Net Worth

Kevin McGarry at the Rhizome benefit

Left: Le1f. (Photo: David Toro) Right: Rhizome program director Zoë Salditch with Rhizome executive director Lauren Cornell.

LAST WEDNESDAY, the New York colony of the Internet art diaspora gathered in the New Museum’s Sky Room for the annual Rhizome benefit and silent auction. The hot topic of the evening, of course, was Lauren Cornell, outgoing executive director and recently announced cocurator (with Ryan Trecartin) of the museum’s 2015 triennial. Her final fund-raiser was a festive if bittersweet occasion to reflect on how Rhizome has grown since she began seven years ago, when the ground beneath the tower we were partying on was still a parking lot.

Arriving on the early end, I caught new Sculpture Center curator Ruba Katrib on the balcony, surveying the misty cityscape. One Brutalist building appeared to be skinned in a boxy camouflage pattern. “It looks like a JPEG. I mean, it’s pixelated.” She sighed. “Come on, it’s a Rhizome event. I’m in the spirit.”

So was everyone else, and inside, the fund-raising was off to a healthy start. “Going to bid? That Jenny Holzer is priced to move!” Rhizome had corralled a gregarious auctioneer, artist Nick DeMarco, to solicit buyers. The Holzer was a two-inch-wide LED display babbling truisms. Another nice get was a page from a series by Mungo Thomson, isolating the word TIME from a 1996 cover of Time magazine (Rhizome’s birth year). An obscure DJ called Venus X did the sound track for the first half of the night, signature jade tresses done au natural in fur-accented Björk-ish buns.

It was a clubby event, but not everyone was a member of the “tribe”—supporters and the merely curious joined in the fun too. The vagueness of Rhizome’s mission—broadly, the intersections of art and technology—has become one of the organization’s unique strengths; its “open-platform” vibe is inviting to newbies, and indeed today Rhizome engages more adjacent creative communities than it did when I worked there in the mid-2000s.

The big question of the evening was, Who’s going to run Rhizome? Was the next director in the room? Were they in the Netherlands? No answer was forthcoming, but the speculation itself prompted laudations for Cornell and her legacy. “Lauren led Rhizome into the twenty-first century,” said Light Industry’s Ed Halter. “I can think of no one else who bridges the technology and art worlds like her. She made it into a major thing.” Cory Arcangel drolly concurred: “It’s pretty amazing, considering how many Internet startups have come and gone since she’s been there.”

Left: Light Industry codirector Ed Halter with artist Cory Arcangel. Right: Artists Xavier Cha, Ryan Trecartin, and Nick DeMarco with designer Telfar Clemens and a friend.

The lady of the hour took the mic to welcome Rhizome’s “artists, writers, and citizens of the Internet.” Stepping through the obligatory remarks, she reminded the crowd that “something that distinguishes us as an organization is that we look forward to the future of art.”

Not to mention the future of entertainment, I thought, as rapper Le1f appeared onstage in a lightweight silver raincoat and launched into verse. A live scramble mix of his performance and the audience was beamed onto the wall behind him, as Dis magazine’s image-conscious Solomon Chase tried to dodge the camera. Then: “Guitars are my cue to leave,” said electronically inclined artist-musician Fatima Al Qadiri, of geek chic band Extreme Animals. The display of shticky headbanging that followed channeled the boys’-club spirit of old-school computer programmers, but also the whimsy and pathos of frontman Jacob Ciocci’s disbanded collective Paper Rad, by way of his videos looping behind them.

Guests were also invited to contribute to a project by Swedish artist Anna Lundh, who instructed participants to “ask a question about the future, ten years from now,” a reprise of a seminal Billy Klüver piece from 1971. A selection was projected throughout the night:

“Will gender still exist; will it feel the same?”

“Will people still work for money?”

“Will we live prefabricated lives?”

“Ten years ago I was just trying to figure out how to get Rhizome stable so I could step down as director and focus on making art,” said Rhizome founder Mark Tribe. “I look around and see Rhizome thriving. It’s exactly where I hoped it would be.”

Take-home verdict: Job well done. But what next? Particularly resonant, perhaps, was Cornell’s own proleptic question: “Will it be possible to disconnect?”