This past Saturday, digital arts champion and non-profit Rhizome held its second annual Seven on Seven conference at the New Museum. The premise is simple: seven artists and seven “technologists” – their term – pair up, and each team brainstorms, builds, and ships a project within 24 hours. High-profile artists Ryan Trecartin and Tauba Auerbach were involved in the inaugural Seven on Seven, and notably, this year the newly rebranded AOL was a major sponsor, an affirming move for the scrappy but well-recognized Rhizome that enabled participants to fold Microsoft Kinect gaming systems and Apple iPads into their work. (The event’s official hashtag was #AOL7on7; ironically, the basement auditorium in which the presentations were held had zero phone reception.) What transpired was a day full of surprising clashes and harmonies between the art and tech worlds.
When deliberation and productivity between the collaborators was balanced, the results were sublime, and the presentation by artist Michael Bell-Smith and Andy Baio of renowned tech website Waxy.org was easily the most impressive of the seven. Their project was the brainchild of their shared interest in so-called “supercuts,” those fan-produced videos of spliced-together cultural moments (maybe you’ve seen the supercut of every spoken “dude” in The Big Lebowski), expressing irony, pure devotion to a genre, or political satire. In the course of a night, the team was able to program supercut.org, a website that splices together randomized scenes from a database of supercuts into a meta-supercut (they use the term “Super Supercut”) with stunning results. Baio claimed to “not be good at artist statements,” but their strength was in letting their work speak for itself, avoiding the over-explaining that can make any artwork tiresome.
The more disappointing projects consisted of too much conversation (or empty rhetoric) and not enough product. The first collaboration, between performance artist Liz Magic Laser and Bloom Studio founder Ben Cerveny, yielded an underthought surrealist game that became overburdened around the third time the word “dialectic” was used. New York- and Stockholm-based artist Emily Roysdon and Etsy engineering VP Kellan Elliott-McCrea’s Bring it Forward project, a symbolic time machine that gathers support for ideas from the past (i.e. goddess worship, zeppelins) sounded exciting but was essentially an online petition. The idea was there, but the product didn’t deliver. Musician and artist Rashaad Newsome had to leave his collaborator, computer chip designer Jeri Ellsworth, early in the evening, and their end product felt truncated as a result: an unrehearsed jam session with Newsome’s digital samples of black women’s vocal expressions – a project of his that is now five years old – and a “yodelizing” chipboard thrown together at the last minute by Ellsworth.
Several teams blurred the lines between the roles of artist and technologist. Bre Pettis (technically the technologist) and Zach Lieberman (technically the artist) shared the coding and creating duties equally for their project, which used a Microsoft Kinect (intended as a video game platform, it has been widely hacked in its capacity as the first affordable 3D camera) to film strangers in Tompkins Square Park reciting the names of the people most important to them. Then, using a 3D printer and the Kinect (Lieberman massaged the raw data from the device, and Pettis happens to be the president of Makerbot, a leader in the field in 3D printing), they printed mini busts of the participants, upon which the films were screened with a microprojector. The final product was rough around the edges. It’s not easy to rig a camera-Kinect setup, process its data, and print objects all in 24 hours. But seeing the tiny busts light up with life was magical thanks to the artist’s programming skills and the technologist’s printing skills.
Chris “moot” Poole of 4chan and Ricardo Cabello of mr. doob were equally versed in programming and creating platforms for crowdsourced interaction, and described spending much of their 24 hour time limit admiring each other’s work – Poole loved Cabello’s all-internet group sketchpad, and Cabello admired the ephemerality built into 4chan’s message boards. Their project impressively merged their shared talents to make Behin.de, a “behind” internet where anonymous users can post annotations to any website, from note to videos. It was a perfect balance between the anarchic tendencies of 4chan and the group building strategies of mr doob’s projects – and in this case, the artist (Cabello) did the programming and the technologist (Poole) did the talking.
Interestingly, the tech people were nearly always better communicators than the artists. Perhaps Pettis honed his public speaking skills getting VC funding for Makerbot, maybe Baio learned public speaking as CTO at Kickstarter, or maybe Elliott-McCrea learned to communicate with the arts set as an engineer at Flickr and Etsy. In the case of Computer science PhD Erica Sadun and her collaborator, artist Camille Utterback, their presentation involved an open discussion of their different approaches. Sadun was equal parts amused and “disturbed” by a Carolee Schneemann work, and wondered at Utterback’s endless capacity for “exploring” the bounds of their collaboration even as the clock ticked and code needed to be written. In turn, Utterback was amazed at Sadun’s focus on coding and debugging the iPad app they produced, which used the iPad’s camera and interface to illustrate the Japanese term sabi, or as they translated it, “the beauty and truth of an object that has been widely used.” Utterback presented a knowledgeable overview of patina as used in contemporary art, but Sadun’s simply stated yet poetic words on the beauty of programming were far more artistically inspiring despite her unfamiliarity with the field.
The delight and joy of explaining one way of thinking to a collaborator who operates in a completely different paradigm was apparent even in the less successful projects. Given a week, or even 48 hours instead of 24, it’s possible that the outcome would have been totally different. But as it stands, the annual Seven on Seven conference affirms that the process of making something with another person is just as creatively important – if not more so – as the final product.