Essays

Welcome to World Wide West: A Summit on the “Side Effects” of Technology

Entrance as I drove up to the farmhouse
Entrance to the World Wide West farmhouse (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

POINT ARENA, Calif. — A few months ago, a group of artists, writers, curators, and creative technologists received an email with a link to a video requesting participation in a summit held in the small coastal town of Point Arena, California. I was one of 30 individuals who received the message.

The World Wide West (WWWest) summit, the first yet, would revolve around “reachability,” or “technology’s promise to extend our reach,” and there would be excursions involved. Despite the relative lack of details, I was intrigued. I agreed to attend.

I arrived early Friday morning on July 17. The directions were extremely specific with a few turns off Highway 1 and an excruciatingly slow and awkward drive (5 mph) along a pebbly concrete road that led to the farm. I was relieved to see the distinct logo upon entering the property. I joined in on breakfast at the farmhouse where the other guests had already gathered, when, all of a sudden, we heard woman’s voice on the radio: “Attention. Attention. Please meet for orientation.” The organizers used the AM radio frequency 90.1 to create a World Wide West-dedicated radio station. The voice seemed to emanate in surround sound since there were radios all over the campgrounds.

World Wide West organizers Benjamin Lotan, Tara Shi, Liat Berdugo, and Sam Kronick provided us with a brief introduction of activities without providing much information on themselves. The orientation was on how to dig a trench for fiber optic cabling. We walked out to an enormous field (about 60 acres) along with an organizer who carried a long tree branch with a camera affixed at the end that was used as a selfie stick. Orange flags were placed along the path we were expected to dig the trench. We all got to work without questioning what was asked of us. With tools in hand, we took turns digging and loosening the soil with a pickaxe. I couldn’t help but think this was all a performance piece. It seemed like an homage to an Allen Kaprow happening.

World Wide West participants trenching in 60 acres of land with the extra long selfie stick
World Wide West participants trenching in 60 acres of land with the extra long selfie stick (click to enlarge)

During the summit, the internet manifested in a physical way I hadn’t imagined. I couldn’t help but think Andrew Blum’s book Tubes, a detailed account on the structures behind the internet. In 1956, AT&T installed transcontinental coaxial cables providing telephone service between the US, Hawaii, and Japan in Point Arena, since it’s closest in distance to the Hawaiian islands than any other point along the West Coast. The WWWest organizers took us to those cables. I never experienced a group of people so fascinated by infrastructure. We took photos and closely inspected the cables before touring the Level 3 facility that connects Point Arena’s fiber optic cables to the rest of the world. There, the WWWest’s organizers invited Point Arena native Zean Moore, who works with Further Reach, a company that provides high-speed internet to rural Northern California. Moore gave us tours of the technology center, cable station, and towers in the area. He explained the importance of his work and research in setting up internet access for the residents. This town of a little over 400 citizens is far more technologically important than I had imagined. The symbolism behind selecting Point Arena as a creative place and reprieve from urban, device-laden life was deliberate.

Impromptu conversations with each organizer revealed that Luton and Kronick were working on their MFAs while Shi was pursuing her BFA when they all met at University of California, San Diego. Kronick and Berdugo met last year when Berdugo was on the heels of having organized a new media arts summit titled Print Screen in Tel Aviv and was feeling inspired to bring something to the Bay Area. During a conversation regarding the impetus for WWWest, she commented,“I wanted to start something that would bring people together to think about technology and the digital landscape in meaningful and critical ways. Something that goes beyond the put-an-LED-on-it, superficial way of art making.”

Close-up of coaxial cables
Close-up of AT&T coaxial cables connecting to Hawaii and Japan

On Saturday morning, in the middle of the 60 acres of tall, dry grass, artists Liat Berdugo and Phoebe Osbourne led a session of “Unpatentable Micro Touch Aerobics.” In her research, Berdugo found that Apple holds 8,500 US patents, which include the pinch and spread-to-zoom gestures on the iPhone. She went through the process of patenting her own custom gesture as “choreography” with the US Copyright Office. But her submission was subsequently denied and re-classified as an “aerobics exercise program.” Hence the creation of the choreographed workout accompanied by Siri rapping Notorious B.I.G.’s song, “Hypnotize.” It was humorous and surreal performing multi-touch aerobics in the middle of a field under a bright blue sky.

/unpatentable Multitouch Aerobics 2Photo credit: Liat Berdugo
“Unpatentable Micro Touch Aerobics” in session (photo by Liat Berdugo)

After working out, we gathered on the deck and took turns reading excerpts from The Whole Internet, an O’Reilly media book by Ed Krol from 1994, which is still pegged as one of the best books on the internet, despite the incredibly dated writing. Sam Kronick, another WWWest organizer, read an excerpt on the invention of muzak from the book Blue Monday: Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies by Robert Sumrell and Kazys Varnelis. The reading tied into the incessant playing of muzak all weekend on the WWWest radio station. The genre, we learned, was developed to create an optimal, productive work environment. The weekend was coming together.

Later on that night, despite feeling tired from all the sessions (and there were even more events I couldn’t attend), I participated in Ramsey Nasser’s Swordfight game. The game, as described on Nasser’s site, is “a physical, two-player game played with custom built, strap-on Atari 2600 controllers. The goal is to press your opponent’s action button with your joystick before the same is done to you.” As a player, you’re given parameters and obvious obstacles such as having your hands cuffed behind your back. But how one moves, tricks, dodges, and pokes the opponent is the key to winning. Reachability, in this particular sense, involved a lot more human ingenuity. Connecting the world is a lot like the game itself. The objective seems painfully easy, but means can be difficult.

After failed, albeit humorous, attempts at telling spooky stories, we proceeded to the barn where a xylophone made out of slats of wood, metal pipes, and rope provided for a couple hours of an impromptu jam session in the middle of the night. The sound of voices singing and making music could be heard from the farmhouse. We all felt a bit like kids at summer camp.

WWW-crew
World Wide West organizers Tara Shi, Liat Berdugo, Sam Kronick, and Benjamin Lotan (GIF by Tara Shi)

On the final day of the summit, we participated in a Great After Question (GAQ) session. We shared our thoughts about what transpired, what worked, and how to bring our conversations into our respective practices. While it all may still sound a bit cult-like, it wasn’t. The overall feeling was one of experimentation, where were we disconnected and re-contextualized questions we might ask within our own work and research. What does it mean to enable people to connect to the internet while preserving a sense of community, despite rapid growth and economic change? What truly makes up the infrastructure allowing us to reach and obtain information, but in relationship to natural ecosystems? Asking these questions and many more in the absence or near-absence of technology has consumed my mind ever since.

The summit was reminiscent of events and gatherings facilitated by collectives such as Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), founded in the late 1960s, and La Mamelle, Inc./Art Com established in the late 1970s. When people say there is no art scene in the Bay Area, I feel comfortable, especially now, refuting this perceived lack or absence. Granted, one may have to drive approximately 130 miles north of San Francisco, but there is something in the making and it’s powered by artists who believe in the impact of connectivity in both digital and analog forms. Not quite a summit, not quite a festival, and certainly not a conference, WWWest presents a new frontier into how creativity can flourish. While this burgeoning community grows in such an unlikely place, the experience transcended the mystique and allure of exclusivity. The organizers presented the beginning of putting the West back, as well as Point Arena, on the proverbial map of engaged and inclusive art making.

The World Wide West (WWWest) summit took place in Point Arena, California, July 16–19. 

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