a precedent of art like this, too. Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, where she documented her child’s life for six years. And Sophie Calle’s The Hotel, where she went into people’s hotel rooms pretending to be a maid and taking pictures of their stuff. To me, I think there’s still no call. It’s so grey. But I’m sure the person who found out about “The X-Files” does not see it as grey. Do you have thoughts? Do you think it’s wrong?

Adam: I think it’s interesting. To me, I go into pretty much all social media or whatever with the idea that it could get out there, you know? Reading Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, made me realize that you can’t change how people perceive things over the internet. If you present something and you think it’s funny, whether in private or even putting it out publicly, someone can find it really offensive, and then they share it with other people who find it really offensive.

Mary: Yeah, and then there’s a hate group for you.

Adam: I think the biggest example is just all women who ever say anything about feminism on Twitter. It’s just a breeding ground for all hatred.

Mary: #NotAllMen, or whatever the fuck. My God, the stupidest thing.

Adam: You can’t change how things are perceived. But social media is different. I’ve gone to performances where I’ve thought, “I don’t like that.” But I don’t think, “Oh, I hate that person.” I might not even think, “Oh, I had a bad time.” Because even bad performances are still interesting to think about. Whereas on social media, everything is a performance until it’s not. Anything where someone takes you seriously, or just twist it in order to make it fit their narrative… maybe that’s just a performance, too.

Mary: I’m with you on that. I feel like I have such an Edward Snowden mentality, where I’m like, “Look, everything I say is pretty much going to be recorded at all times.” Especially on social media. You know it’s there and will be there forever in some sense.

Adam: Hence, the wisdom of the auto-tweet remover.

Mary: But people are lulled into a sense of false security somehow.

Adam: Plus, the assumption that no one is ever going to go that far back into your history, right? But then there are those stories from when Trevor Noah was becoming The Daily Show host, and people pulled back those tweets from like, three years ago where he said some stupid, sexist things. But then the narrative becomes, “He’s sexist now because of these tweets.”

I think it’s a good example of the difference between a comedy performance on Twitter and comedy performance in a nightclub. If he said these things in a nightclub, people would’ve just forgotten about them, and he could’ve realized, “Oh, those jokes are stupid and shitty, and I shouldn’t be saying them.”

But now that they’re on Twitter, he might still have that realization, but they’re just there, forever. And then it’s like your entire history just becomes flat. There is no history. Who you are in the past is who you are, now and forever.

Mary: You were talking about when women tweet something about feminism online, and people attack this person… they were just saying something about their experience. It’s not necessarily a shared experience. In “The X-Files”, I’m saying something, but there’s another person directly involved. I feel like that’s so tricky somehow.

Adam: There is that weird thing with the difference between public and private online. Nothing is private. To me, just thinking about the amount of screenshots of text message conversations I get. What’s the difference between sending a screenshot of a conversation to a friend and putting it in a permanent art project or in a gallery?

Mary: Exactly. One person sees it or a hundred people see it. That’s still a tiny percentage of everyone.

Adam: And if the problem is that someone else saw it, then it doesn’t really matter how many people it was. The transgression is the same.

Mary: And maybe you shouldn’t have written that. Yeah. It’s all up for grabs. Even at work, I tweet about my co-workers. And it’s nothing mean, just things they say that I think are funny. I’ll tweet, “Coworker said this today,” just using capital-C Coworker as an all-encompassing identity. It’s just the idea of a coworker.

But it’s not the same as screenshotting someone they said. It’s kind of like I’m extracting it. It’s more like me writing a poem.

Adam: It becomes a performance around the idea of what a coworker is.

Mary: Definitely. The idea of an office space. The idea of coworker. The idea of Burger King. It’s more fun to think about them that way. Even the idea of an ex-partner is kind of nice. I guess they all become ideas once it’s over, you know?

Adam: And just the act of curating or putting it away becomes art and abstracts it to a certain degree. Even a printed off Google search history…

Mary: It’s still abstracted. It’s still curated. It’s still very specific to that day. And it’s still a screenshot. Even if it didn’t take critical skill, it’s still an idea. You don’t need skill to create art.

You can find more evidence of Mary Anderson’s work and existence at her website and follow her on Twitter to get her latest social media performances delivered right to your phone.