Maya Man on Generative Meaning

Maya Man, an artist focused on contemporary identity culture on the Internet, sat down with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony). Using Man's exhibition and project I'm Feeling Lucky on Verse as a jumping off point, they discuss horoscope culture as a belief system, finding meaning in randomness, the role of humor in art and much more.
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Maya Man, I'm Feeling Lucky (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Verse
Maya Man, I'm Feeling Lucky (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Verse

Maya Man on Generative Meaning

Maya Man, an artist focused on contemporary identity culture on the Internet, sat down with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony). Using Man's exhibition and project I'm Feeling Lucky on Verse as a jumping off point, they discuss horoscope culture as a belief system, finding meaning in randomness, the role of humor in art and much more.
Peter Bauman: I'm Feeling Lucky delves into the intersection of digital horoscope culture and femininity. Can you elaborate on the inspiration behind these themes and how they've evolved in your work over time?

Maya Man: A lot of my work focuses on contemporary identity culture on the Internet and a lot of that zooms in even further to think specifically about femininity and girl subcultures on the Internet, especially on social media. With that interest, plus my interest in identity, I'm really curious about external structures that we encounter online to understand ourselves. Astrology, which is the focus of I'm Feeling Lucky, has become very popular since my childhood. I used to read my horoscope in the back of Cosmo magazine. I've seen over the past decade a real increase in interest in using astrology as a structural and conversational tool to understand who we are and who we are in relation to other people.

Most people engage with astrology nowadays through the Internet, through apps like Co–Star and The Pattern. My skepticism around astrology has always been that I think it is random to a degree. As an artist who works with code and is making specifically long form generative collections, I've been thinking a lot about randomness in my practice.

It was exciting for me with this collection to try to link the randomness I think about with astrology with the random element of generative work and then think through why I indulge in finding meaning in both.

Peter Bauman: Is there meaning in random messages?

Maya Man: 
People find meaning in their sign, astrology readings and through the way that they often interact with generative work's randomness. When I was younger, I used to be more skeptical of finding meaning in randomness. As I've gotten older, especially in the past few years, I've found it really beautiful to find meaning in randomness.

If I open Co–Star and it tells me something that is super relevant to my life and forces me to confront something challenging I've been dealing with in some way, even if it was randomly generated, it doesn't really matter because I am finding meaning in it. That's where this collection came from, this belief that it doesn't matter that it's random. What matters is the meaning that you take away from something.

It feels more of an optimistic mindset than I had when I was younger, which is refreshing for me.

Peter Bauman: These phrases like “finding meaning” have religious undertones. You've also described horoscope culture as a growing belief system. Meanwhile, according to research, at least in the United States, young adults are becoming more religiously unaffiliated. This is especially true of adults between the ages of 20 and 24, which is the most religiously unaffiliated group. Are young adults substituting traditional belief systems for astrology and horoscopes?

Maya Man: Yeah, I love this question because I don't talk about it as overtly in my work as often as I maybe should. There’s a layer of pseudo-religious contemporary practice, which is what I think astrology is. It's also what I think is happening with the Instagram graphics that were the focus of my piece, FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT. I also have a piece, Trust Exercise, that's a two-channel generative piece focusing on Vogue Beauty Secrets, an online series Vogue puts out where celebrities do their makeup. All of these focuses are about a practice that involves some format of faith or worship or some replacement for what used to be a religious practice and what used to be about finding community in that context. Now in the age of the Internet, when young people are living more secular lives than ever, I think everybody is looking, and looking specifically online, for a way to find purpose in their life, find meaning, find community. I'm very invested in trying to unravel exactly why people invest their time in these specific lines of inquiry that these pieces are about.

Maya Man, Trust Exercise (still), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random
Maya Man, Trust Exercise (still), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random

Peter Bauman: Do you see ritual as another one of those religious elements your work examines? Every day you need to post, check, comment or like something.

Maya Man: Oh, definitely. This element of ritual, a repeated action, is hugely important for both. With Vogue Beauty Secrets, people  all the time in the comments, the meta layer of conversation around the series, say, "This is some kind of therapy for me," or "I find it calming." I watch this every time I get ready to go out. Similarly with astrology, through an app like Co–Star, it becomes part of people's daily ritual to, in the morning, open the app, look at their reading. I think having these patterns is comforting to people in a way because we don't have as many traditions that we are sticking to daily or weekly that bring that element of ritual into our lives in a less religious community. 

Peter Bauman: I'm really curious why artists choose software or code specifically to work with. Why did you choose code as your primary medium of expression?

Maya Man: Making work with software was the first way that I made work from the beginning. It was very natural to make work about the Internet using the language of the Internet. All of the websites that we are on still, at the end of the day, break down to HTML, CSS and JavaScript even though there are many layers of frameworks and things happening on top of that.

Working with code feels like the perfect medium for me to be interrogating Internet culture.

But what I love about making something like a website as an art object or working with software in general, specifically software that can run in the browser, is that you have this ability to produce a website as an art object and send it to someone. They can look at it on their phone or on their computer and they're seeing the work suddenly available on their screen. That's something that's really special about working with code to me. I started my career being interested in studying computer science. I didn't initially know that I wanted to be an artist because my perception of being an artist was very much attached to more traditional mediums like painting and sculpture. That wasn't what I was interested in. Working with code and then meeting people who were using code to create artwork was what unlocked the possibility of being an artist for me.

Peter Bauman: Speaking of some of those people you met, you were taught at UCLA by two titans of this field, Lauren Lee McCarthy and Casey Reas. How did that come about?

Maya Man: When I finished my first year of undergrad studying computer science, I applied to the Google Summer of Code open source program. It matched me with the Processing Foundation. I was in New York working on how to internationalize the p5.js website and through that I met Lauren relatively toward the beginning of her working on the p5 project. She invited me to the first ever p5.js conference that happened in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon. I went to this gathering of artists, educators and designers who were all engaged with and thinking about technology, specifically thinking about code. At the same time, everyone had these expansive practices and they were thinking about how to bring in people of all different backgrounds and make this inclusive and open. This was not the way I had previously thought about technology culture, especially studying computer science in school. It was really this environment that was so warm and welcoming. 

Maya Man, I'm Feeling Lucky (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Verse
Maya Man, I'm Feeling Lucky (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Verse

I felt like the people there shared a lot of the values that I had around thinking about technology. That opened me up to people like Lauren who were using code in their work to critique technology and to make artwork that has this conceptual focus, that's prompting people to confront their relationship to the technology that they use every day. So it really showed me that, one, it was possible to be an artist who works with code and, two, it was possible to make artwork that focused on ideas.

After that, I was introduced to Casey. And those experiences led me to, after a few years out of undergrad, really want to work more closely with them and go to UCLA for my MFA in the media art department where they're both professors. Lauren was on sabbatical for a portion of my second year and Casey was my thesis chair. I worked very closely with him a lot. He's amazing to work with. He's very present and he cares a lot about code and artwork and his students. It was a really important experience for me and for my practice.

Peter Bauman: You brought up the conceptual focus of your work. I think understanding what artists prioritize in their work can be helpful in developing a framework to think about appreciating generative art. For you is it the outputs, process, concept?

Maya Man: I'm extremely concept first. I'm interested in using software as a medium to interrogate concepts versus necessarily being aesthetically driven. That doesn't mean I don't care about the other elements but I'm very driven by the subject matter that I want to tackle with a specific piece or a collection. That's always what comes first or mostly what comes first with my projects.

I'll often become fixated on a format or subculture that's very familiar in the mainstream and then I twist it in some way to reproduce it as something new when I make it into my own piece.

In the back of my mind I'll notice when I'm becoming really excited by one specific aspect. I tend to let it sit in my mind for weeks to months before I act on it because I think it needs that time to percolate before I'm able to more concretely articulate exactly what I want to make. Because it's concept first, the work I make has taken many different forms depending on what the idea is about. Even though software is my primary medium, I've made websites as art objects, billboards, physical sculptural installations and quilts. I've worked across many different mediums depending on the idea.

Peter Bauman: Are there any particular artists or movements in art history that have inspired this concept-driven approach?

Maya Man: I have two vectors of artists that I'm interested in. One would be the group of artists, who from the beginning, have been working with technology and working with software such as Lillian Schwartz or Vera Molnár. These artists were excited about bringing in some form of computation into their practice even in the earlier days. The other vector is artists who were thinking about performance and specifically the performance of hyperfemininity in their work.

Lynn Hershman Leeson is an artist who very early on was working with technology and also using the way that she worked with technology to interrogate femininity and performance.

She has this performance piece called Roberta Breitmore where in 1970s San Francisco she performed as a young single woman with an identity different from her own personal identity. She named this character Roberta and she documented what it felt like. She would document the makeup Roberta wore or her appointments with a therapist. It's this intense look into what it means to perform and this idea of young femininity in the culture at that time. I think a lot about artists like that and also artists of the net art era and post-Internet era especially, who were continuing to think about what it meant to unpack their own identities through what they were putting out online.

Maya Man, I'm Feeling Lucky (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Verse
Maya Man, I'm Feeling Lucky (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Verse

Peter Bauman: One thing you consistently put out online is humor. Why is it important to you? Is it difficult to balance humor with the social messages that you want to get across?

Maya Man: I actually think that humor is key to getting a lot of the messages across that are intended to be embedded in the project. I find that humor makes my work more accessible to people. It opens people up. Laughing is not the wrong reaction and it can catch people off guard. With FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT and I'm Feeling Lucky, there's this element of absurdity. The language sounds slightly off, like something that a human probably wouldn't write because it sounds too weird. But that's what makes it funny and I find that is what brings people into the piece. They feel like they can engage with it. At the same time, that opens the door for people to go a level deeper and start to peel back the layers and understand why they're laughing. They can then examine the role the algorithm is playing in the piece and how it's contributing to that element of humor because it's generative. 

I think the element of humor is also a reflection of my personality. I take myself seriously, but I don't take myself that seriously. I think there's this element of true absurdity that I feel in general, being a person who posts on the Internet. It's funny and weird and I think it's impossible to not have a sense of humor about it if you're doing it. I think that also comes through in the way that so much of the Internet, specifically social media, runs on humorous content. I think that comes through a lot in the work as well. The way I present myself online is that it's all important to me and relevant but it's also absurd and funny at the same time.

Peter Bauman: I'm curious about the mismatch between your hyperfeminine presentation and your mostly male collectors. How do you manage to engage those within and without the Internet subcultures your work references? 

Maya Man: Ideally I want everyone to engage, no matter their personal identity. I am very curious about how my collectors engage with the work. What do they feel is the distance between the work, its themes and their own way of experiencing the Internet and the world? Realistically, my work is about hyperfemininity and girl subcultures online. A lot of people who really resonate with my work, who come to my shows, who engage with the work online, are a lot of women and girls who are in and around my generation and share a lot of the experiences that I do. The work really resonates because it's part of their worldview and part of their personal experience. It is very funny to contrast with the collector base that is very male dominated and very much less a part of those subcultures I reference in my work.

There's something that I love about injecting this hyperfeminine, pink-sugar-cookie aesthetic into this world that is so male dominated and visually very masculine. It disrupts the  comfortable flow of that visual language.

It can force people who might not be following those types of accounts on Instagram that post bubbly pink graphics to be suddenly confronted with it because it is injected into their space. They then might think about what it means that this genre of content exists. That's really important and special to me and it's been really meaningful to see a lot of collectors embrace the work, even people who at the beginning were very vocal about disliking certain pieces or not, quote, unquote, getting it in some way. They also talk about how after spending time with the project or engaging with it on a deeper level that they've changed their mind. That's really productive and important to me because a lot of the people that see it that are maybe more in my demographic immediately get it and there doesn't need to be a lot of discussion because it's so embedded in their universe.

Maya Man, I'm Feeling Lucky (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Verse
Maya Man, I'm Feeling Lucky (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Verse

Peter Bauman: Besides I'm Feeling Lucky, which is available from Thursday September 14, 2023 on Verse, can you share any upcoming projects or ideas that you're excited about?

Maya Man: Something I've been working on over the past few months is making a book that represents the FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT collection from last year. It's been really special to go through the process of thinking about how to turn a digital collection into a physical object. I've been working with this book designer, Elena Forker, whose style I love and who I think has done a really amazing job with it. I'm really excited to share the book in early 2024. 

Back to what you were saying about the audience for my work not always aligning with the collectors of my work, I think there are a lot of people who the work resonates with but aren't maybe in the Web3 space or also just economically are not able to buy a piece from the collection. And so I'm excited to be able to release this book as a way to bring more people into the project and let them have a piece of it outside of the NFT collection itself.


Maya Man is an artist focused on contemporary identity culture on the Internet. Her websites, generative series, installations, textiles and posts examine dominant narratives around femininity, authenticity and the performance of self online. She is the creator of the browser extension Glance Back and the Art Blocks curated collection FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT, which was shortlisted for the 2023 Lumen Prize (Metaversal Generative Art Award). She has exhibited internationally at bitforms, NYC; SOOT, Tokyo; Vellum, Los Angeles; Power Station of Art, Shanghai; and Feral File, online. Her work has been featured in Art in America, Forbes, Zora Zine, Outland, Refinery29 and more.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.

Special thanks to thefunnyguys and Miami for contributing to the questions.