Preprofessional Development: Rhizome’s Seven on Seven


Rhizome’s annual Seven on Seven conference is ostensibly centered on a hectic, see-if-it-sticks experimentalism. But its 5th anniversary edition, which took place last weekend at New York’s New Museum, proved more interesting as a rehearsal for its host institution’s longer-term plans. Seven on Seven bills itself as an argument for the ability of two disciplines—art and technology—to “create a richer and more critical digital culture,” and it makes that argument by pairing seven artists with “tech luminaries” to “make something new in one day.” The projects it produced this year, at least, seemed mostly incidental to a collective celebration of post-internet flourishing and globetrotting tech success, a celebration that culminated at a sunset open bar in the museum’s gorgeous Sky Room.

Seven on Seven is clearly a good networking opportunity, but at the same time it models what creative work might look like in years to come. The New Museum’s larger vision of that work is coming into ever-greater focus, as their NEW INC expansion launches this summer and news arrives that its 2015 triennial will be Google Glass-augmented. NEW INC is too embryonic to speculate much about its products or effects, but it shares with Seven on Seven a crucible model of creativity, and, like Google Glass, will privilege certain kinds of visibility and representation. The forms of art activity that can appear in the space of a self-described “shared workspace and professional development program” will be at the very least interdisciplinary, democratic, entrepreneurial and, well, professional.

The museum is smart to foster those qualities, because they line up with the values of the next generation of billionaires—who are increasingly looking to contemporary art to speak to their experience and proclivities (as hinted at by the recent debut of the Silicon Valley Contemporary art fair). The New Museum is probably not as cynical as I’d like to think, though, so the question of what they want art to look like is worth keeping in mind. If nothing else, Seven on Seven is a good boot camp for artists to rebuild themselves according to the interests of their ascendant patrons.

It was a little uncanny—but finally telling—to hear keynote speaker Kate Crawford, a media theorist for Microsoft Research, set the stage by invoking the issues you might expect—Big Data, surveillance, affect, normcore—with the solutionist rhetoric of a TED talk. She floated a criticism of the word “user” as undertheorized and inadequate to describing “humans”—as if there were any word that does more ideological obfuscation than “human,” especially in a media environment made up increasingly of nonhuman actors. We have better tools for analyzing embodiment and targeted violence, and “human” worked against the conference’s goals when it was subsequently taken up by several participants as shorthand for a natural integrity that “data” is “bombarding.”

The projects themselves mostly boiled down to tweaking a tech phenomenon (image search, Bitcoin, video chat) along preset lines of what “art” is interested in—personalization, intimacy, privacy and the human—and it’s within that range that they succeed or fail.

To take the first duo as an example, composer Holly Herndon and Kate Ray, founder of code-free website builder Scroll Kit, collaborated on Spyke (spy + Skype), a chat app that, after receiving up-front blanket consent, would allow users to take webcam snapshots of their interlocutors without the photographee’s knowledge. Herndon and Ray had found a common ground as believers in digital intimacy, and presented alongside their finished product an aborted idea to rank Gmail threads according to their emotional content, and then to render them as creatures in some kind of digital sandbox—all in the name of resisting one-size-fits-all media platforms that strip human interaction of affect. The presenters pointed to PRISM-style surveillance as a conceptual concern of Spyke, but no distinction between surveillance cameras and metadata collection really registered, nor did an awareness that intimacy might be required and incentivized by the social platforms they set out to resist.

Seven on Seven also trains artists to pare their own work down to its memeable (if not yet saleable) core overnight. Kari Altmann’s R-U-IN?S (2009-) synthesized, via Tumblr networks and search tools, a simulated intelligence powerful enough to invent much of the imagistic vocabulary of post-internet art. The project is as good and as complex an argument as any against privileging either human or algorithmic actors. Altmann and Jawbone VP Aza Raskin’s project was a “conceptual search engine” with two modes. As far as I could tell, one made images blurrier, and the other generated chains of visually similar images—both of which seem like slapdash metaphors for what R-U-IN?S did so effectively.

Artist Hannah Sawtell took a similar path with the Flatiron School‘s Avi Flombaum, roughly translating her printed-glass and noise installations (“ACCUMULATOR” is in the museum’s lobby gallery until June 24) into a platform for collaging Vine videos that they called Sawbaum—the only creative app that halfway works, and with the great feature that you can edit or delete anyone else’s collages.

Artist Kevin McCoy and blogger-entrepreneur Anil Dash made what cryptocurrency enthusiasts in the audience agreed would be the project with the biggest ramifications outside the conference: a way to guarantee and transfer ownership of digital images they’re calling monegraph (monetize your graphics!). It uses blockchain technology to create a public ledger of an image’s ownership via the Bitcoin analogue Namecoin. They also presented it three days later at the startup conference TechCrunch Disrupt New York.

Artist Frances Stark and Snapchat software engineer David Kravitz gave the other mostly successful presentation. Starting from a resistance to actually making anything, they performed an iMessage chat that veered quickly into and then out of cyber sex, and was projected behind empty chairs, Kravitz being outside the room, Stark apparently having been waylaid by injury in her hotel room after they’d decided to present remotely. In the Q&A (still over iMessage) Stark described her motivation as “the notion of promiscuity as a metaphor for certain conditions of creative labor”: conditions, most pointedly, like those of Seven on Seven, which flies creative workers into New York, puts them up in a hotel and various workspaces for a day, and tries to bootstrap its way into new cultural forms.

Stark refereed her own exposure to those conditions by withholding both attendance and newness. Her 2011 film My Best Thing also consisted largely of (Xtranormal-rendered) chat sex, and she tied her truancy to a metaphor—of needing to cover a ghost to be able to see it—that she developed in her 2009-10 exhibition “But what of Frances Stark, standing by itself, a naked name, bare as a ghost to whom one would like to lend a sheet?,” at British nonprofit Nottingham Contemporary.

iMessage sex produces certain kinds of users just as social media platforms do, just as Seven on Seven does. Compromises and expediencies are built into each genre, such that in the one, we saw opening kimonos and age play, in the other, “people,” “connection” and, as Sawtell noted, fun. Seven on Seven obviously has more invested in fast-food creativity than do the New Museum’s longer-term projects, and is light enough to shrug off failure in the interest of “dialogue.” As a microcosm, though, it has a lot to say about the kinds of vision, the kinds of creativity, and the kinds of work Rhizome and the museum want to foster.