Orbiting Babeworld: Ashleigh Williams & Georgina Tyson on community, sex work, technology & their film for PAF London

1 December 2020

In Steven Spielberg and Ian Watson’s 2001 film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the maltreatment of ‘Mecha’ child robot, David, represents a dilemma over humanity at odds with its technological mirror image. Abandoned by his adoptive parents when their biological son awakens from a coma, he’s captured by a bounty hunter and tortured for public entertainment. Georgina Tyson and Ashleigh Williams’ collaborative Babeworld project encompasses a variety of catchy millennial adages, resource guides on structural inequality, and an art practice that concerns social identities, the internet, and new models for inclusivity. As sex workers, Williams and Tyson frequently take stances on the topic, with their own Hollywood-referencing film AI: Artificial Intimacy on disembodied selves and dehumanization in online performance settings. The video captures a humanoid sex robot slowly deviating away from its creator’s intended design. 

For Spielberg’s AI, the crowd is spurred by anxiety and over-speculation to protest David’s plight, booing and throwing trash at his captors in demand of his release. “He looks like a boy!” shouts a woman from the rafters, to which a bounty man counters, “We are only demolishing artificiality!” This psychological haywire comes out of friction between humanity and its artificial Self—a paradox wherein the reflection remains constant, while simultaneously re-charting. Babeworld seeks to address this tension. 

For Czech curatorial platform PAF’s London festival curated by Anne Duffau on November 29, the duo contributed Rise of the Babeworldians, an autobiographical moving image piece on a incorporeal species crash-landing into capitalist society.

**How did Babeworld come about, was there a particular reason you started collaborating?

Babeworld (2020). Photo courtesy the artists.

Babeworld: It began as a single project that we worked on together, just for fun, in the living room of our shared house on a pink velvet Habitat couch Ashleigh found on Gumtree. The two of us had been living together for a while. As we got to know more about each other in the little downtime we had between university and work, we recognised similarities in our experiences of class, sex work and art education. Both somewhat stagnant in our respective practices, we created this space to make, write, and share. It was a pairing that happened naturally, as we both bring different skills, and yet share the same ideals and goals. 

**Your contribution to PAF London concerns corporeality in that the Babeworldians are without bodies. How does that relate to the ideas of sex and technology within your previous works?

Bw: I don’t think it does. In previous works concerning sex and technology, there’s always an emphasis on the physicality, like very visceral sounds of bodily functions, extreme close ups of usually sexualised body parts, and crudely detailed descriptions of sexual acts. The main concern when discussing sex in conjunction with technology is desensitisation. When we discuss our own experiences in this context, we rely heavily on the physical to evoke and humanise. Specifically, in regards to sex work, where 90 percent of client-provider interactions are online, which enables clients to separate the persona they are communicating with from the people we are—thereby dehumanising.

The Babeworldians, however, came from something else, probably the normative expectation of showing up physically that we feel should change. Working in most industries during a worldwide pandemic has disembodied a large portion of the world’s population. Something we have learned from this is how we have always had the resources to accommodate things—like working from home or hosting art events online.

At Babeworld, we have been utilising social media and technology to create work, share work, and network in an effort to make our art and our platform accessible. What we wanted to express through the Babeworldians was that the community and space we had procured had been an alien concept before the pandemic forced traditionalist art institutions to embrace it. We are just two millennials that grew up with the internet and had our finger on the digitally-coded pulse. So, technology is always a motif, aesthetic and reference point for anything we make.

Rise of the Babeworldians (2020). Photo courtesy the artist.

**Is that influenced at all by your understanding of ‘post-internet species’? What does that mean exactly?

Bw: Rise of the Babeworldians is semi autobiographical, so in reality, we are post-internet artists who make work that mainly exists online. However, in this imagined reality, we are a post-internet species where our connection to and advocacy of online communities is taken so far to the extreme we cease to function as anything other than an online presence. It expresses our appreciation for the opportunities the internet has afforded us while also raising concerns about the dark side of the internet—as it still exists heavily interfered with (and influenced by) capitalism and colonialism.  

**The social media performance site OnlyFans saw upwards of 200,000 users joining every day in May. Are platforms like this similar to the sex robots you discuss in your piece? Are they manufacturing something?  

Bw: Platforms like OnlyFans had existed and been used by sex workers long before. These clip-selling sites had already been using features like direct messaging. Purchasing sexual services (whether digital or IRL) have always needed a way to be customisable per client. Personas of sex workers providing services are malleable—constantly in flux, depending on a client’s wants and needs, within reason and limits, of course. It’s a personalised experience where the provider’s main goal in the client’s satisfaction, which can take many forms. This could be a scripted video, where the client is the scriptwriter, a phone call where the provider takes the role of someone the client desires, a physical meeting where the client decides on the provider’s overall appearance. 

Usually the client is leading and taking an active role in constructing the fantasy, and is aware that it wouldn’t be happening if there was no financial transaction. However, sex work doesn’t exist within a vacuum. Intimacy is complicated, and lines can blur, as described in the piece, AI: Artificial Intimacy. To believe that the popularisation of OnlyFans* is driving us down a path that ultimately ends in artificial intimacy and progressing past the need for genuine and physical connection would be erasing the work and impact full-service sex workers, without whom OnlyFans wouldn’t even exist. Not to mention that transactional and artificial intimacy has been a massive part of society since the dawn of time. It has and will continue to take on many forms.

Rise of the Babeworldians (2020). Photo courtesy the artist.

It’s important to note that sex workers use OnlyFans, and sex workers popularized it, but the platform itself doesn’t support sex workers. It has demonstrated recently with the Bella Thorne situation, and it demonstrates it daily with over-the-top censorship and the removal of sex workers from the website. It is also important to note that the increase in users joining came from full-service sex workers who lost their jobs during lockdown. They were disproportionately affected by the government’s lack of financial assistance, with the only aid coming from sex work charities and community-driven fundraising. As it entered the mainstream, the celebrities treating it like a cash grab, disregarding how sex workers are affected by their presence on the site, had people believe it was an easy way for people to make money, which inflated user sign ups.

**Community seems to be a focal point of Babeworld, can you talk about that? What defines your community?

Bw: We had both been feeling disconnected from the art world that was sold to us in art education. We had both experienced a lack of diversity in our peers and the teaching staff, which led to isolation and feeling misunderstood. Through discussing these feelings together and then sharing these thoughts online, we were connected with other people that felt the same way. The majority of our projects over the last couple of years have included members of our communities, as we believe it’s important to extend any platform we are given to other marginalised people. This gives us the opportunity to exercise accessibility within the institutions and art world we once felt disenfranchised from; to set an example of how resources should be used and how accessible creating accessibility is. 

Rise of the Babeworldians (2020). Photo courtesy the artist.

**Back to your PAF London presentation, how is community different than the corporatist society the Babeworldians are corrupting?

Bw: Community is inclusion and togetherness—a space where differences aren’t barely tolerated but accepted or even celebrated. Diversity in all sectors is necessary to ensure systems and processes that keep society functioning fairly and ethically have everyone’s best interests. The Babeworldians role and goal in this particular story are to aid the disadvantaged and oppressed in connecting with each other again so that they can form communities based on their own needs and desires. Rather than the needs and desires of a biased and influenced corporatist society.

**Last question—where did the Babeworldians come from?

Bw: The planet Babeworld is not unlike this version of Earth the Babeworldians crash landed on—existing in a neighbouring reality where their technological advancements are only marginally more progressed due to a major event that took the planet on a different course to this new planet. It was 2018, and the 10th season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race was recording its fifth episode. Fabrics were laid out—differing prints in muted tones reflective of the country theme of this week’s runway. Monique Heart’s hand hovers over a white print with small, brown, angular spots until her attention is caught by another fabric in her periphery. The brown spots were larger and less severe—rounded at the edges like the patterned flesh of a brown cow. ‘Stunning’, she thought to herself.**

Babeworld’s Rise of Babeworldians screened at PAF London on November 29, and PAF Olomouc is running December 2 to 6, 2020.

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PAF Festival of Film Animation + Contemporary Art, Dec 3 – 6

27 November 2015

The PAF Festival of Film Animation and Contemporary Art is on at the Czech city of Olomouc, across venues from December 3 to 6.

Going under the theme of ‘What is Animation?’ the festival’s focus is on what the press release calls an “updated view of the history of film animation and the current trend of connecting animation with spatial-light experiments.

The programme follows the recent Festivals of Live Cinema held in New York and the Norwegian city of Stavanger – PAF New York and Screen City Moving Image Festival respectively – and will host a number of events, including exhibitions, screenings, lectures, presentations, workshops and live audio-visual performances.

PAF also welcomes guest curator Pavel Ryška, with his Wild ’60s section of the programme that is one of several other ones that include the Other Visions Czech animation competition, Aport Animation and PAF Art, as well as Animation Beyond Animation, which will include contributions by Lotic, VesselSamson Kambalu, Takashi Makino, and TCF.

See the PAF Festival of Film Animation and Contemporary Art website for details.**

Header image: Lars TCF Holdus.

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An interview with Nicholas O’Brien

6 November 2015

Nicholas O’Brien is an artist interested in processes of becoming. Working in a range of primarily digital media he situates himself at the intersection of the virtual and the physical world, arguing for the breakdown of such an easy binary. Through his writing, filmmaking, curatorial practice and research based methodologies, he explores this burgeoning terrain of not only production online but also the politics of networked culture that surrounds it. From attempting to learn an Irish accent online, to performing karaoke in an empty room and a 2013 series of images revealing his facial expression when the beat drops during a four hour dubstep listening marathon, O’Brien sees the construction of digital identities as work akin to more traditional conceptualisations of labour.

A recent visit to London commissioned by Opening Times saw O’Brien directing his attention to the emergence of online art as a practice of its own accord in his piece ‘You Alright?’. With some humour the artist responds to the need to create sustainable funding and commissioning models for primarily online based works in the UK via the dissection of a common greeting ”you alright?’. As the frame moves through a sparse CGI space populated by nothing by whiteness and columns, a  deep-voiced narrator declares a state of plateau in the traditional push-and-pull of creative resistance as the “rate at which those pop up alternatives have been clamped down by leading systems of domination that have  increasingly intensified.” The new market economy of scarcity of access, as opposed to space, is identified and intensified by the rapid privatisation and commercialisation of the internet: “We are not alright”.

Hence, on the eve of presenting a range of old and new work for PAF New York at the 7th floor loft of  59 E 4th St on November 6, aqnb spoke to O’Brien over Skype to discuss his own becoming as an artist, the research methodologies which unify his work, as well as the rich terrain inherent in the blurring of virtual/real and the labour that it hides.

It’s apparent from you work you have a lot of interests and practices, I’m wondering what you would say is the central preoccupation of your work?

Nicholas O’Brien: I think a particular quality that excites me in my own work is that I’m not tied down to a particular thing. I think it’s more about methodologies. It’s more about approaches to things that I become interested in. I tend to think of my work as being fairly research-orientated, whether it be work that’s reflecting on a place, or a space or a community, or a history, or an art historical moment.

I think that the research methodology, even if the content is quite disparate, is quite similar. It’s an initial curiosity and then kind of delving in further and trying to do what I call “pattern recognition” – trying to find ways of building associations which are drawing equivalences between the things that I’m looking at and other experiences that might be more familiar to me, or universally, or broad.

Do you feel that, with a research-based project, there needs to be an end product, something you produce?

NO: It’s particularly interesting because the end product for a lot these things tends to be digital information, right? Which is not as product-oriented as a painting, let’s say. There are also loads of things that never came to fruition and there are always abandoned projects that are still of interest but never quite manifest…

I wonder if that’s something to do with quality control?

NO: [laughs] When you get curious about a lot of things at once it becomes hard to manage them and you tend to gravitate towards things you can put a period on as opposed to the more meandering, gibberish at the time of thinking about it as it were.

Nicholas OBrien

You mentioned earlier your frustration with the use of the term IRL to exclude digital or online action. In a previous job of mine at a digital campaign organisation, we’d have lots of discussion about what the best term was for offline activism, whether IRL was appropriate etc. So it’s interesting that even the language for the relationship between digital and nondigital seems up for grabs.

NO: I do think those relationships are being worked out. I feel it’s always been in a state of becoming. Without being too philosophical about it, how the corporeal self deals with the virtual has been an ongoing process of becoming more aware, or understanding of that which is immaterial, or that which is virtual.

I think digital technology heightens the awareness of that process but the language we have kind of gravitated towards is a little too ambiguous. The whole process can feel a little wishy-washy but perhaps my work is trying to articulate a better or more precise language of thinking about the conditions of virtual existence, as it were, through network culture.

Alongside the physicality of the digital you also seem to foreground the labour of producing digital works, where the labour is visually tangible in even the most basic designs. ‘As Much as We Sweep’ suggests a futility that comes with labour. I wonder how deliberate this is and how it fits with your own labour as an artist?

NO: For me I think it’s tied to physicality, or the notion of what we do, and the tasks that we perform. The way we present ourselves in network culture is a form of work, a form of labour. To recognise and to pair that type of work alongside what would normally be considered work or labour is an important process or recognition to make.

So in terms of how that manifests in the actual creation of things themselves, I think I’m really interested in the handmade, in the craft of making an environment and I’m really interested in also how to learn new things. Every new project I take on brings on a new challenge that I haven’t accomplished in a previous piece. With ‘The Trolley’ I was motivated by getting my hands on this material and walking around with it in an essayistic form.


There’s this melancholy of work, work as wasted time or work in the service of someone else, but the other thing that comes through is this sense playfulness of working. And this is the progressive side of work right? Work as fun, as engaging…

NO: Totally! I think there’s a joy in work. You know when I was a kid I worked as a carpenter assistant and the satisfaction that comes from finishing a job, having a plan, setting a plan in motion and completing a plan is really unsung in art. I think that’s because art is often thought of as a process but it’s also process of work. Excuse the pun but when you hit the nail on the head there’s great satisfaction in that.

I have a friend who’s a sound recordist on films and he says you know you’ve done a good job when you’re invisible…

NO: Exactly. It’s at that point of invisibility that the excellence of craft really shines. It’s a weird paradox right? So for me, delving into the craft of making something is a way of creating agency that otherwise would not happen in a digital framework or would not happen within other types of digital labour. Having something that I know for certain exactly how it works, how it functions, how it was built, everything down from the polygon that’s in it to the code that’s been put it into it. Knowing all those layers of information creates a sense of agency that I wouldn’t get from appropriating material – or maybe that’s a different type of agency.

Nicholas O'Brien

One final question. There’s a great quote in one of your pieces where a character says, “It was the best way of being alone in the company of others.” I wonder if that stands a little bit for our current predicament within networked society, or is that too long a bow to draw?

NO: [laughs] Ah no. You know I think that I do think about that – it’s something that people are starting to recognise. How do we actually catalyze the networks that we have online? How do we galvanise those groups of affinities, or those groups of camaraderie, or sympatico in network cultures. How we do make them more real, in other ways more tangible, or more alive, more active?

I think in lots of ways, when we create communities online we have these, how can you say, spurts of energy, these flash in the pan moments of excitement and forward thinking but then the question becomes how do we sustain that momentum, how do we create a sense of purposefulness that extends just beyond the network association and into something tangible? That tangibility doesn’t necessarily have to be physical but it has to be something that’s sustained. So I guess the question becomes, as I say, networks can be the best way of being together while simultaneously being alone, but it also can be an extremely good way of creating communities that last longer than you could have ever anticipated. **

Nicholas O’Brien is a New York-based researcher and cultural producer taking part in PAF New York running over one day November 6, 2015.

All images courtesy Nicholas O’Brien.

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