“Artists are the ones who are here to… explain what the technologists are doing, or at least contextualize, and make this [work] make sense,” exclaimed public intellectual and technology writer Douglas Rushkoff in his opening keynote on Saturday at Rhizome's Seven on Seven. Now in its third year, the art and technology conference pairs seven artists with seven technologists. They're given 24 hours to collaborate, and a lot of hyperbole to live up to.
The result, as Rushkoff describes it, is a scenario where artists make cultural, socio-political demands–and technological experts build a machine to solve and/or raise new questions about that problem. Generally, presenters focused on the potential of web applications. Presentations were a lot less art-y than the previous years and some of the projects actually developed into market-friendly products. This was most likely due to the fact that all of the technologists selected turned out to be software developers–whereas in the previous years you had hardware developers in the mix.
Rhizome Executive Director Lauren Cornell assembled and paired the participants: Taryn Simon with Aaron Swartz, Jon Rafman joined Charles Foreman, Stephanie Syjuko with Jeremy Ashkenas, Aram Bartholl & Khoi Vinh, Naim Mohaimen & Blaine Cook, Xavier Cha & Anthony Volodkin, and finally, LaToya Ruby Frazier & Michael Herf.
Out of the seven presentations, only two stood out, which may be a little below average for the conference. Those two projects, discussed below.
Inspired by software that tracks, logs, and analyzes on and offline activity, artist Xavier Cha and technologist Anthony Volodkin produced a Twitter application designed to encourage online transparency. “Peep” allows you to add a new Twitter feed made up of a specified user's following list. The team claims that this tool allows you to “see Twitter through new eyes”.
This application proves useful for anyone looking to expand their Twitter following list or provide a valuable resource for topics to bring up on a first date. An audience member expressed concern that this form of transparency might homogenize individual interests while threatening the security of your intellectual property, but failed to convince me of the problem. On my soundcloud account everyone can see who I follow. This transparency has allowed me to expand my interest in music without threatening my security or individual identity.
Decode, a project developed by artist LaToya Ruby Frazier and Google engineer Michael Herf, proved to be fictional, but also educational; it's an online image search engine that deconstructs advertising for objective value. It's also an image archive and discussion board conceived to collect all potential reference history related to the uploaded image. Cool.
Frazier introduced an concrete example of how the software would work, by beginning with a cover of New York Magazine depicting bloody caricatures of Obama, Romney, and Gingrich. She mentioned that Rineke Dijkstra's Bullfighters series rings a bell–and that this would be included in a file for the January cover of New York magazine. While aware that New York Magazine is a sponsor of this Rhizome event, Frazier added that she was surprised by the bold, liberal climate that would allow for such a grizzly depiction of the potential next president of the United States. Frazier has a knack for institutional hand-biting.
In an ambitious effort to expand upon the tool's potential, Herf explained the second component to the image archive: a discussion board that allows for users to comment on each image with a stated demographic such as age, gender, and location. They hoped that every comment would be logged and used as data to build graphs and polls based on collective consensus, an unrealistic expectation to say the least. Reliable data occurs when there is a social or monetary reliance on the accuracy of the information received. Those kind of incentives—if you can call them that—were not built into the software.
Lastly, Herf mentioned a third component, a “Retouch Detector” that would detect any potential retouching on any image; the tool was imagined as being particularly useful with depictions of the human body. This could have been developed further, but sounded good anyway.
The team reminded the conference that “Decode” is still in the form of proposal, but Frazier followed with the reassurance that if the service develops, it will be a groundbreaking sociological tool for image research and an archive of historical analysis. Ideas like this make the future a little more exciting for all of us.