An interview with Lindsay Lawson

, 5 November 2015

“Go to
Navigate to a category called ‘Everything Else’.
Within it are categories like ‘Weird Stuff’, ‘Totally Bizarre’, and simply ‘Other’.
This is the outer limits of eBay, a place for items that defy categorization.
Set your minimum bid relatively high at $1,000, for example.
Now you are scrolling through the crème of the dregs of online auctions.

This is where the smiling rock resides.”

Above are the opening lines from a text by Lindsay Lawson related to a script for her upcoming feature film, The Smiling Rock. This spectacular story (shot mainly in Berlin) is about a young woman who, sexually orientated towards objects, stumbles across “a small agate geode” listed on eBay, becomes obsessed, and starts to think she is in love. The story becomes more complicated when Lawson’s lovelorn protagonist, ‘Sophie’, starts chatting with a profile on an online dating site (who happens to have the same profile picture as the rock), and starts to think that the animated-like stone and the avatar are one and the same. Eventually, the film reveals that the digital version of “the smiling rock” is confusedly an automated spambot.

A few days before flying to Toronto to present her recently finished film The Dancers at the Goethe Institut, Lawson took the time to talk about her recent works in her Berlin apartment, a conversation that appeared to include “the smiling rock”, 3D rendered on Lawson’s computer screen, as we chatted. Listening to the artist talk about empathy and misplacement, it becomes clear that her research of psycho-spatial realities (places like the online dating and hookup site, OkCupid) fall in the realm of the speculative. The first outing of “the smiling rock” was in the context of Sad Hetero World at Gillmeier Rech in 2013, a solo-exhibition that presented digital rock-portraits, provoking questions about artworks having agency or objects having an identity or personality.

One possible response to Lawson’s body of work is to situate her art in relation to the trending intellectual discourse of “speculative realism” that, according to philosopher Armen Avanessian, forces us to “think of a world before and after humans. Indeed, seeing Lawson’s work in an exhibition like  Speculations on Anonymous Materials (2013) would make sense, given that the artist is sympathetic to ideas like the traditional hierarchy of human over nonhuman is outmoded, opting instead for a kind of ‘equality’ of things and beings in the world, in real life or virtual. 

With these propositions in mind, what follows is an email-conversation with “the smiling rock” always in the background. It’s Lawson’s quasi digital-collaborator or, at the very least, a key reference point to introduce the drudgery of online shopping, the partial decentring of the human, and the appeal of object-orientated love and desire.

Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.
Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.

Every time I look through your latest works, I have the feeling that I am being introduced to objects that are normally closed off to me. Previously, you’ve said you’re interested in the question of an object having agency. How do you think this question relates to buying stuff online and how the internet is a place where objects gain a second life?

Lindsay Lawson: To consider the question of an object having agency, one must determine if an object has the ability to act. Relational ontology would suggest that we treat many objects as communicative subjects rather than inert objects. We may give objects pet names or shout a things that “refuse” to work. Alfred Gell describes a “secondary agency” in which objects provoke and resist the actions of people. He cites the example of an artwork that may have a contrasting effect on other people independent of the artist’s intentions.

The theory of social agentivity suggests that social entities (states or corporations) have the ability to act through representative agents, even though they cannot act physically. Andrew Gardner defines human agency as the ability to act as a process or relationship of engagement with a social and material world.

eBay was designed to be a near perfect market of fluid interactions. It is nearly frictionless, anyone can enter requiring no brick and mortar store, and user-to-user transactions occur anywhere in the world. If agency is not simply the human capacity to act, but rather a relationship of people and objects within a social structure, then eBay is an effective platform.

The ubiquity of online marketplaces as such has changed the way many people think about objects, their value, and the way their context affects their value. You may have heard of the origin story of eBay, in which the first thing ever sold was a broken laser pointer. eBay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, is said to have contacted the buyer to confirm that he understood that the laser pointer was in fact broken when he offered to pay $14.83 for it. The buyer responded stating he was a collector of broken laser pointers. Perhaps the agency lies in the structure of the online marketplace as the possibility of interaction, exchange, and the creation of value.

Do these concepts link to a work you made in 2008, entitled ‘Revenant’?

LL: ‘Revenant’ was one of the first works I made after finishing graduate school at UCLA. I had been trawling around eBay looking for old photos where the face of the subject was obscured (I can’t remember why) and I came across a pre-1940s snapshot of a person near a body of water wearing a black cloak with a white cloth covering their entire head. It reminded me of [René] Magritte’s ‘The Lovers’ [from 1928]. The image itself was intriguing, but I was also interested in the fact that the person in the photo was so removed from the photo’s current context. The eBay seller exclusively traded in old photos and amassed so many that the exact origins of the photo were unknown. The identity was not clear because the face was obscured, there was no information written on the back, and it was possible that the subject in the photo was no longer alive.

I purchased the photo and wanted to make a work with it, but found that any attempt to manipulate the image was less interesting than the original image itself. After about a year, I finally made the work ‘Revenant’, which was simply a reprint of the photograph so that the figure in the image was life-size. The subject had a second life in the sense that it was being looked at again, but the recontextualization rendered it ghost-like and perpetually out of place.

Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.
Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.

This makes me think about desire. I’m interested in your research on objectum sexuality, how does this fit into your work?

LL: Objectum sexuality (OS) is an sexual orientation towards objects that is emotional, romantic, and/or sexual. My upcoming film ‘The Smiling Rock’ is essentially a coming-out story about a woman who realises she is an objectum sexual after she falls in love with a rock. I do believe that objects have some kind of agency, whether it’s in relation to people and networks or simply the material existence of an object sitting in a room with nobody there to perceive it.

I’m fascinated by objectum sexuality because each OS person defines their own meaning of relationship, reciprocity, partnership, attractiveness, etc. They define their own reality, something everyone does anyhow, but in contrast to cultural and even counter-cultural norms.

While writing and researching the film I met Erika Eiffel, who identifies as OS and speaks out publicly to raise awareness and acceptance for the OS community. I quickly noticed how much she sounds like an artist when describing the objects she loves. She appreciates them aesthetically, conceptually, and historically and is devoted to understanding them (structures like bridges, tower cranes, and the Eiffel Tower), learning everything about them (the Berlin Wall), mastering their technique (her compound bow and her samurai sword).

In Sad Hetero World the online marketplace of eBay is introduced via the search filter: “everything else”. What is your interest in this category?

LL: For such a vast online market as eBay, it’s astounding that there are some items that are considered uncategoriseable within the site’s extensive hierarchy of categories. I found that some of the objects in this section are items that have been creatively marketed to possess collectability, and therefore value, when there is not really a demand for such items. It becomes a playful gesture of redefining the purpose of an object.

I made a piece in 2009 called ‘Anachronism/Lamp’, which is a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David as a plaster bust that has light bulbs screwed into the entire face. Again the face is obscured, but here I was particularly interested in the act of making an art object have a practical use-value. Since 2012, I’ve made lamp sculptures as part of the series Hypothetical Lamp Collection. Each piece is made from a found object that is transformed by simply installing a light bulb into it. I like how easily the categorization of an object can shift: anything with a light bulb is therefore a lamp.

Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.
Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.

Related to the smiling rock story, I think your encounter with the eBay seller, ‘David’, is very interesting, in that David points to any real-life figure who is virtualized online, including you and me. How has knowing him informed your work?

LL: By David, you mean David Melton and his various aliases:, 1guitarpickman, David Guitarpickman, Dragon Slayer. He is a real person who found an agate geode that has a smiley face on its façade. He is selling this smiling rock for $1,000,000 on eBay, where it has been available for purchase since 2009. I found this rock in the Everything Else section of eBay four years ago and have saved it in my Watchlist ever since. I wrote a short story about the smiling rock, which turned into a short script, then a long film script, a solo exhibition, a feature film, a performance, and numerous evolving installations.

During the process of all these projects I have gotten to know David online and he’s even let me borrow the smiling rock to show in several exhibitions. David’s character has been fictionalized in my film The Smiling Rock and is only manifested through his online interactions with the main character, Sophie, an eBay user who wants to buy his rock. I have the same experience, having only interacted with David through emails and chat and, although I’ve exhibited the smiling rock twice, I’ve never seen it in person.

I’ve been aware of David for a long time. I knew him as an anonymous eBay seller, then I googled him and did a background check and found his most basic personal details. When we eventually connected on Facebook I learned about his life only from what he chose to post about himself. I’ve never know another person in this capacity, where the gaps in my understanding of him are just as present as what I do actually know about him.

Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.
Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.

And then there is ‘Sophie’, a fictionalised character in your latest film. How does her character play out?

LL: Sophie is clearly based on me, in that she becomes infatuated with a smiling rock and goes to great lengths to get it, the critical difference being that she develops a romantic attachment to the rock. By interacting with the rock virtually through chats, Sophie must interpret the limited (and generally nonsensical) information she receives.

It is the fundamental condition of people as sentient beings to decipher incoming information, but the spaces for interpretation are greater in computer-mediated communication. The sender has the ability to edit and selectively optimize their online identity, while the receiver has the ability to subjectively interpret and idealize messages from the sender.  

We’ve talked previously about how the internet is a thing that is animated by our individual and collective interactions with it. What is your experience of animating the internet?

LL: So much of the plot in The Smiling Rock is played out in online spaces. I thought it might be boring to watch an actress look at a screen for an hour so I decided to render her online experiences as physical spaces. eBay looks like an infinitely interchangeable network of exhibition spaces where the objects for sale are organized into rooms based on searches, Watchlists, eBay stores, etc. OkCupid is an open sea in which users browse by floating past profiles rendered as cube-shaped buoys.

Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.
Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.

Many artists today are working with this kind of water-inspired imagery. What informed your choice?

LL: I’ve been interested in water imagery for some time and come back to it every so often. ‘Double Helix’ (2007) is a two-channel video conflating a circular conversation with underwater images of a very realistic indoor replica of a rocky cliff in the Pacific Ocean. The choice to render OkCupid as the sea was in some ways intuitive, but it’s also a play on the “fish in the sea” analogy. I like the idea of user profiles floating like buoys and comparison of browsing to sailing. There’s also something interesting about being underwater, parallax, and how vision is distorted.

And why is eBay rendered as a gallery? Did you consider other spatial forms for representing eBay in your film?

LL: On eBay, everything is an item. They are discrete, valuable objects. To me this sounds almost like an artifact. I imagined that these items would need space around them, since each is bolstered by its item description. It’s different from shopping in a store where your first interaction is seeing or touching an item. On eBay you read about it because the picture isn’t usually enough. Discrete, valuable objects with item descriptions… it just sounds like an exhibition to me.

Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.
Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (currently in production) feature film., Ccourtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.

Throughout the film, Sophie is constantly interacting with her mobile phone. Apart from being a communication device, how else do you understand our use of mobile phones?

LL: Sophie uses her phone as another way to access the internet and rarely to speak to anyone so it’s mainly a device to find information and generate content. It’s her lifeline to information when she’s in the outside world and it’s something that frames the way she carries herself. I’m interested in how devices dictate our physical movements, specifically looking at the choreography of gestures. In 2013 I made the 7000 Series, which is a series of photographic works on panels covered with images of people taking selfies. Most of the images frame only the hands and parts of the face without showing the device itself within a sparse composition, but even these abstracted gestures betray the fact that a device is central to their movements. **

Lindsay Lawson is a Berlin-based artist taking part in the Regular Expression group-exhibition at Vancouver’s  221A, opening November 6 and running to February 6, 2016.

Header image: Lindsay Lawson, ‘The Smiling Rock’ (in production) feature film. Courtesy the artist and Gillmeier Rech, Berlin.