The worldview of Agnieszka Pilat is a paradox.
The Polish-born artist loves technology, but distrusts how it shapes media. She promotes capitalist structures in her work, but thinks artists chasing money and mass appeal are fueling a speculative goldrush lacking substance. How she infuses these contradictions into portraitures of technology is what makes her work so compelling, and beloved by Silicon Valley giants such as Google’s Eric Schmidt.
As the resident artist at Boston Dynamics, she reimagined the engineering firm’s Spot robot—known for its negative portrayals in pop culture, including as an AI killer in Netflix’s Black Mirror. Under Pilat’s imagination, Spot becomes an empathetic creature assisting her as she paints machines, documenting a historical period just as court artists depicted European royalty.
Paradox recently spoke with Pilat about the fall of communism, Black Mirror, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) on blockchain, and whether we’re living in a computer simulation.
How did growing up in Eastern Europe and watching the fall of communism inform your worldview?
Oh, hugely. My whole life revolves around that. Like, I’ll be always a child of communism. That’s what defines me. I’ll never get it out of me. When I was little, I saw communism, but I was old enough to understand things and to remember stories, like no toilet paper or hiding a pig in the trunk and the police stopping us and stuff like that. It was very dark, and then our lives changed for the better in ‘89. Poland did something very, utterly brilliant after the fall of communism. They allowed people to buy the businesses they worked for on very good terms. And my family jumped into that. During my father’s entire life, men in Poland drank too much, and my father struggled with alcohol too. The moment he had a private business, he changed into this responsible, hardworking person and as if he was miraculously healed by having a purpose of building something he could own. Maybe that’s why I love capitalism so much!
Coming to San Francisco was a little strange for me. I’m like, “Huh. The people kind of want what I grew up with.” I love Americans. Americans are extremely generous and good people. That said, a lot of them are very misguided in that sense.
Was the ideological transition solely with seeing the fall of communism firsthand, or were there also some books that informed your worldview here?
I was too young really to really explore that. And also, as a kid, the way we were taught history, it was all a lie. We didn’t even have access to books that offered a different perspective. Polish people, we were always very pro-Western. It wasn’t a high brow academic approach that spoke to us—it was American pop-culture, that had a great part in our love for the U.S.
The movie Rocky has a huge cultural impact in Poland. And I specifically remember watching Rocky IV when Rocky beats up [the Soviet boxer] Drago how we were always rooting for Rocky. Russia was always an oppressor for us. Poland is also very Christian. Altruism is very close to our heart. So, that’s why it was such a perfect melt ideologically. You go to Church and you’re taught you have to share and help the others, don’t be rich. So, that combined with communism perfectly.
When I came to America, someone gave me the book ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand. And reading the book, that was the first time in my life that I thought, “Oh, there could be a different moral system.” So, the book had a huge impact on me. Even though years later, I probably grew out of many aspects of it.
You watched the transformation of Poland as communism gave way to free markets. Do you think America could be going through its own transformation period right now with certain ideas, and how certain technology has played out with the social uses?
I have a pretty dark view of social media, even though I use it all the time. And it’s been good to me, to my career. I am particularly interested in technology as a vessel for American elitism—because America, as such a young country never had its own aristocracy, and always aspired for that. So I paint portraits of technology to point out that American aristocracy coming to power is the tech elite, and beyond that the technology itself. In Europe, portraiture always represented whoever holds the power, from religious casts, aristocracy, rich merchants and so on. In the United States, the closest you came to that kind of elitism was represented celebrity portraits of Andy Warhol. Now, it really is the technology class, where the Mark Zuckerbergs are deciding what the culture is.
You have a darker view of social media, but your depictions of technology are very optimistic. They’re rooted in historical evolution. How do you juxtapose those worldviews?
I like technology, meaning I actually like the machine, not the media. There is a lot of crossover, of course. With the public, there is this fuzzy line where when people think of technology, they group social media platforms like Facebook together with new industrial concepts like SpaceX—even though they are totally different cultures. In my experience with knowing people in Silicon Valley, people in technology tend to be more libertarian types, even though they don’t advertise it. In the Bay Area, there’s little room for anyone less than left of the left, so certain opinions are not good for business.
I don’t think social media is technology. It’s just media. Technology is a vessel that allows this conversation to go more smoothly. But I think these are two different things. And I have great respect for technologies, like even Apple, or of course, SpaceX and Tesla and Astra. But Google is not technology: Google is culture and it’s media.
Bill Gates calls technology just a tool.
It’s kind of cliché to say, but it is a tool. I’m at Boston Dynamics and two bad things happened last week. First was an art collective where they did an installation using Spot to shoot paintballs at different art objects. They would release control of Spot remotely to the public so you could control it from anywhere in the world. And it was a commentary about how responsible are the people, are the companies building these machines.
And there was one other thing that happened, where the police used Spot to monitor certain situations in the Bronx. And so Boston Dynamics is under fire right now. But that is easy: to sit on the sidelines and criticize ‘man in the arena’ to use Teddy Roosevelt’s quote. It’s very easy to jump and criticize all these technologies, including Elon Musk. But it’s the doing that really brings value to the world.
How did the collaboration with Boston Dynamics come about?
Because I have a very gung-ho view of technology, a lot of doors are open to me. I have a lot of collectors, VCs, or executives in that space. If I want to go somewhere, I generally can find a connection. And so, people will invite me over as a guest, and very often I will stay for a longer time. I did that with Google, with Waymo, and now Boston Dynamics. And I want to do SpaceX. People in that sector are being accused very often of living in a bubble. But they are changing the world for the better. And I’m so grateful to be in America and I think they need to be defended, because for me, they are ultimate entrepreneurs are pushing humanity towards a better future. So with this attitude, doors are open to me very often.
Did you see the Black Mirror episode?
Yes. I know about it. Actually, I know that they wanted to lease the dogs from Boston Dynamics, and Boston Dynamics refused. So, it’s all CGI.
But they were approached by them actually.
Did you like the episode?
It’s a great show. What do you think about the show?
There’s certainly a lot to unpack. I think that it’s Marxist in that it fetishizes the alienation under capitalist structures. But it gets you to think about technology in new ways, which I like.
There’s some internal drive where we’re very excited to see it. Humans like to relive drama and tragedy on TV, like the ancient Greek drama—sort of purge of the soul by witnessing terror.
You mentioned Elon Musk earlier. He has this theory that we’re living in a simulation. Do you think there’s any validity to that?
Hah! With Elon Musk…. Well, it’s not a secret that technologists in Silicon Valley experiment with certain substances, and a ‘trip’ certainly feels like a journey, a simulation. Add technology to that—I think there’s a route there, for the future, I mean. I don’t believe we are living in a simulation yet. But the future might make it real.
The book the Wachowskis based the first Matrix off, ‘Simulations’ by Jean Baudrillard, gets into this very interesting idea that a simulation doesn’t have to be a computer simulation. That we’re so far removed from nature at this point, and that everything is just a copy of a copy of a copy.
It’s interesting to have an open mind about these things. And I guess I haven’t given it much thought. But I don’t think it’s impossible. I think really we’re going into blockchain and NFT territory here.
Do you think NFTs are here to stay?
I’m very big on gatekeepers. I think they keep out the riff raff and stuff which has very poor-quality people who have no craft, no skills, no story to tell. When I go listen on Clubhouse, people are so focused on making money, and everybody believes they’re going to sell their stuff for millions of dollars. So, that is concerning. I think it’s lost. It’s a gold rush. It has nothing to do with art very often, and makes me think about Mr. Brainwash. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Banksy’s documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop.
So, it reminds me of that, that there are people piling on with the intention of making money and it has nothing to do with art. And these people are in denial. They think they’re doing something that has artistic value, and it has none actually.
Now, that said, I like experimentation. I think a bigger playing field is wonderful. I deal with the gallery world, it’s an insider’s game, and often not the most level playfield. I have strong free-market tendencies and that’s looked down at by curators, so I often have to keep quiet, even when talking to my mentors. That’s sad: The lack of tolerance in the art world. So in that sense, I do like the NFTs, in that they’re more democratic where you can just go out there and put stuff out. It’s ironic, people in the art world tend to be so liberal and have such a strong agenda towards social justice and climate change. But NFTs are attached to Ethereum and use up a lot of energy. I’m not sure if people really even like to realize what’s going on.
Are you working on anything with them?
I’m going to, actually. I’m going to release some probably the next couple of weeks, because it’s such a gold rush. It’s a performance art of sorts—the whole art market and the crypto market too. And for my practice, it’s interesting, because it’s connected to technology, and I like all that.
And I like thinking of the machine. As much as I could, in the beginning, I depicted the machine as a very mechanical, in-the-world object. Of course, another definition of the machine is a system, it’s this organism; where each part has a place and works together towards one goal. So, that’s another definition of the machine. And that’s why I do like the digital realm of machines.
Where do you see the art market going as more technology is introduced? Right now, it’s this frenzy with new forms of technology, but eventually this kind of stuff stabilizes and we’re left with this new reality before technology kind of up ends disrupting again.
There’s a lot of great data and AI-driven art coming out. And I do like that. I think there’s going to be another whole chapter of art. For me, going back to the Matrix and simulation, I think there’s going to be a political and cultural divide where people who have wealth, the one percenters will still experience real life in a physical realm.
The rich will still be able to have a real painting in their house and go to a real museum or travel to a real place. And I think the 99% of people are just going to have their VR goggles on, and they’ll live in their tiny apartment unhealthy, just experiencing everything visually, and have avatars of what they want to be; it’s going to be the story they tell themselves, and it’s very, very interesting. I think there’s going to be the ultimate great divide in the world, the real people, and the ones who are just living in the digital realm. That’s why the Matrix is so brilliant.