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Seven Thoughts On Rhizome's Seven on Seven 2013

This past weekend, the New School’s Tishman Auditorium filled with audience of creatives who decided to spend their entire Saturday taking in conversations about art and technology. Now in its third year, Rhizome’s Seven on Seven presented...

Hannah Daly

On April 20, the New School’s Tishman Auditorium hosted the third installment of Rhizome’s annual Seven on Seven conference, which presented another series of fresh collaborations through it’s quirky format: seven artists are paired with seven technologists and asked to create something together, in just one day. The formula yields a live experience unlike any other conference you've been to, which as the event's MC John Michael Boling said, "can be kind of a wild ride."

After drinking a Monster, I powered up to calculate my take on the day of conversation. The result is these seven musigns on Seven on Seven.

1. Smarter isn’t always better.


Keynote speaker Evgeny Morozov addresses the Seven on Seven crowd. Photo by Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy of Rhizome.

What devices seek to be problem makers instead of problem solvers? An interesting question posed by keynote speaker Evgeny Morozov, whose healthy cynicism became a major theme throughout the day. Morozov warned that for every object, process, space, or city that has ostensibly been made "smart," there are likely hidden political or economic forces behind the initiative that are driving it in some way. “Virtually anything can be preceded by 'smart,'" pontificated Morozov. "Will Cisco do a better job in defining the word than, say, Robert Moses?”

The sentiment echoed throughout later conversations, as participants shared Morozov’s critical distance from a constant, rapid flow of technological change. Can we take a technological tool fixated on efficiency and “use a system for its latent possibilities?” artist Jill Magid later asked, referring to her CCTV-based project Evidence Locker, which used footage of the artist captured on security cameras by British authorities. 

 
Still of Magid’s Evidence Locker. Courtesy of the artist.

Magid and her partner Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare, imagined an application designed to do just one thing, inherently rendering itself useless and ready to be discarded. “Applications are for making things easier,” Magid went on, “but my work is about complicating things that seems simple.” Crowley pressed the point that art can help expand this line of thinking about technology, and create a context for thinking critically about the digital tools we start to use even before we have a chance to consider the consequences.

2. Freud might have been into GIFs.

“What happens that draws the eye to the image, the retina to stare?” asked video artist Paul Pfeiffer. With technologist partner Alex Chung, Pfeiffer considered the formal, aesthetic and conceptual qualities of the video loop, specifically the animated GIF. Pfeiffer’s video work and Chung’s current project, a GIF-based search engine called Giphy, share a common interest in the effects of a moving image on repeat. The pair led the audience through their heady conversation, questioning what our attraction to the loop might really mean and the root of this almost primal tendency. “Perhaps condensing images in this way is to prepare you for danger,” Pfeiffer suggested, like recurring nightmares of wolves or zombies. Or maybe there's an erotic power to the loop? As an image in constant movement, “moving in and out, like sex,” says Chung. Perhaps there is a libidinal attraction to constant repetition.


A GIF of giphnosis kitties.

Their conceptual project, giphnosis.com offers downloadable GIF screensavers to help "reprogram your subconscious," a process that, as Pfeiffer commented, is already happening through news media and our visual culture. Users can choose from two downloadable screensavers: one of an iconic Sherry Levine in The Shining moment, the other a pack of kittens craning their necks in synchronicity. The idea is that the GIF of Levine could potentially help relieve a stressful moment through catharsis, while the kitties create a happy, fuzzy one.


Jeremy Bailey below his real time presenter score. Photo by Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy of Rhizome.

3. Powerpoint could be so much more fun.

Gamification is a running thread in discourse around social media, but few would anticipate the presentation new media artist Jeremy Bailey and video game entrepreneur Julie Uhrman cooked up. What if there was a way to judge how well a presentation was going, in real time? "The future of presentations is measuring their success in real time," said Bailey, as he jumped around the stage to prove just that. The duo developed a program to help presenters gauge their success in the moment by incorporating audience feedback and familiar gaming features. A running virtual score hovers above the presenter's head. For each “good move,” shiny gold coins appear out of thin air with a tin. Helpful phrases applaud and suggest successful presentation features.


Host John Michael Boling gets some enlarged encouragement. Courtesy of DIS Magazine.

For low confidence presenters, the project even offers an "enlarged mode." I’ll let the picture above speak to the roar of laughter that met this feature. Presenters earn points for audience tweets and audible response, like claps and cheers. For example, enlarged player mode pushed Jeremy’s score through the roof, as the digital member swung around and the room giggled.

4. Infobesity is making us nervous.  

You know that moment when you put your iPhone down at a social gathering, only to become paralyzed by fear as you nervously watch to make sure it's still there and surreptitiously check for new messages. Low level anxiety related to our intimate relationship with technology is about as common the iPhone itself -- it's everywhere and always there. The constantly updating feed subjects us to an unending influx of information, what musician and artist Fatima Al Qadiri wittily called "infobesity."


Fatima Al Qadiri & Dalton Cadwell. Photo by Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy of Rhizome.

Our anxiety around technology -- or "data dread" -- was explored by Al Qadiri and founder of App.net Dalton Caldwell. “Alert functions as the background noise of our time, like horses neighing in the 18th century,” proposed Al Qadiri. The constant flux of notifications, updates, and alerts leaves us in a general state of low level alarm, at the whim of strange yet deeply familiar dings, pings, and beeps. Incorporating these types of sounds, the team attempted to create a meditative antidote to infobesity, called constantupdate.net, featuring this video:

Building on one of Al Qadiri’s preexisting scores, constanupdatet.net attempts to be an internet object that never updates, remaining exactly as is for digital eternity. The flashing text runs words that invoke permanence and lasting in the face of update culture.


Harper Reed and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer celebrate the fracking of a few friends. Photo by Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy of Rhizome.

5. We have too many friends.

What would happen if ten of your Facebook friends were randomly deleted? Would you know which ones were missing? It may happen that one of the erasures is your Mom or girlfriend, but more likely, you would have absolutely no idea who was actually removed from your roster. This phenomenon is exactly the goal of hacker and former CTO of Obama for America Harper Reed and artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer in their project Friendfracker. Visit the site, enter your info, and the application automatically clears out a few extra friends, acquaintances, or, more often than not, a stranger you can't quite remember how or why you met in the first place. The project questions the excess data we accumulate as digital beings.

In the live demo of the randomized data management service, three of Lozano-Hemmer's friends were successfully fracked. There is now way to know which pals you've lost in the process, a kind of unknowability that pervades our digital experience. Who can see us on the web? What do they do with the information we willingly offer?

6. People don’t gamble to win, but because they might win.

An interesting suggestion by artist Matthew Ritchie, said in the context of his web service developed with founder and CEO of turntable.fm Billy Chasen. Dabit.org is a charity site, offering a quick and easy means for digital charity to one of three designated organizations. The look and feel of the site is fairly straightforward. Ritchie and Chasen settled on a minimalist aesthetic for the project, after rounds of editing the logo, evidence below.


Matthew Ritchie in front of an early version of the Dabit logo, with DIS Magazine’s commentary. courtesy of DIS Magazine.

Yet Dabit has one incredible, bizarre hitch -- while half of the earnings from a day of collection does indeed go to the intended charities, the other 50% is given to a randomly selected donating participant. Donate just $1, and you may walk away with hundreds, like the $471.05 one Anonymous donor walked away with on the day of the conference. The project speaks more deeply to the psychological underpinnings of the strange kind of relationships we enter through in a digital age. What do we give to each other? What do we take?


a screencap of Dabit.org

“Wikipedia is the most generous website,” said Ritchie, “because it gives everything away.” How generous is Dabit? At first, that only half of the proceeds actually go to the charities feels a little bit like a scam, and not particularly selfless. But then I thought about how much I was getting paid to write this article, what I spent on tacos earlier, and the student loan debt I will supposedly start repaying this summer. Members of the audience, many young artists and writers, may be just as in need of a little help.


a 3D printed snowflake cookie. courtesy of 3D Printer World.

7. 3D printing ~ wow !

3D printing is #trending right now. It’s been proclaimed to change the way we do just about everything, and to at least in the development stages of nearly anything -- guns, human organs, and cookies (see above), among many others. After all the headlines, I wonder though -- is enough real investigation and contemplation of new technology taking place?

In that sense, I fully anticipated that it would find it’s way into the day’s discussion somehow, just as it came up in the preparatory dialogue between artist Cameron Martin and founder of LA Makerspace Tara Tiger Brown. Though 3D printing was the end goal of their presentation, crowdsourcing was the attempted means. The pair invited an audience member unfamiliar with the both rendering programs and the printing technology to try to learn both, right there, right then, with a little help from the audience. Through #3DHelper, we were asked to collectively talk the participant through the process.


Volunteer Diego high-fives technologist Tara Tiger Brown after designing and printing his first 3D model. Photo by Jesse Untracht-Oakner and courtesy of Rhizome.

In theory, #3DHelper would connect the guinea pig with the supposed knowledge held by the auditorium. In practice, volunteer Diego ended up being talked through most of the process by an audience member with a microphone. Many of the tweets were trolly, through positive and encouraging. The crowds kind of fumbling of their assigned task attests to how very little we do know about 3D printing, which merely skims the surface in the way buzzwordy headlines do. Will education be the next wave of this new technologies evolution, as it creeps closer and closer to total mainstream success?