Museums

Seven Artists Meet Seven Technologists, But Who’s Who?

by Kyle Chayka on May 17, 2011

Seven on Seven's Emily Roysdon and Kellan Elliott-McCrea (photo by author)

Seven on Seven is an annual conference hosted by Rhizome and the New Museum that pairs seven artists together with seven technologists to collaborate on projects created in a 24-hour period. The event’s second outing was last Saturday, May 14. The first question that came to my mind while attending the event was — what exactly is a technologist? Through the presentation speeches and Q+A sessions that showed off the series of thought-provoking collaborative artworks, I began to get an inkling of what the word might mean, and what its implications could be. But at a time when new media artists are technological innovators and software developers are artistic creators, where do we draw the line?

The event began around 1:30 pm, an early kick-off that probably left a lot of the art and media audience slightly blurry-eyed. Maureen Sullivan of Aol, who sponsored Seven on Seven and presumably footed much of the bill, introduced the project and told us all how happy the company was to be working with the combined dynamic media forces of Rhizome, the New Museum and the assembled artists and technologists. Lauren Cornell, executive director of Rhizome and adjunct curator at the New Museum, took the stage to further explain the event and profusely thank the participating creators, who looked if anything more exhausted than the audience. Caterina Fake of Flickr and Hunch gave a slightly confused set of opening remarks that meditated on the process of collaboration, and we were off.

It was going to be a long day.  The team collaborations strutted their digital and artistic stuff for the next 5 hours, with a few breaks for lunch, coffee, profuse mingling and quality time with the New Museum’s psychedelic bathrooms. All that time was more than worth it though. As Ms. Cornell explained it, Seven on Seven asked its teams to create not a finished product, but the “seeds of an idea.” What we saw were fresh, innovative exercises in the intersection of avant-garde art and tech. The ideas grew out of conversation and exchange, nothing becoming something before our eyes.

Below, find a quick overview of what each team did with their time together, and my own impressions of how it worked out. For a complete description of the proceedings, check out Rhizome’s Seven on Seven liveblog.

* * *

Team 1: Liz Magic Laser and Ben Cerveny

Liz Magic Laser and Ben Cerveny's deck of reactive architecture (photo by author)

Project: A deck of cards printed with evocative phrases that paired architectural actions with human reactions, or vice versa, investigating the concept of reactive architecture: “A window slowly opens,” “Become nostalgic”.

How was it? The simple project was fun and provocative, but perhaps the inspiration (haunted buildings, moving stairways) was deeper than the result. Still, I’d buy the stylish card set!

Team 2: Michael Bell-Smith and Andy Baio

Screen capture of supercut.org (image via rhizome.org)

Project: A “Super Cut” is a popular video format pioneered by artists like Christian Marclay that compiles short snippets of movies based on a single theme (example: people saying “fuck”) into a single clip. Supercut.org catalogues super cuts and remixes them into “Super Super Cuts,” compiled snippets from a random selection of different super cuts.

How was it? Supercuts.org gelled for me with the website itself. As an encyclopedic collection of a form of vernacular, user-created internet art, the site has historical value. “Super super cuts” aren’t as funny as they sound, but they are conceptually interesting. Also, this pair of artist and technologist looked strangely similar, which actually happened with a fair few of the teams.

Team 3: Zachary Lieberman and Bre Pettis

Zachary Lieberman and Bre Pettis show their captured video (photo by author)

Project: 3D scans of random New Yorkers’ faces are transformed into sculptures with Bre Pettis’ makerbot 3D printer. Close-up videos of the people gazing thoughtfully then stating the names of the people who were important to them are projected onto the small 3D heads.

How was it? The sculpture-projection effect was eerie and the piece was pleasant in form, but in the end it felt somewhat disconnected from its conceptual execution. It was less idea germination than art project on a deadline.

Team 4: Emily Roysdon and Kellan Elliott-McCrea

Screencapture from bringitforward.info (capture by author)

Project: Bringitforward.info, A website-timeline of world history that lets users select ideas from history and bring them into the present, fresh and intact. Based on Roysdon’s idea of ecstatic resistance and the importance of “vocabulary” in the political.

How was it? The idea that we could refresh our present with ideas from the past was powerful, but the resulting website was (obviously, given the time frame) rough. The pair’s meandering presentation, though intriguing in its digressions, didn’t really help clarify anything. PS: Emily Roydson’s blue glasses are awesome.

Team 5: Ricardo Cabello (mr. doob) and Christopher Poole (moot)

Mr. Doob and Moot's behin.de overlays rhizome.org (photo by author)

Project: Behin.de, a (currently offline) website that adds a transparent layer to other websites, allowing users to tag any page with comments, images or videos. Users can then choose between an active or a passive browsing experience — a way to get comments out of the “comment ghetto.”

How was it? The pair’s mutual admiration and enthusiasm was clear just from their presentation, which was reward enough in terms of idea exchange. The project itself may not be entirely new (see shiftspace) though behin.de worked entirely in-browser and was much more user-friendly and less academic.

Team 6: Camille Utterback and Erica Sadun

Camille Utterback and Erica Sadun (photo by author)

Project: Inspired by the physical wear daily use marks on real objects, An iPad-based camera that forced users to slow down, to use physical and intentional force to take a picture. One mode made users shake the iPad to take a picture, the other made users hold the iPad in place, the longer it stayed still, the clearer the picture.

How was it? This project was probably the most finished of the group, not to mention the crowd favorite. The act of shaking an iPad is so physical and so foreign-feeling that it defeats some of the slick glossiness of what is usually a purely digital experience. The team also had a natural flow and seemed more than happy to be with each other. Erica Sadun is basically the Ina Garten of tech.

Team 7: Rashaad Newsome and Jeri Ellsworth

Rashaad Newsome and Jeri Ellsworth (photo by author)

Project: Jeri Ellsworth, a master computer chip designer, created a digital musical instrument out of a series of electronic components. This was paired with one of Newsome’s projects, a beat machine whose sounds were based on slang sounds and gestures of a series of videotaped African-American women.

How was it? The team clearly didn’t have much time together, since Newsome had to “leave the project early.” Sadly, this left barely any room for real collaboration; the presentation was more unorchestrated overlap than meeting of the minds. While it was a light note to end on, this project was the least successful, though probably not because of Ellsworth.

* * *

We all had time to mull the projects over with a party on the New Museum’s 7th floor (so many 7s, right?) balcony where artists, technologists, curators and laypeople all mingled. As Camille Utterback and Erica Sadun pleased the crowd with demonstrations of their iPad camera, Lauren Cornell was seen deep in conversation with each participant and team thereof in turn.

My ending impression of Seven on Seven was that being an artist or a technologist didn’t depend so much on your practice or on your career so much as what role you played in the collaboration. Each group shared so many skills that they were already often fluent in each other’s respective languages. If we were to generalize, an artist’s job often appeared to be to come up with the ideas, provide the aesthetic innovation that drives a work along, that makes it conceptually interesting. The technologist’s job is to be the producer, to create the technological innovations that allow the artistic innovations to express themselves.

Through the course of the event, though, it was obvious that what was occurring was an even-leveled exchange of ideas and perspectives with each side contributing in ways that might be unexpected given their superficial labels. Rather than boundaries and divisions, it was creativity both technical and artistic that ruled the day.

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