This weekend I went to the annual 7 on 7 conference at the New Museum, an artstech/arthack event pairing artists and technologists and giving them 24 hrs to come up with a project (product, art work, prototype; whichever you’d like/whatever you’d like to call it). The results were shared Saturday at a six hour conference that never once felt too long. (A most impressive feat.)
Douglas Rushkoff gave the keynote address and discussed the relation between artists and technologists in recent history and today (briefly mentioned in a recent fastco interview), For Rushkoff, twenty years ago artsy folks were the wide-eyed dreamers, injecting creativity into the seemingly square, disciplined computing culture of Silicon Valley. As Rushkoff sees it there’s been a recent swapping of roles - it’s the techies today that are coming up with wild ideas and kooky projects, with artists providing an intellectual framework and historical context for the work. It’s probably true that technologists are seen as much more creative these days than in the past - we are enjoying a bit of a tech glam innovation moment, and it’s telling that the art world is taking on events like Art Hack Day (which I think is great). But it seems to me that Rushkoff winds up selling artists short, making them sounding a little one note and more critic than creative.
Still, with Rushkoff’s speech on artist and technologist pairings and personalities (or stereotypes) in mind, I couldn’t help judging each pair as they pitched, not only their projects, but also their interactions and team chemistry. So here’s my recap of the 7 on 7 teams and their stage presence. For the projects, go elsewhere. (And do, for they really are interesting.) For creative people therapy, keep reading:
Team 1 - This was a very (stereo)typical artist vs developer pairing: artist speaks and runs with it; technologist interjects on occasion, tersely. Taryn Simon, the artist, took the reins explaining the project and the team’s creative process. (She wore the pants.) She talked, rather a lot, but given that her average project to completion timeline is 3-4 years, perhaps this makes sense; she is certainly thorough. (Though I have to admit I got a bit distracted during her speech(es) and lost some of the content.) Aaron Swartz, when he did speak, was much more direct, and in this case I think more effective in his explanation of the project: a visual search engine revealing cultural differences.
Team 2 was a crowd pleaser - you would have thought these guys had been best buds for years. The two, Jon Rafman and Charles Forman, were total charmers on stage, winning over the audience with a pretty personal project & something most everyone can relate to: a memory box. The memory box was conceived as a mix of analog and digital: view an image from your archive of digital photos, record your response, revisit the response in 7 years, repeat. These guys were both on the same page and were just glowing with artstechemistry (had to go there), cracking jokes and generally getting excited about things. So strong was their connection (yes, for that’s what it was) that it was easy to forget which was the artist, which the technologist; they both seemed equally creative.
Team 3 - Stephanie Syjuco and Jeremy Ashkenas felt by far like the most awkward of the teams. The pair seemed sheepish from the minute they started talking - slightly uncomfortable, rather too giggly, weirdly enthusiastic/smiley/cocky yet still somehow insecure. They talked about their counterfeit 7 on 7 conference and at length before revealing that their counterfeit conference was in fact an elaborate charade - a double counterfeiting! How did that work out for the audience? It was like spying on a first date or some other awkward encounter and then realizing you’d been duped into some weird game of emotional engagement. The cycle: feel uncomfortable->aha moment->feel foolish/slightly used->admit they are more clever than you->feel ambivalent over whether or not their project was a cop out.
Team 4 - Khoi Vihn and Aram Bartholl - the cool name kids. (I was excited about their names and thus their work. Also, Wynne told me Khoi was a Big Deal so I sat up straighter.) These guys presented after lunch, that halfway point when people are either falling into a food coma or awake, alive, alert after their last cup of coffee. Khoi was the chill looking one in the hipster glasses, and Aram, the longish haired one wearing a button down, sounding a bit like a cross between a robot and an encyclopedia in that very German kind of way (at least when he first started out). Their intro felt mostly irrelevant (Aram, gushing about being in New York, as he is from Berlin; Khoi: I live here) - I started to worry they hadn’t gelled and were about to launch into a pretty dry pitch. The further they got into the presentation though, the better it got, and by the end I was laughing pretty hard ( especially at and with Aram). The team made a video revealing of their personalities: Aram turns out to be much goofier than Khoi, despite his staid beginning. (Skip to minute 11:11, where Khoi starts as a somewhat awkward model. By 12:58 Aram is rocking out on the subway, totally at home.) And so the energy came for a project which asked what it would be like to turn a private screen into a public screen and show your art to the city. In answer, they made an iPad screen into wearable bling as art badge. And then flaunted it.
Team 5 - Naeem Mohaiemen and Blaine Cook - these guys were of the same tribe. There was a lot of wandering but they seemed to like where they were going. There was something a little world weary to the pair, who were definitely interested in powerful ideas but not the kind of guys you think of as trying to “disrupt” an industry. Slowing down the Internet was their beat, and they wound up creating a board for projects in process - based on links, images, etc, and which you can share with a limited number of people to gain real insight and quality comments. I can understand the appeal, though it felt a little too much like a really limited Pinterest-as-idea-board. (It did make me wish Pinterest let you copy and paste text into boards, not as commentary, but as feature.) if I had to pick a word to describe the team, it would be solid.
Team 6 - These guys reminded me of Team 1 in their artist vs technologist dynamic. Up this round, HypeMachine’s Anthony Volodkin and Xavier Cha made for an amusing “we so don’t really get each other’s work” pairing. The team did that awkward dance where technologist describes artist’s work, artist does the same for technologist, both seeming confident but every now and then revealing a “really hope I got that right” look. More amusing than truly awkward, and perhaps it was really just nervousness after assuming 7 on 7 would resemble something like the Hunger Games. (No deaths were recorded.) They did end up with a pretty cool prototype, Peep, which lets you take a peak at the twitter stream of another user. (An oftentimes more revealing look at someone’s personality than their actual tweets.)
Team 7 - LaToya Ruby Frazier and Michael Herf had the final slot. These guys were serious. (Or maybe it was just the end of the day.) They came up with “Decode: An Encyclopedia of Visual Culture” which picks up art historical references in pop culture, advertising, and other artworks. As an art historian I’ve always loved tracing art references from artist to artist, artwork to artwork (Hello, Manet’s Old Musician), and so liked this idea very much. It does sound a bit like what Art.sy’s doing (though I can’t be sure as I still haven’t seen it), just with a more sociological/advertising spin to it. Their team dynamic was harder to read - slightly disconnected, somewhat strained, but somehow quite zen. Or maybe everyone was just tired.
So that’s our show. Some teams were even keeled, some teams were buzzing with energy. Sometimes the artist took the lead pontificating, sometimes the techie did, and sometimes pairs were just oozing with team chemistry. Dear reader, arts tech is back with a vengeance and we still don’t know what it means. But that’s probably a good thing.