Last week we showed a brief preview from Scott Listfield's upcoming show ALGORITHM at Spoke Art in San Francisco. With this fascinating exhibition that explores a dystopian San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Spoke director Dasha Matsuura sat down with Listfield to hear some of his thoughts on technology, painting, Black Mirror, and more.

Last week we showed a brief preview from Scott Listfield's upcoming show ALGORITHM at Spoke Art in San Francisco. With this fascinating exhibition that explores a dystopian San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Spoke director Dasha Matsuura sat down with Listfield to hear some of his thoughts on technology, painting, Black Mirror, and more.


Dasha Matsuura: Your work, especially for solo shows, is often very influenced by where the work will be shown. What were you most interested in exploring with San Francisco?
Scott Listfield:
Before I left my day job a couple of years ago in order to pursue the art thing full time, I worked as a designer, often for companies in the tech world. For my last gig, I'd often find myself out in San Francisco, wandering around the city in the off hours, largely on my own. There's a very specific type of loneliness that sets in on business trips. You're seeing the world, kind of, but you're doing it mostly alone, not sharing it with the people who matter to you. Also you're working and overtired and jet lagged, and sometimes the hotel you're staying in is haunted. So I'd fill up those empty hours wandering the hills of San Francisco. It was a time in my life where I was very aware that I was at a crossroads, with my art career starting to take off. I'd think a lot about my future, and my past, walking up and down San Francisco's absolutely bananas topography. And then I'd crest a hill and find all of the city laid out below me, with twinkling lights and bridges and vertical streets heading off in all directions. And I'd remember that sense of exploration, of feeling alone and apart from my surroundings, that first inspired me to start painting astronauts a very long time ago. I wanted to recapture some of that in this show.

You’ve described your work as chapters in a larger narrative. For ALGORITHM at Spoke SF, what is the main narrative your astronaut protagonist is embarking on for this chapter?
Apart from the the specific physical setting of San Francisco in these works, I also wanted to explore the idea of San Francisco and Silicon Valley as a center for futuristic thinking. People in other cities have hobbies like bowling, playing basketball, or baking cookies. In San Francisco, you have an app you're working on. Silicon Valley (the HBO show) might be a parody, but there's a lot of truth in it. There's a ton of overly grandiose visions of the future happening here. In general, of course, I support such things, but there's some inherit pretentiousness in acting like your venture capital pitch, where soup is delivered via drones, is somehow going to make the world into a utopian paradise. The flip side to all of this technological worship is a kind of fetishization. Where every one of Elon Musk's musings on Twitter becomes the next most important thing to happen in the history of the world. And just to be clear, I'm all for technological progress. I like Teslas. But, it worries me that a lot of what is happening seems to happen without actual human people stepping back to say “Just because we can do something, does that mean we should?” What is technology without the human component? And what kind of problems are we solving? Is sending a self diving pizza to my house or building a better algorithm the best use of our problem solving skills?


Is there a moral to the story or are we going full Black Mirror with the endings yet?
Black Mirror was definitely a large inspiration for this body of work. I think what makes that show so relevant is that we have reached a point where our relationship to technology is pivoting into something deeper. Technology is starting to think for us, and I'd actually be surprised if, in my lifetime, it didn't become something that is physically embedded in our biology in some way (and no, not like Google Glass). It's super easy to imagine how that kind of relationship could take a dark turn. That said, I wasn't totally interested in exploring the darker side of our fascination with technology, in some part because I'm not sure I could out-Black-Mirror Black Mirror. But also because I'm not super interested in darkness. And so, for this show, I spent more time thinking about what might happen to all of these smart objects we're building in order to service some of our dumbest desires if mankind were, for one reason or another, suddenly not around anymore. What purpose would a pizza delivery bot serve if there were no more pizzas to deliver?

Does the idea of pizza bot wandering alone in the post-apocalyptic landscape make you sad that it no longer has a purpose or happy that it’ll be free to roam?
To be honest, I was a little surprised how much empathy I started to feel for pizza bot. There's obviously a repeating refrain in science fiction where the robots will eventually rise up and – you know the refrain – KILL ALL HUMANS. But what if it turns out that humans don't need robots to do themselves in? What if our civilization comes crashing down for one of a hundred other reasons, and the remaining robots are just out there trying to do their jobs the best they can. I pictured poor pizza bot, lost in the woods, desperately hoping someone would wander by who might want a fresh hot pizza. And yes, I'll admit, that thought made me a bit sad.


Is writing a part of your process? Do you think you’ll explicitly write a narrative or keep letting viewers bring their own narrative to the empty vessel of the astronaut?
Well, I do like to write, but I usually end up writing some kind of a mission statement after the paintings are all done. One of the things I like about art is that I can keep it kind of open ended and let people read into it what they will. My paintings often seem to take place sort of in the future, but also sort of in the past, and kind of also in the present. I feel like that kind of thing is actually a plus in art, but would be harder to pull off in other mediums.

Your lone astronaut observer has done quite a bit of traveling with you over the years. He’s often very isolated, but is also protected by his suit and always seems so peaceful. Do you enjoy spending time alone exploring as well? Is your studio time your solo expedition?
I do like to explore on my own, but I also like exploring with people. Especially people like, for example, my wife. I find exploring places on my own to be really inspiring to my work. But exploring with someone else, someone you care about, is so much better because you can hold onto that experience forever as a shared memory.

That said, when I left my day job in order to paint full time, I was worried that spending so much time in my studio, I wouldn't have the space to let inspiration strike, which does often happen when I'm out wandering alone. But I've found that by pouring more hours into the studio, I do find myself living in the world I'm creating more. And so yeah, I guess studio time is kind of my own place to explore now.


A constant in your work (other than our anonymous traveler) seems to be the push and pull of our imagined, fictional view of what the future is and where we are currently or where we’re realistically headed. How do you feel about where we are with technology? What advancement are you still waiting on or wish hadn’t come along?
I think we all have a bit of a love/hate relationship with technology. Being able to know anything, all the time, just by pulling a plastic brick out of your pocket and saying “Siri, who played the grim reaper in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey?” sounds like the information utopia we've always wanted. But as we've seen in recent years, having access to all the information in the world somehow devalues it. The difference between fact and fiction has become almost unimportant. If I declare whales to be fish, not mammals, and it gets 8 million retweets, does that make it true? No, but at that point what's the difference? As I said a couple of questions ago, I think we're at a real pivotal point in our relationship with technology. We've proven we can do a lot of things we never thought we could, but we need to think long and hard about how those incredible abilities are being deployed. We can no longer be agnostic about it and just assume that better technology always makes a better society. A lot of people are going to lose their jobs over the next few decades because machines will be better and cheaper at doing those things than humans. That's probably inevitable, but we can embrace progress in a way that allows a path forward for some of those folks, or we can just continue to blindly pursue better technology just because that's a thing we've always done.

Anyhow, it was William Sadler who played the Grim Reaper in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. You probably remember him from The Shawshank Redemption, or the approximately million TV roles he's had. And the one piece of technology I'm still waiting for? How is it 2018 and there are still no flying cars???


We’ve talked a bit about how technology is “solving” our everyday problems with apps and profiles and tracked data, while creating new problems. What most concerns you about our current trajectory into tech shaping the future?
I mean, just off the top of my head, the fact that Facebook's algorithm, which was primarily designed in order to increase the amount of time the average user spends on the service and streamline the insertion of ads into your daily routine, has largely warped our sense of what's factually accurate and royally fucked our political system, and has done so in just a few short years. Well that is somewhat troubling. And I'm shitting on Facebook, but a lot of other tech giants have similarly pursued value systems which, on their surface, seem relatively harmless, or at worst annoying (oh, hey, another ad to watch). But to do so without really thinking of the repercussions of those decisions? That is what worries me. And I'm not blaming billion dollar oligarchs. Well, ok, I'm blaming billion dollar oligarchs. But we need the people who work at these companies to be accountable. We need the people who use these services to ask for accountability. We need to decide that the future will be better than the past, not just easier and more convenient than the past.

And hey, I'm a rare person who actually likes Facebook! I'm not crapping on technology, which has been as big a key to my artistic career as anything else. I literally couldn't be doing what I'm doing without Google, Amazon, Instagram, Apple, and a number of other technology companies that help me every day. And to their credit, well, to some of their credit, I think they realize the problem. Pursuing technological goals without considering societal goals leads to the shitty dystopian future we all want to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger star in, but which none of us wants to live in.


This body of work for ALGORITHM is much more minimalistic in comparison with older or more recent work. What is drawing you to less overt pop culture references and the geometric shapes? The shapes almost feel like holograms or floating apparitions.
Is it? I feel like these are maybe a bit quieter than some of my recent work, but I don't think of them, really, as being more minimal. I did want the human presence in these to feel even more absent than in most of my work, with technology filling in the gaps. I think of the geometric symbols in each of them as kind of representing that idea – that something vaguely technological has taken the place of what would normally be happening up in the sky – birds, trees, stars. And I don't always insert pop culture references into all of my work, but I think there are some in these paintings. I think we'll look back at this time and think of Elon Musk sending a fake astronaut into space in a Tesla as a weird pop culture moment. Domino's is testing an actual pizza delivery robot, and there are self driving buses popping up all over the world. Those things are maybe more techy than pop culture, but I kind of think of them as part of the same general world – weird events that point to a specific time and place that may or may not spark some kind of strange nostalgia.

There are a few Tesla/Space X references in ALGORITHM, is Elon Musk the benevolent overlord in your astronaut’s universe?
Nah. But he did, as I mentioned, launch a dummy in an astronaut suit in an actual Tesla into space. A lot of people sent me pictures and news items on it when it happened, since it did in a way resemble some of my paintings. So I thought it made sense to, shall we say, bring the Tesla (and Elon Musk) back down to Earth.

If you could make a sci-fi or imagined future technology from movies/tv/books that doesn’t exist yet come to life, what would it be? HAL for home? I guess we have maniacally laughing Alexa instead. Actual hover boards? Lightsabers?
Anyone advocating for a real life version of HAL needs to seriously rewatch the last 20 minutes of 2001. As for something from sci-fi I'd like to actually exist? Honestly, I don't know. It's funny how often, in the movies, technology mostly leads to horrible things. Sure a time machine sounds cool but Marty almost erased himself from existence. Space travel would be rad, but Aliens. Robots are cool but Terminator and Ex Machina and Blade Runner. Dinosaurs never ends well. I mean, Futurama might be a best case scenario, right? I guess I'll take a robot best friend, even if he drinks and gambles a bit too much.