What is ‘the self’ in the era of digital technology? How can we explore cyber sensuality, AI, video games, and what does it mean to be human through design? Goys & Birls, an art, design and research studio/collective founded by Monika Grūzīte, Juliette Lizotte and Florian Mecklenburg, is pushing the boundaries to understand the world we live in and how the many realities and dimensions surrounding us intertwine, merge, and influence each other.
First of all, who are you? Could you tell us a bit about the history of your collective? When and why did you start it?
Goys & Birls is an art, design and research collective operating from Amsterdam (The Netherlands). Its members are Monika Grūzīte, Juliette Lizotte and Florian Mecklenburg and we collaborate with inspiring creatives around. We met in 2014 while doing our master studies at Sandberg Instituut and collaborated on smaller projects together during that time. Through our different nationalities, experiences, inspirations and mindsets, we have developed a unique collective creative process. Goys & Birls was officially founded in 2016 after graduating with the intention to use a collective power to address topics that are relevant to us in self initiated projects and to work on interesting commissioned projects.
What are the three words that best describe your work? And which are the themes you like to explore the most?
Unity, diversity, paradoxes! We are very much embedded in digital culture and theory. We like to explore the blurred boundaries between physical, virtual and metaphysical worlds. Our common research question is: what is ‘the self’ in the era of digital technology? From there, it goes in different directions: one of them is NXS. Our approach is to link it to questions about society, politics and the human condition. We also love to imagine new visual worlds through collaborations with, for example, clients from the cultural sector.
You’ve mentioned NXS, which is a collaborative artwork and a research platform at the same time. Could you tell us more about it?
NXS was initiated by the three of us at the same time as Goys & Birls, but we decided to make it another entity dedicated to defining the self in the age of digital technologies. NXS is a collaborative artwork with a publication at its core and events, performances and other artistic works surrounding it. After issue #2, Synthetic Selves, Karolien Buurman joined the team. But NXS is more than the four of us; it’s a network of diverse contributors that creates a collaborative body of work.
The editorial approach is that we’re always starting with an introductory piece, and each subsequent contribution reacts depending on the one before. Rather than merely gathering relevant content, we experiment with a responsive format, where one person has direct influence on the creation of another. It creates a space for debate, bringing different voices together.
How does this research quality distinguish you from other studios? Is it all about the content or does it lead to better designs?
Being able to dedicate time to NXS, researching and receiving inputs from different artists, designers, writers, and thinkers is definitely influencing our practice and our designs. But what’s most important is that it’s a space and time for experimentation, whether it is developing our visual language or co-creating content and discussion around topics we find important. That definitely pushes our work further. We are interested in creating design that is layered, sparks up conversations, and is slightly inconvenient.
As you already said, NXS is turned into a publication. On it, you analyse a society dominated by technologies that both isolate and connect us at the same time. Does it contain both positive and negative takes on this theme? In the end, what’s the main message you wish to pass through to the readers?
NXS explores the paradoxes that are part of our lives. Technology brings us together and isolates us at the same time. Everything we experience today has the feel of a utopia that turns into a dystopia when looked from a different perspective. We are very critical about the technologies that surround us but, at the same time, we can’t really detach ourselves from them and also like to get lost in them sometimes. We want to approach the positive and negative sides of the topic and all the in-betweens. If there would be a main message, it would be that nothing is fixed, there are many perspectives and visions on a same topic and it’s important to put them together, to take them into consideration in order to have a better understanding of ourselves and of the infrastructures and systems that surround us.
The first issue focuses on cyber sensuality, while the second one was about synthetic selves. What are other themes you’d like to explore in the future?
We have finalised the third issue: Viral Bodies, which deals with speculations and insights on body norms in relation to new technologies. The launch was a month ago at De School in Amsterdam. Usually, the theme of one issue influences the next one, so we’ll see what comes up from the latest. But in general, we would like to investigate the self in the light of the afterlife, transhumanism, AI, simulation theories, and video games.
“We like to explore the blurred boundaries between physical, virtual and metaphysical worlds. Our common research question is: what is ‘the self’ in the era of digital technology?”
What do ‘synthetic selves’ mean to you? Are they a threat to the real selves, the ones outside technology? Why was it something that caught your interest both visually and conceptually?
Synthetic selves are many things simultaneously: magnified fragments of the self, multiple expressions of me, your fantasies about me, my fantasies about me, copies of successful others, my business cards, our performances, a facade, my second skin, my deepest longings, my escape, archives of ourselves, collective data feeds, etc. Synthetic selves are carefully constructed, flexible, fake and honest at the same time, skewed images and twisted timelines. They are restricted by the protocols of social platforms, held captive by corporations, broadcasted by algorithms, part human part machine, chemical but mortal. We don’t think of them as a threat, just as a part of ourselves that we need to understand.
After the first issue on cyber sensuality we wanted to investigate the construction, invention, and reinvention that is made possible by online platforms and whether it has any consequences in real life, but also what kind of agency we actually have in all this process (whether online or offline). It’s a very relevant topic simply because we are in the midst of it, living it every day both personally and professionally.
Your piece House Rules left me at the same time fascinated and feeling uncomfortable. Could you tell us a bit about it? Why did you choose to represent this “impossibility to escape the network” through the heartbeat and breathing sounds?
House Rules is a visual and almost physical experience of how our personal data is gathered in databases together with other people’s personal data. Heartbeat and the rhythm of our breathing is personal data that our bodies ‘generate’ automatically. We are inevitably connected through personal data analytics that aggregates this data into knowledge. Currently, it is mostly used for commercial purposes, without us having any agency over this data, which is a common resource. The physical experience of this might leave the viewer feeling uncomfortable. House Rules envisions a group of people who make an agreement about how their personal data can be used and shared. A party in a club and a public sauna, which appear in the video, are metaphors for the Internet as a social space where the rules are set by the participating people.
Is it a hyperbole of what is happening nowadays? Is it a romanticized reality? Even though most of us don’t notice, social media and such technologies seem to overcontrol us and manipulate us. Do those alienators in the video represent all of us?
It represents the current condition of the self within a database, multiplicity of selves, oneself being an indivisible part of others, a collective data body. It also suggests a future where we share our personal data abundantly within conditions created by all the participating users.
It looks like you work mainly in projects you believe in, that really fit with your visual and conceptual style. On your website, I can barely distinguish personal projects from client ones. How did you achieve such a thing? Do you see this as part of your design ethic (to only work on projects you believe in)?
We’ve been lucky to be able to work on self-initiated projects and to work on client-based ones that are in line with our interests and ethics. And we wish to keep it like this! We really want to support projects we believe in and that can have a positive social and cultural impact.
What is the greatest thing about the design world in Amsterdam? Your work is very experimental, I guess that’s very inspired by how this discipline is faced/approached in the city/environment. I personally love experimental design, but I wonder, do you think that if you were living somewhere else your style would be extremely different? What would change and what wouldn’t?
Amsterdam is indeed a great place to be as a designer. The Netherlands has this very rich experimental and socially engaged design and art history. The line between art and design here is very blurred. It’s very inspiring and leaves a lot of space for experimentations and research based work. It’s hard to imagine how it would be somewhere else and if that would influence our work in one way or another. We are in Amsterdam at the moment, but we are very eager to be inspired by other places over the world. Also, a different approach and freedom for the design and art scenes has been established thanks to the government’s support and funds. There is much more room to experiment.
Goysandbirls Metalmagazine 10.jpg
Considering how futuristic and technological conscious your work is, I believe you’re excited about what the future will bring us. Is there something that scares you, though?
Excited but also a bit worried! Everything is potentially scary: from the current data collection policies to AI potentially overruling humanity. I think there is no need to be scared of technological developments, but more of the people behind them.
And what excites you more then, the real world or the artificial one?
It’s really exciting to see how these worlds are merging and what the future holds for us, to see how they influence each other. What you call artificial is just another form of reality. It depends on generations and desires. Who is setting up the rules for this?
What about the future of your collective? What are your plans and main goals for the upcoming years?
We want to develop NXS further. For the launch at De School last month, we worked on a new video work exploring the theme of body norms but also channelling most of what we have collected during the last year and a half with NXS. We definitely would like to focus more on video so we’ll see where that takes us. Beside this, we are always looking for any kind of collaborations and inspiring partners with whom we can shape a reality that we want for the present and future.
Goysandbirls Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Goysandbirls Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Goysandbirls Metalmagazine 2.jpg
Goysandbirls Metalmagazine 1.jpg
Goysandbirls Metalmagazine 9.jpg