Rhizome's fourth annual "Seven on Seven" conference on Saturday dovetailed eerily with the Boston Marathon bombings. The purpose of the get-together is to foster dialogue between art and technology, but the bombings drew attention to tracking and surveillance in a surprisingly personal way when it was revealed that one of the participants had run the Marathon.
Among the speakers was Dennis Crowley, who founded Foursquare, a site that maps users' movements in urban environments. Neither the conference organizers nor Crowley made much of his connection to the big news story of the moment. It was revealed only gradually and quietly, after he took the stage at the end of the day, though he had tweeted from Boston at the time of the bombings.
As in previous years, Rhizome, an affiliate of the New Museum focused on digital art, paired seven artists with seven technology gurus. After meeting for the first time over dinner Thursday evening, they were given 24 hours to come up with some new idea, which they then presented at the six-hour conference. Having outgrown its space at the New Museum, "Seven on Seven" was held in the 400-seat Tishman Auditorium at the New School in New York.
Crowley was paired with New Yorker Jill Magid, who has hijacked surveillance systems to create art. In 2004, for example, Magid encouraged the Liverpool police to use their surveillance cameras to film her moving throughout the city. As she discussed her work, sitting next to Crowley, it was hard not to think of the video of the Tsarnaev brothers.
The two were unable to develop a project because Crowley came down with the flu after the marathon, though they did have time to kick around some ideas via Skype. Magid and Crowley were able to discover some shared interests, for example, in the definitions of "system" and "city." Of her use of the Liverpool police surveillance systems, Magid said, "It made me count." On this day, the statement seemed like something a terrorist might say, that he wants to be counted for something in a system and an urban environment that grinds him into anonymity and worthlessness. Magid imagined that she and Crowley might further develop their collective ideas, but in different ways: his approach more oriented toward a sustainable business model and hers toward conceptual art.
As with the other teams, the playful collision of ideas was more interesting than any hastily prepared product. The reality-show aspect of the conference, embodied in the 24-hour deadline, encouraged some of the participants to recount their day together in sometimes comic form, with a slide show of the conference rooms they worked in or pictures of the Post-it notes and modeling clay they were given to help them generate ideas.
Sculptor/photographer/video artist Paul Pfeiffer and New York-based technology director Alex Chung found common ground in the video loop. Though they also showed loops of cuddly kittens in the course of their presentation, they did not fail to project the ubiquitous loop of the Tsarnaev brothers.
New York artist Cameron Martin found himself coupled with Tara Tiger Brown of the Los Angeles-based Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and the Connected Learning Cooperative. They tried to combine the Romantic work ethic of the lone artist and the default interconnectedness of a social media guru. Their idea was an attempt at crowd-sourced learning: they initiated a neophyte volunteer from the crowd into 3-D printing. This failed as a theoretical demonstration when the volunteer wasn't interested in asking the crowd questions, but rather quickly and silently learned to operate the printing software by himself.
Chicago-based hacker Harper Reed, who was CTO of Obama for America, and the Montreal- and Madrid-based Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer shared an interest in metrics and came up with a jokey web app ("friendfracker.com") that would randomly delete up to 10 Facebook friends from your account, on the theory that you don't know who your friends are anyway, so you won't miss a few. It was a project that trended toward less connection, an unusual outcome for social media adepts.
Both the primitiveness of the products devised by the ad-hoc teams and the halting, ironic dialogue among the participants indicated that the conversation here has barely begun. The keynote speaker, Evgeny Morozov, who writes about technology, suggested a possible framework for the discussion by looking toward architecture, and particularly urban planning, to think through the questions about values and community that must be addressed as technology inserts itself into all aspects of life.
The chance connection of Crowley to the bombings at the Boston Marathon seemed to indicate that events and technology would perforce create their own history, whether or not we humans are able to catch up.
PHOTO: Dennis Crowley and Jill Magid. Photo Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy New Museum, New York.