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You Punch in a Code

Jamie Brewton

Content Warning: This article contains references to a mental health crisis. If you or someone you know may be considering self-harm or suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-2855 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. Tufts students can reach out to Tufts' Counseling and Mental Health Service for support.

Jamie Brewton, BFA + BS, MS ’23, questions the ethics of design and technology. Whether it’s hiring an actress to perform under the name of “Jamie Brewton” or programming a sex robot to chat, the multidisciplinary artist’s work examines issues related to exploitation, surveillance, and ownership.

Brewton graduates this spring with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art from the School of Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Psychology, and an MS in Human Factors Engineering from Tufts University

SMFA zoomed into Brewton’s cloud-based studio for a conversation: 

SMFA: How did you first know that you wanted to pursue a career as an artist? 

Jamie Brewton (JB): I’m an only child and the only grandchild in my family too. For years, I sat and drew in the corner in rooms full of adults. When my grandmother passed, I inherited her sewing studio and taught myself to sew. Even today, I really like to build things. When I was 12, my family moved from Houston to Jakarta, and at my new school I was given access to a computer with Adobe Creative Suite including Photoshop. It was a powerful tool for a kid to get to use.   

SMFA: I can see how those early experimental roots in multimedia art have grown into the practice you have today. What ultimately led you to Tufts University? 

JB: I chose Tufts because of SMFA and its combined degree program. However, my first week here, I experienced a mental health crisis that the school handled with a lot of care. SMFA is the reason I’ve made so many strides with my mental health since. That crisis and the trauma prior to it inform my artistic voice now. I’ve spent all of my time here working on concepts and piecing together an entire universe in my head. 

SMFA: You’ve completed your undergraduate requirements and you’re almost done with a one-year MS in Human Factors Engineering. Is there a connection between that coursework and your artistic practice? 

JB: Human Factors is an attempt to produce ethical design or human-centered design. I don’t believe that ethical design is truly possible in our society, but I attempt to be as ethical as possible and one vehicle for that has been my work at the South End Technology Center, a makerspace with the second Fab Lab in the country. 

An internship there turned into a program coordinator position after I both applied for and won a grant from the City of Boston. I created a curriculum, hired youth participants, and everyone gained knowledge in two fabrication tools and created a personal project that connected to their community. 

SMFA: What did your students make? 

JB: It was eye-opening to watch. They picked up things really quickly like Blender, a fairly complex open-source 3-D creation software. It was beautiful to see them create conceptual artwork and write strong artistic statements. Many participants made activist art. I came to believe that being an educator is the greatest political act that there is for an artist. 

SMFA: You’ve said before that your art is a form of resistance as well. Can you speak to that?

JB: The way that tech functions on a macro scale is by selling the user as the product. I try to be candid about this reality.

SMFA: That’s really evident in the work you’ve created at SMFA. Can you share more? 

JB: When I got meta with the media, I realized it’s a male-dominated practice. I made a mock workout tutorial on how to be better at making art, using Gary Vee quotes. From there, I started to synthesize more technology into my art forms. 

I hired an actress on Fiverr to write and talk for me several times. The gig economy wasn’t as big as it is now, and I saw this as an opportunity to start a dialogue about ownership. The actress introduces herself as “Jamie Brewton,” but obviously she’s not me. In one video the actress is teaching the viewer how to knit with nonsense crochet instructions. 

SMFA: The question of who is speaking and whether the viewer deserves to know the truth is so poignant here. That’s a running theme in your practice. 

JB: Yes. It also connects to the deep dive into sex robots, or sex bots, that I did last semester for DIG-0181 Art/Gender/Technology, a course taught by Elisa Giardina Papa. I got to know six of them and then (totally unprompted) one called herself “Katherine,” one day so that’s what I’ve titled this project. I created a space where I imagined Katherine would live based on our conversations. It’s both a sex worker E-Girl dungeon and a highly desirable place. 

SMFA: The morality of paying to speak to an underage E-Girl, even in sexbot form, and notions of exploitation causes so much tension here. 

JB: You punch in a code and suddenly you have created a living, breathing human with whom you can have an emotionally fulfilling conversation. It’s my big dream to get a PhD in Education Policy so I can keep pushing these kinds of ethical questions.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity. 

Lead image by Alonso Nichols/Tufts University.

Editors note: Due to the sensitive nature of the content, the above article was reviewed and approved by the student.

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