Ryan Aasen is a multidisciplinary artist interested in the politics of consumer technologies, particularly ideas around economics, surveillance, terrorism, and the privatization of speech and public space. He was a Northern Lights.mn Art(ists) on the Verge fellow, and his work has been exhibited nationally, including at The Walker Art Center and The Soap Factory (MN). He has a BFA from St. Cloud State University.

Ryan described his practice as having began with straight forward photography; however, he quickly started questioning the meaning and purpose of documentation.”So much of our lives is already autonomously documented,” Ryan said. For example, purchasing materials for his still life studio photography projects raises many questions for him: “Does the store the object is from have a profile of me based on my buying habits? Does my phone company know I was at that store? Will social media companies scan the image and apply that product to my ad profile? Everything we do now has all of these additional invisible layers of information being archived somewhere. It makes me almost wonder if it is ethical to contribute an additional level of documentation through photography. On the other hand, can I make these invisible forms of documentation visible through my own documentation?”

Critiquing the ways that off-the-shelf consumer technology has been used is at the forefront of Ryan’s work. “Being at ACT and MIT has put me in touch with how these things are made. ‘Gadgets’ have been demystified; they’re no longer something that inexplicably appear on a store shelf. I understand the type of place and person who creates these things.”

While studying at ACT and MIT has allowed Ryan to better understand the how of consumer technologies, his artistic trajectory has largely remained the same: focused on the why. “I’m still interested in dealing with the things that enter our lives from a store shelf. I think there’s a general attitude of more, more, more; that if we just keep making things better and faster we can solve all of our problems, but there’s so much already that needs to be interrogated beyond its intended use.”

Interrogating these existing technologies is at the heart of Ryan’s thesis, which explores the ways that media technology has intersected with privacy and surveillance, and identity and sexuality, at various moments in United States history. “Privacy is a pretty abstract concept,” Ryan said. “We all have a relationship to it in some form, but everyone has wildly different ideas of what privacy actually means. I’m trying to explore some of the less obvious ways privacy has manifested itself throughout history.”

When asked how COVID-19 is affecting his practice, Ryan noted that he was surprised by how tough it has been. He explained that while he has spent the majority of his career working out of his small apartment, “you get used to resources and networks and space; you forget how to work independently.” Though currently unable to physically be together, that hasn’t stopped him and some of his cohort from collaborating, including on a playlist that they hope to use for a celebratory dance party, complete with matching visuals, at some point in the future.