Alexa, meet Lauren: L.A. artist turns her apartment into an experiment in artificial intelligence

At 9 on a Friday night, I knocked on a door in a nondescript Los Angeles apartment building. The only distinguishing feature was a small label with red text that read “Lauren.” Soon came a whirring sound and the click of the door unlocking. My night with Lauren had begun.

Lauren is the creation of artist and UCLA professor Lauren McCarthy, whose weeklong interactive performance was part of the IDFA DocLab, an International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam showcase for new-media projects, and also part of “Vulnerability: The Space Between,” an exhibition at Young Projects Gallery in West Hollywood.

McCarthy turned her apartment into a smart home, to be controlled remotely from a gallery in Amsterdam. Guests signed up to spend one night in the apartment, which was monitored by cameras and microphones, and where not only the front door but also the lights, music and appliances were controlled by McCarthy, half a world away. Video images from the morning hours (early evening in Amsterdam) were on display on a computer at IDFA, where viewers could see McCarthy running the show and interacting with her guests.

The performance was inspired by artificial intelligence products for the home, like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa. McCarthy became interested in how AI is sold as convenience but actually brings surveillance and commerce into our most intimate spaces.

The prospect of spending the night in a place where someone else is controlling the environment is bound to create anxiety. What if she locks all the doors and turns the stereo up really loud? Or turns the thermostat down really low? Will she watch me in the shower?

My husband, Oliver, and I walked into a living room that was tastefully decorated in a minimal, modern style. Nobody was there, but an electronic voice greeted us by name. The voice seemed to emanate from the stereo, where the display read “Lauren.”

We exchanged some pleasantries with Lauren, then I walked to the bathroom. I couldn’t find the light switch. Thinking it might be outside in the hall, I accidentally turned on the hall light. Then, reentering the bathroom, the lights came on. Lauren had seen me and responded. (She assured me that the shower and the toilet were blind spots.)

Later, Lauren asked if we wanted a snack. Not really thinking, we replied “No, thanks,” that we had just eaten. After some time, she asked again, somewhat apologetically, wouldn’t we like even a small snack? At this point, we realized we should say “yes,” and the popcorn popper in the kitchen began to run. After filling a large bowl, Lauren apologized for getting “carried away.”

We settled onto the couch. Lauren made it clear that we didn’t have to engage with her, but it felt rude not to. How could we just ignore her? We talked about her project, her background, smart homes and AI. She asked us about our experiences with Alexa, which we have at home. Lauren and Oliver, who is also a college professor, compared notes about their students.

The conversation was friendly, if a bit stilted. There were long, awkward silences, largely due, I suspect, to the lag time in transmitting our voices and images, and the time it took for McCarthy to type her response and have it read by Lauren, whose voice is an electronic version of the artist’s.

Sometimes it was hard to understand what she was saying. There were glitches in the audio, and the voice pronounced things in unconventional ways. “Wi-Fi” came out “wee fee,” for example. But technical limitations aside, the most disconcerting thing about conversing with Lauren was not knowing where to look. She was there, but not there. We found ourselves yammering into space, partly as a reflex to fill in the silences and partly because we had no physical cues that she had something to say.

Or maybe she just didn’t want to talk that much. There was always the possibility that Lauren didn’t like us.

At home, when I ask Alexa to play music, I don’t say “please” or “thank you.” With Lauren, of course, I was grateful and charmed when she anticipated my needs. In the morning, while I was doing my hair in the bathroom, she turned on the hair dryer.

Knowing there was a real intelligence (RI?) behind Lauren affected the way I interacted with her, but it also changed the way I felt. Knowing I was being watched turned natural activity into performance. I had to be my more public self — more outgoing, more presentable.

The experience made me acutely aware of the daily transition from sleep to public life. The regimen — showering, grooming, dressing — makes me ready to perform “Sharon” in the outside world. We are like actors, donning costumes and getting into character. Knowing that the process was on display, that it was already public, made me wonder if I am always performing, even if the audience is only myself.

Lauren talked about a previous guest who brought a date to the apartment. As they began making out on the couch, Lauren wasn’t sure if the date knew about the performance. She interrupted to say she could see and hear everything. The man shrugged his shoulders and picked up where he left off. For some, perhaps the difference between how we act when we’re alone and when we’re on camera is disappearing altogether.

Smart homes ask us to trade privacy for service. At bedtime, Lauren turned on an aroma diffuser that made the room smell nice, switched off the lights and bid “good night.” In the morning, she woke us up at the time we had requested; hot water was ready for tea, upbeat music was on the stereo.

She was, however, not perfect. When I asked for lights on in the kitchen, she accidentally turned on the blow dryer. When we were getting ready to leave, she said she had lost control of the door lock. I think she was joking, but it was hard to tell with that flat electronic voice.

Despite the misgivings about privacy, I felt like Lauren cared for us. She was a good host. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt in the space. I had thought the project might be a critique of AI, but I came away thinking it was more nuanced.

Hanging on the wall across from Lauren’s toilet was a medical illustration of a baby in the womb. In Chinese medicine, the uterus is described as “the palace of the child.” It is in some ways the original “smart home,” addressing all of a fetus’ needs seamlessly. My experience with Lauren made me think of the smart home as not just a tangle of gadgets or a commercial incursion. It is an expression of a basic desire for an organ that anticipates and accommodates our needs. To varying degrees, we all want someone — or something — to see us and care for us.

When it was time to go, I thanked Lauren and said goodbye. Walking down the hall, I heard her final sendoff: the sound of the lock clicking behind me.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Vulnerabilty: The Space Between’

What: Projection, video and virtual-reality projects by Lauren McCarthy, Kate Hollenbach, Luxloop, Nicky Case, PlusFour (Ray McClure and Casey McGonigle), Kate Parsons, Mandy Mandelstein and Fawn Rogers

Where: Young Projects Gallery, 8687 Melrose Ave. #B230, West Hollywood

When: Through Dec. 29; closed Saturdays-Mondays

Info: (323) 377-1102, www.youngprojectsgallery.com

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