Phreaks and Geeks

Michael Wilson at Seven on Seven at the New Museum

New York

Left: Tumblr.com founder David Karp with artist Ryan Trecartin. Right: Rhizome director Lauren Cornell. (All photos: Michael Wilson)

“THE FIRST TIME I built my own database, I actually used hacked data structures!”


That the preliminary chatter among audience members at Seven on Seven—a recent half-day conference staged by Rhizome at the New Museum—was geekier than usual for an art-world event was perhaps to be expected. Organizers Fred Benenson, John Michael Boling, John Borthwick, Lauren Cornell, and Peter Rojas had paired seven artists with seven “game-changing technologists” and challenged them to collaborate on something—anything—new. Having been given only a day to come up with a suitably innovative product, artwork, or app, each duo was now asked to deliver a twenty-minute presentation of their idea, to be followed by some Q&A and the fairly distant prospect (at least in the moment) of a cocktail reception in the institution’s seventh-floor Skyroom.

First to bat was the team of artist Marc Andre Robinson and computer scientist Hilary Mason. Warming up quickly after a hesitant start, the pair unveiled their proposal: an umbrella. Not just any umbrella, mind you—this outwardly unremarkable object was equipped to “record and understand its own history” via an array of features more commonly found on an iPhone. Naturally, the umbrella has its own website, but perhaps less predictably it also speaks JASON, a language that is, according to Mason, “friendly to both humans and robots.” A question citing “push-based technologies” that soared over my head hit home with Mason. Her response—something about “reference implementations”—had me furrowing my brow but prompted gales of laughter from the better-informed. A simpler question— “How much would it cost?”—earned an answer in more prosaic style: “That depends if you buy it with a subsidized data plan or not.”

Left: Computer scientist Hilary Mason. Right: Artist Tauba Auerbach.

Next to take the stage were artist Evan Roth and founding developer of the WordPress blogging software Matt Mullenweg. According to Mullenweg, the ready availability of an “overwhelming amount of data” ultimately led the duo back to WordPress. Funny, that. Focusing on the banal styling of the site’s administrative interface and the lack of fanfare greeting the publication of a new post, they added a few supposed enhancements including a “This post is super-awesome!” box and a mysterious “surprise” option. The latter brought forth visions of that film The Box, but no mysterious deaths or million-dollar payouts resulted from pressing this particular button, just a few funny videos. To this writer it all seemed rather silly, but both participants remained evangelical about the Web’s creative potential. Roth: “If you’re interested in eyeballs, brain space, and an influence on the culture, then this is the way to go.”

Team number three comprised artist Tauba Auerbach and artist-engineer Ayah Bdeir. Sharing “a distaste for cute, bulbous things” and an interest in “making technology not look like technology,” they had converged on the idea of a “renegade” interactive sculpture that would physically reconfigure itself only when people were absent. In spite of some problems with the tabletop-size prototype (Auerbach: “With a little coaxing, it kind of works”; Bdeir: “It’s a bit ghetto, but we only had a day”), the idea was an appealing reinvigoration of a tired form. Next came a return to the virtual world as artist Kristin Lucas and Web developer Andrew Kortina presented their scheme for allowing Twitter users to swap online identities. I sank into my chair, but what seemed at first a trivial concept in the mold of Roth and Mullenweg’s was pushed much further to encompass a raft of ideas around the formation, recognition, ownership, and control of individual human traits. Lucas also brought personal experience to bear; in a 2008 work she changed her name legally to the same name, a process she described, winningly, as “like refreshing a Web page.”

Left: Raqs Media Collective cofounder Monica Narula. Right: Web developer Andrew Kortina.

Another Web entrepreneur, David Karp, was paired with artist Ryan Trecartin. Their project was a kind of stripped-down YouTube mutation that generated an endless flow of ten-second clips; it was organized by simple thematic tags but otherwise open-ended and entirely anonymous. “YouTube promotes hate,” Trecartin observed in reference to the site’s relentlessly negative comments, and proposed his version as an antiviral, free-associative alternative. Software engineer Joshua Schachter and Raqs Media Collective cofounder Monica Narula also made use of the Web, suggesting an “absolution exchange” that would allow users to post their guilty secrets and receive suggested penances (seemingly confined to charity donations).

Last to present were Cloudera VP Jeff Hammerbacher and artist Aaron Koblin. “We set out to challenge ourselves,” began Hammerbacher, “and maybe we did so a little too successfully.” The duo’s proposed innovation, a reimagining of the DSM guidelines to mental health classification and treatment, was certainly an ambitious one, and on the face of it rather more serious than most, but Hammerbacher’s weakness for off-color terminology (“normal” and “crazy” were juxtaposed too often for comfort), office/college humor (LOL cats?!), and jargon (“all we’ve got is a bunch of Python code”) came close to scuppering the enterprise. All the more fortunate, then, that his closing observation—“Technology and art both have a rich history of being informed by mental illness”—was universally appreciated.