Jonathon Keats has been acclaimed as a “poet of ideas” by The New Yorker and a “multimedia philosopher-prophet” by The Atlantic. His work connects the dots of science, art, technology, and innovation in playful, satirical, and thought-provoking ways. We met up with him as one of the artists presenting remixed Dada works at the swissnex San Francisco gallery exhibition “Re:Dada,” running from Nov. 5 – 30.
What do you do?
I call myself an experimental philosopher. I’m not entirely sure what that means. I’m constantly redefining it, which is why it suits me.
I studied philosophy in school, but ultimately found it too stiflingly academic. Ever since, I’ve sought ways to do philosophy in public, engaging the broadest possible audiences in questions that ultimately concern everyone: questions about what we value in life and what kind of future we want.
For instance, I recently designed a camera with a hundred-year-long exposure. Hundreds of these devices have been hidden in cities worldwide. You might think of them as surveillance cameras, invisibly watching over the decisions we make. They’ll reveal our activities to future generations that have no way of influencing us, yet will be impacted by many of the choices we’re making today.
I’ve also undertaken more speculative projects. For example, I’ve opened a photosynthetic restaurant, serving gourmet sunlight to plants, and I’ve also applied quantum mechanics to banking, putting money into a quantum superposition to be shared by everyone.
I find the art world to be the most permissive realm in which to undertake these large-scale thought experiments, and as a result many of my projects have been situated in venues such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco. For that reason I’ve often been considered a conceptual artist. If so, it’s really a matter of convenience. Conceptual art provides cover for doing what I’ve always done and what I want to do next. The same can be said for experimental philosophy.
Why do you do it?
Somehow I never bothered to grow up. I’ve always retained the naive curiosity of childhood, and also the urge to play. I’m able to pursue all of this through experimental philosophy.
I’ve come to believe that everyone can benefit from this mode of engagement. As a society, it seems crucial to me that we not be confined by commonplace assumptions, that we be encouraged to explore alternate realities. That’s why I habitually indulge my childish whims in public.
One of my new projects will be unfolding at swissnex San Francisco this month, as part of Re:Dada. Years ago I adapted a methodology from genetic engineering to see if I could genetically engineer God from cyanobacteria. Based on some signs of success, I’ve now scaled up the process to mass-produce God as a dietary supplement by deifying an edible cyanobacterium called Spirulina.
I’m simultaneously working on many other projects. At the LACMA Art + Technology Lab, I’ve been developing a futuristic workplace that neuroscientifically modulates employee interactions, building on some earlier work in which I applied neuroscience to fashion. And for the STATE Festival for Open Science, Art & Society in Berlin, I’m introducing a new alternative to data visualization that will allow people to understand complex systems by translating them into recipes. I call it gastronification.