The double-bind effect: Art and anxiety in a digital age

Katriona Beales, White Matter, 2015, multimedia installation with glass sculptures, moving image and sound. Commissioned by FACT (Foundation for Arts and Creative Technology), Liverpool. Courtesy and © the artist

It’s not uncommon to hear people joke that they are addicted to the internet. While internet addiction is not yet an accepted part of official diagnostic vocabulary, it looms large in the popular imagination, acting as a vessel for widespread anxieties about the mental health impacts of technological progress. According to psychologist Mark D. Griffiths, the term has been present in scientific literature since the mid‑1990s and is likely to eventually gain recognition from official medical bodies as a similar phenomenon to other behavioural addictions like “gambling disorder”.[1] 

In spite of this progress toward medical legitimacy, questions remain about the value of attaching medical terminology to behaviours that are difficult to separate from social and economic conditions. For Griffiths and his colleagues one of the key obstacles to official recognition for the term is its regular co‑morbidity with other compulsive behaviours such as workaholism, arguably a necessary behaviour for personnel trying to survive in a highly competitive and precarious workforce. For Franco Berardi, capitalism has engineered an affective environment where all human facets are engaged in productive labour.[2] Under these circumstances, constant return to the screen might be considered a sensible adaptation as opposed to biological deviancy that requires medical intervention.

Institute for New Feeling,This is Presence, 2015
Institute for New Feeling, This is Presence, 2015, digital video still. Courtesy and © the artists

From cyberbullying and #FOMO to fake news, the itinerary of first world problems encountered online might at first seem trivial. But with constant exposure these anxiety‑inducing irritants can quickly become a deluge. While the impulse to pathologise this process can come from a place of desire to offer care, doing so might also offer a convenient opportunity to sidestep the core of the problem; or, to paraphrase the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, pathologisation forecloses any possibility of politicisation. In the act of naming anxiety as a health issue requiring chemical intervention or resolution via “wellness products”, the question of social systemic causation can be conveniently overlooked.[3] While artists cannot be relied upon to solve our anxiety problem or to rescue it entirely from medical discourse, they might be well‑positioned to make what Jonathan P. Watts has suggested should be a “plea for complexity”.[4]Writing of the work of British contemporary artists Rachel Maclean and Benidict Drew among others, he suggests that the current preoccupation with issues of mental wellbeing is fuelled by the simple equation that “happy, healthy people = productive profitable people” and that artists might be well positioned to disrupt this paradigm. 

This essay examines the work of three artists who identify complex dialogues between anxiety and the dynamics of consumer capitalism in a digital age. Katriona Beales, the Institute for New Feeling and Erica Scourti are all concerned with ways that economic mechanisms couple with digital devices to produce a double bind effect, where technology functions as both a symptom and a cure of mental distress. While Beales focuses on the anxiety‑producing impacts of digital technologies and their relation to the market, Erica Scourti and Institute for New Feeling reflect on the function of technologically derived cures in a market‑driven economy. 

Katriona Beales White Matter
Katriona Beales, White Matter, 2015, multimedia installation with glass sculptures, moving image and sound. Commissioned by FACT (Foundation for Arts and Creative Technology), Liverpool. Courtesy and © the artist

London‑based artist Katriona Beales is a sculptor who also makes digital artefacts. Her work explores the slippage between offline and online worlds, with a focus on online behavioural addictions. She offers a cautious view of the pathologisation of the compulsive use of technology, considering how the market drives habit‑forming digital behaviour. The installation White Matter, a 2015 commission for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), originated out of a twofold impetus to reflect the artist’s own sense of alienation experienced as a result of her excessive internet use, alongside a need to make sense of horror stories about digital dependence flaunted in the mainstream media. It features a projection filling the ceiling of a round room, with cushions arranged around the base of the walls where the audience is invited to sit. In the centre, a raised surface supports hand‑shaped black glass objects, which the audience are invited to use as viewing surfaces for the moving image work above them.

Imagery of the character of a little girl built through the online game Prius, where a South Korean couple are said to have become so immersed in caring for a virtual character that they allowed their IRL daughter to starve, refers to compulsive use of the internet at its most extreme. Yet rather than moralising this behaviour, the work calls attention to the ways that digitally driven consumer capitalism assists us all in our pursuit of obsessive scrolling and the comfort of digital distraction. Filling the palm of the hand like the weighty presence of an iPhone, the black glass objects serve as a possible porthole to a world of colour, light and digital escapism. The work recalls the sensation of falling down a rabbit hole of hyperlinks late at night and losing awareness of time and space, an experience that most smart phones users might identify with. 

In a recent interview Beales quotes behavioural designer Nir Eyal’s description of how addictive patterns are integrated into interface design, creating what he calls a “frenzied hunting state” of seduction and consumption.[5] If internet addiction creates an altered chemical state in the brain, just like other addictions, it is one that has been engineered with the help of external market forces. Or, as anthropologists of addiction Eugene Rachel and William Garriott observe, “A number of technological and political‑economic factors have created conditions under which behaviours ranging from alcohol consumption to gambling are likely to become compulsive cycles. These include profit‑making entities, such as the alcohol, tobacco, and gaming industries … link compulsive desire to the circuits of consumer capitalism; and conditions of structural violence that undermine the forms of support people need to avoid such patterns”.[6] Just as advertising has helped to fuel the widespread use of substances like cigarettes and alcohol, digital design creates circumstances that make it challenging to resist a constant anxiety‑fuelled return to the screen.

Institute for New Feeling
Institute for New Feeling, This is Presence, 2015, digital video still. Courtesy and © the artists

For the Los Angeles‑based collective The Institute for New Feeling, the intersection between anxiety, technology and the market is interrogated through various forms of parody and contradiction that also emphasise cycles of anxiety and dependency. A self‑described “research clinic committed to the development of new ways of feeling, and ways of feeling new”, the Institute for New Feeling’s website offers a choice of products and treatments, positioning the artist’s output as a self‑help tonic at the service of contemporary anxieties. The downloads section of their website features resources and “at‑home remedies” designed for alleviating forms of disquiet specific to the digital age. In Re: long overdue payment, the user is taken through a guided meditation to cleanse their inbox. Dialogue from spam email selling everything from burial insurance to “transvaginal implants” is read aloud over quasi‑relaxing (but also highly unsettling) muzak. While the desired effect at first appears to soothe by purging meaningless unwanted email (an absurd task in itself), the experience is actually one of amusement mixed with genuine unease, as the listener is confronted with tides of unsolicited requests and calls to purchase that amplify the typical experience of digital communications.

Engaging with this online mediation might actually accelerate the anxious experience via the contrary mechanisms of a late‑capitalist era obsessed with solving psychological distress by getting more stuff and doing more things. Downloading a quasi‑therapeutic product that promises to improve mental state, naturally prompts a depressive crash when the desired results are not achieved. Or, as Jason Smith suggests in his preface to Berardi’s book The Soul at Work, “capitalism is the mobilisation of a pathos and the organisation of a mood; its subject, a field of desire, a point of inflexion for an impersonal affect that circulates like a rumour”.[7] While self‑care as opposed to state care has some roots in radical political action, it has also been co‑opted by the market, becoming a strategy for selling everything from yoghurt to yoga wear. In this climate, the Institute for New Feeling draws attention to the mental health traps set by the merry‑go‑round of the commercial wellness industry. Thankfully, their absurd remedies offer a way to laugh at this endless circulation of need and disappointment, suggesting that it might be okay to worry a little less about the state of your inbox or the impossible task of living totally free from anxiety.

Erica Scourti, Empathy Desk
Erica Scourti, Empathy Desk, live Twitter Bot. Courtesy the artist

 In Greek–English artist Erica Scourti’s Twitter bot and sculpture work Empathy Deck, the artist mixes extracts from her personal diary with text borrowed from self‑help literature to produce a deck of tarot‑like cards that impart a skewed spiritual and social wisdom. The cards are distributed digitally, responding to emotive language in follower’s Tweets, in an attempt at machine‑driven empathy that is often ambiguous or slightly absurd. Like Institute for New Feeling, Scourti also uses humour and ambiguity to question the value of digital wellness products to alleviate anxiety. Commissioned originally for The Welcome Collection’s 2016 exhibition Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond, the work reflects on the increasing technologisation of health care and an escalation of dependence on digital tools to take over the labour of caregiving. The work calls to mind some less‑successful recent attempts to harness social media to support mental health. For example, Samaritan’s Radar App, a well‑meaning intervention by the UK suicide‑prevention charity The Samaritans, was designed to alert followers if they expressed suicidal intent in their Tweets.

The intervention was quickly withdrawn after a tirade of objections from Twitter users who raised concerns over privacy and the capacity of an algorithm to accurately identify genuine mental distress. Receiving a Tweet from Scourti’s bot can feel cathartic and comforting in an online attention economy where likes and replies are the primary priority. Its compassionate sounding but generally perplexing advice can also produce a feeling of frustration, as it is impossible to fathom or implement. The work recalls sentiments of sociologist Sherry Turkle when she suggests that in a Western techno‑capitalist economy people are becoming insecure about relationships and are looking to technology as a substitute for embodied care.[8] While her assertions overlook arguments from neuro‑diverse communities that the intimacies afforded by technology can be therapeutic,[9] she does point toward a wider question posed by the increasing turn to technology to alleviate anxiety and mental distress. When digital devices are so intrinsically linked to the mechanisms of capitalism, to what extent are they able to perform a care‑giving function? By turning to digital tools for emotional support, are we not simply spinning the web of contemporary anxieties more tightly than ever? 

In a cultural context where technology and the economy are so indelibly intertwined, it seems inevitable that digital devices will go on functioning as instigators of contemporary anxieties, while also being marketed as their antidote. While artists cannot resolve this double bind, they can draw attention to it, providing momentary relief as we seek to understand our anxious predicament a little better.


  1. ^ Mark D. Griffiths, Daria J. Kuss and Halley M. Pontes 2017. ‘Internet addiction: A Brief Psychological Overview’. In Are We All Addicts Now?: Digital Dependence, edited by Vanessa Bartlett and Henrietta Bowden-Jones, 57-65. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press
  2. ^ Franco Bifo Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation To Autonomy. California: Semiotext(e), 2009
  3. ^ Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? London: Zero Books, 2009
  4. ^ Jonathan P. Watts, ‘Happiness Inc.’, Art Monthly, no. 391, May 2015, pp. 5-8
  5. ^ Nir Eyal, ‘How to Manufacture Desire,’ UX Magazine, article no. 1369, 7 January 2015
  6. ^ Eugene Raikhel and William Garriott. Tracing New Paths In The Anthropology of Addiction. London: Duke University Press, 2013, p. 7
  7. ^ Berardi, p. 10
  8. ^ Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology And Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011, p. xii
  9. ^ See Victoria Betton, ‘Talking Back: Mental Health And Social Media’. In Group Therapy: Mental Distress In A Digital Age [A User Guide], edited by Vanessa Bartlett, pp. 86-99. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005.

Katriona Beales, The Institute for New Feeling and Erica Scourti are showing work as part of Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age at UNSW Galleries, 20 September – 11 November 2017 curated by Vanessa Bartlett as part of The Big Anxiety. Vanessa Bartlett is co‑editor with Henrietta Bowden‑Jones of Are We All Addicts Now? Digital Dependence, published by Liverpool University Press in September 2017.