Interview with Cake industries

Cake Industries’ ‘The Hybrid Society’, which premiered at Robotronica in August 2019, consists of roaming performative sculptures embodying social media influencers that startle and intrigue audiences. Experimenta spoke to Jesse Stevens and Dean Petersen about their collaboration, the bleak impacts of social media, and the style and humour in their work.

Experimenta:  How did the formation of Cake Industries come about?

Dean: Basically, we’re a couple. We met in 2005 and started working together about a year later.

Jesse: We bounced ideas off each other and gave each other a lot of confidence in being able to create work. We started with a small performance art piece in a wild arts warehouse that we were living in at the time in Brunswick, which was kind of raw and weird and wonderful.

Jesse: The warehouse was, I guess, a catalyst for us. We were looking for a place where we could have an artist studio and space and the ability to do odd things. And that warehouse was pretty great for us in terms of getting the ball rolling, starting to build our little studio, and experiment with ideas.

Experimenta: Why did you choose the name Cake Industries?

Dean: We wanted to be clear that what we were doing was a permanent collaboration. It was an entity that we had created, and we wanted to keep it that way, rather than a temporary collaboration between two people.

Jesse: Ultimately, Cake Industries doesn’t mean anything. It’s designed like that, to be inexplicable and random. It’s like a name for a company that’s been amalgamated or merged so many times where they sell parts off and they get bought up by other companies and become weird kind of Frankensteins. We enjoy these names.

Experimenta:  Leading on to your current work The Hybrid Society, are there earlier works that are perhaps precursors or that share similar concerns?

Dean: The one closest to it was probably one from 2017 called Likeness where we addressed the addiction to social media directly.

Jesse: Likeness manifested as a small table with a clock and a hovering button in the middle. But as you pick up the telephone that was also sitting on the table, things would spring to life. The screen would start to play all sorts of archival video of home and social situations and music. A little hand would consistently come out of the clock, like pressing the button is a kind of award-response system.

Social media has been shown repeatedly in several papers now to be triggering the reward-response system in our brains. We are triggering those parts of the brain associated with addiction. And I guess, for us, that’s something that worries us. It’s a widespread actual addiction coming from innocuous activities such as sharing photos, talking with family, and catching up with endless high school friends who add you randomly on Facebook. Being on social media seems like an interesting little pastime, but quickly becomes something that you do whenever you’re not doing anything else.

I guess that’s where Likeness came from, that evolved into ideas that became The Hybrid Society.

Dean: It’s where we began exploring the hybridisation of human and machine and how that might play out physically.

Jesse: A big part of it is the dream of a connected world. The internet of our teenage years seemed like an open world, a place where we could place parts of ourselves online and interact with others and be free and open. With the rise of social media, people stopped experiencing the entirety of what the internet had to offer and started to just go into these siloed little worlds –  the Facebooks, the Instagrams, the Reddits. These various places where everyone congregates into a corporate kind of environment that were controlled and locked down.

Dean: And everyone’s being mined for their data so basically everyone’s being commodified. All their personal life is being used to sell things, and they’re being sold based on who they are. In signing up to anything online, you’re selling your data away.

Experimenta:  Can you talk about the characters in the work that you’ve created from these ideas?

Dean: We have two humanoids, walking characters, and they’re the embodiment of the modern influencer. They’re brand ambassadors creating content for promotion and sales where they are the actual product. Their clothing is heightened and their presence is heightened. Everything, the colours, they’re clean and crisp and larger than life. They’re in a constant state of selfie-taking.

Jesse: The family unit is a grouping of three people with television heads that are the mother, father, and child. People would be complaining in the ’70s and ’80s about, ‘Watching so much television, you’ll get square-eyed,’ but at least the family was spending time doing one thing together.  A family unit today is seated on a couch facing opposite directions staring at their own little devices in a constant state of swiping on their phones in separate worlds.

Experimenta:  Do the humanoids interact with the audience?

Jesse: Yes, they do. In most of our public works we’re performing by proxy through them. Whenever you see the documentation of our work, you will usually spot both of us or one of us at a time in the background kind of in amongst the audience because they are not actually fully automated. They’re a robotic performer that we are performing through.

Dean: We’re able to respond to the audience. If someone’s moving, maybe we can follow them with the head of the sculpture, and we can move to where they’re going if they’re running away from us.

Jesse: Several times we have had things happen like people slowly shuffling by staring at their phones so intently they are not aware of their surroundings until they slowly walk right up to one of the influencers who’s also staring at their phone. The influencer will turn to stare at them and speak in a strange, garbled voice and shock them, and the kind of unprepared, the realistic response is quite beautiful.

Experimenta:  There is a twentieth-century vintage style to your work. Could you please discuss this?

Dean: I guess what we’re trying to do is have the work step back from reality by a couple of steps. We don’t want the humanoids to be part of the current media trend and style, to blend in so much that they are just regular people. We want them to be a little separated.

Experimenta: How is satire important in The Hybrid Society?

Jesse: It is pretty dark material that we’re playing with here and we could make it all doom and gloom, but there’s something interesting about pointing out the absurdity of the situation we find ourselves in.

Dean:  And that’s generally what we do with that material – we make it humorous, because that’s a way to draw people into the work.

21 – 22 September 2019,
7pm – 2am

Ballarat City Centre, VIC (roaming)


The Hybrid Society is commissioned by Experimenta and Robotronica.
Supported by the Australia Council for the Arts.

Image Credit: The Hybrid Society, Robotronica, 2019. Courtesy the artists. @cake_industries