Technology and the media are double-edged swords. They can be used for evil, but should that stop us from harnessing them for good?

It’s easy to feel dominated by the screen, from our work to our means of escape through entertainment. We tune in and we tune out. The average American spends 11 hours in front of a screen. Consider how that impacts our beliefs about the world if we typically spend 16 hours awake. The screen mediates everything, from how we think about contemporary life to how we perceive the natural environment. So if five to six companies control 90 percent of the content we consume, are we doomed?

Or can we take the same public screen that’s used to sell to us and turn it on its head? Can we use it to teach us to see the things that aren’t being shown to us? And if so, how do we actually do all that?

These questions and more led me to the work of Simone and Max, a collaborative, artist-activist duo here in Madison whose work on this subject is currently on exhibit at the Arts + Literature Laboratory, 2021 Winnebago St, on Madison’s near east side. The work of Simone Doing and Max Puchalsky investigates the potential of the public screen as a mobilizing force to build empathy, action, and long-term responsibility. From audiovisual installations to objects and software, their practice leverages a hybridity of forms reflective of the degree to which contemporary life is mediated by screens.

“We became optimistic that this ‘public screen’ can be used to make a mind-bomb. As an activist, you can create alternative content,” Puchalsky tells Madison365. “That responsibility falls on people like us, people with privilege who have access to these tools and can redirect the message.”

The duo are currently artists-in-residence at 100arts, and have presented original work at the İstanbul Modern in Istanbul, Turkey; Espacio Gallery in London; Shakespeare Theatre in Gdańsk, Poland; the Wright Museum of Art in Beloit, Wisconsin; Ewing Gallery in Knoxville, Tennessee; Herron Gallery in Indianapolis; and throughout institutions in Madison.

“Each of us comes from creative backgrounds (Simone in the visual arts and Max in political science and music). We’ve been together for 10 years and we can come up with interesting solutions. We have shared opinions,” Doing says. “We have something kind of rare in how long we’ve been together and how we compliment each other in our skills and knowledge. We can use tools like beauty and humor to invite the viewer in, and it’s then that we can make them open to seeing and doing things differently.”

The power of art in becoming self-questioning

One of the first pieces you’ll notice walking into the gallery is called “Cruis’n Alaska,” and it’s a rigged system. The words “GAME OVER” flash over an empty horizon in mourning of a melted glacier you missed your chance to see. The instructions on the screen say to “push button B to select a world,” but button B on the game controller is missing.

"Cruis’n Alaska," art installation by Simone and Max
“Cruis’n Alaska,” art installation by Simone and Max

“A major impetus for this work was a trip we took to Alaska, where we went on this cruise of the Gulf of Alaska,” Doing says. “We were touring this incredibly fragile ecosystem. We’re being told on the tour to take pictures of this thing that’s disappearing, with no conversation about what’s actually happening. The irony of tourism as the thing that raises awareness is that it’s also what’s destroying this environment.”

The work is sharp, witty, and it hurts. With a major university and some of the largest technology companies recruiting for top talent, a city like Madison is full of transients. Most of us who live here have the privilege and experience of travel and a passport that grants us access to almost anywhere in the world.

But this same “privilege” is what has turned travel and schooling into a commodity. What could be an educational experience that broadens perspectives, becomes a sensation saved for the few who can afford it. Through how we use technology, we end up moving jealousy instead of moving minds.

The work cuts a layer deeper with its playful humor. Many of us may remember the Beanie Babies craze from the ‘90s, when the toy company TY Inc. strategically limited the production of its plush toys to inflate their value. At their height, Beanie Babies were selling for as much as $90,000 a piece. Like most bubbles, it was destined to burst, and today you can buy them for less than a dollar a pop. In a clever jab at this nostalgic fad, Simone and Max recreated the BP logo out of Beanie Babies. The piece is called “Bad Investment” and will go up for auction on eBay at the end of the show.

Bad Investment, plush sculpture of the BP logo constructed with Beanie Babies bought on eBay. It will go back up for auction on eBay at the end of the show.
Bad Investment, plush sculpture of the BP logo constructed with Beanie Babies bought on eBay. It will go back up for auction on eBay at the end of the show.

“We are always asking, ‘how do we subvert the tools that have been given to us, to spread the message we want to share?’” Doing says.

That’s a worthwhile question, especially in a city that’s often criticized for talking without walking the walk.

The power of walking away

Near the exit of the gallery is an old TV set focused on a podium. In telling about the work, Puchalsky gives a little of his backstory: “I took a semester off from my studies to work for Obama,” he says. “While working on the campaign, I began to ask myself: what does it mean to invest your ideals in one person? To see someone move from the underdog to the frontrunner was mobilizing, and I don’t know if you could have a better person on paper. So to then see someone of this position stymied was a learning experience. It was a realization that you can’t wait for people in power to make a decision.”

"Waiting" is art installation by Simone and Max at Arts + Literature Laboratory
“Waiting” is art installation by Simone and Max at Arts + Literature Laboratory

And so on the TV set is a podium from the president’s address. There’s no reporter, no reporters’ commentary, no build-up to the anticipation that many of us feel when we’ve invested our energy in a public figure.

There’s an old saying, “To keep others waiting is the ancient prerogative of power.”

Eventually, you get tired of waiting, waiting for something or someone that’s never going to come. The act of walking away becomes a part of the piece. You can choose to be demoralized, or you can ask, “If I have chosen to walk away, what am I now going to do?” That’s the moment when action can happen.

What content will we choose to invest in and view?

The arts in any city are a good indicator for the health and direction of the culture, and Madison is rife with political activity. It sways in its image from being progressive to only progressive on paper.

From Simone and Max: “As artists, we have to create our own opportunities. To do anything, you have to build it from scratch. Not only is that a huge barrier to getting involved, it also determines who gets to be involved. While there’s plenty of emotional support, there’s no financial support or infrastructure for the arts here. There’s a wonderful solidarity among the artists to persevere in spite of the obstacles, but we’re always having to prove that what we’re doing is worth it.”

The instructions on the screen say to "push button B to select a world," but button B on the game controller is missing.
The instructions on the screen say to “push button B to select a world,” but button B on the game controller is missing.

Madison is a city that has long celebrated its progressive, grassroots ideals, that now grapples with the discomfort of its social problems in the wake of new business and tech development. In that culture, it’s easy for the arts to be dismissed as decorative, lofty, and impractical. But if big business has taught us anything, it’s that creativity, when allowed by the populace to be commoditized, is a dangerous thing.

It is said that when people can relate to each other, there’s less violence. Art can open us to learning and gives us a shared experience. As Madison evolves, it’s a fair question to ask what content will we choose to pay attention to, promote, and create? As people who have the tools, technology, and education that others don’t, what is our social responsibility in how we choose to use them?

To view the full show and join the conversation, visit Arts + Literature Laboratory, 2021 Winnebago St. on Madison’s near east side. It is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or by appointment through Feb. 19. The work will remain on display until Simone and Max’s closing reception and artist talk on Friday, Feb. 19, 6-9 p.m. (artist talk at 6:30 p.m.).