San Francisco-based artist Jonathon Keats occupies some very peculiar coordinates in today’s art scene. His work incorporates elements of science journalism, culture jamming, performance art, absurdist comedy, and philosophy.
You may have heard of his work. He's the guy who, in 2011, attempted to genetically engineer God in a laboratory. (It didn't work, so far as we know.) A few years back, Keats opened the world's first photosynthetic restaurant for house plants, serving gourmet sunlight. He's dabbled in real estate, too, selling four-dimensional tesseract houses in the Bay Area. Leveraging quantum theory, he's assembled a prototype universe generator that allegedly spits out alternate realities from a mason jar.
If you detect an element of absurdity in all this, that's entirely deliberate. As a self-styled “experimental philosopher,” Keats specializes in thought experiments that keep the emphasis squarely on “experiment.” His projects, which are often displayed in art galleries, bring scientific rigor to art-school flights of fancy — all in the spirit of earnest inquiry.
Keats doesn't just think this stuff up. He designs experiments, tests hypotheses and builds prototypes. Those universe generator kits, for instance, are modeled on physicist Hugh Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Each was handmade in Keats's home laboratory/studio, using surplus scientific equipment like resonating crystals and uranium-infused glass, purchased through eBay.
Part performance art, part weird science, Keats's work is a kind of constantly morphing epistemology puzzle: How do we know what we know? Are technological advances the same as cultural progress?
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Speaking from his home in San Francisco, Keats said he’s motivated by simple and genuine curiosity. Like many artists, he enjoys throwing monkey wrenches into the gears of everyday perception. His interdisciplinary projects are a way to explore society at large through the lens of science and technology.
“I try to think up mechanisms that serve as provocations for having debates and discussions,” Keats said.
Trained in philosophy at Amherst College, Keats has smuggled certain philosophical concepts into the art world, too. “For example, in philosophy, the thought experiment is used as a rhetorical tool,” Keats said. “It's a mode of argumentation. You want to prove a point, you set up a counterfactual thought experiment. When the experiment leads to absurdity, you've made your point.”
Keats has taken the thought process one step further: He’s constructed physical experiments.
“I never know what the conclusion is going to be because I'm not doing this for the sake of making an argument,” he said. “I'm doing it as an exploration. I really run the experiments.”
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One of Keats's latest projects concerns the fashionable trend of wearable technology, ranging from fitness bands and smart apparel to Google Glass and the Apple Watch.
His Superego Suits exhibition, recently showcased at San Francisco's Modernism Gallery, imagines hypothetical future wearables that drill deeper into our psychological selves, augmenting self-perception and making personality “completely adjustable.”
The exhibit features smart shoes that automatically elevate so the wearer is taller than anyone else in the room. Also on display are telescoping rings that extend physical reach, enhancing the user's sense of agency in the world.