Seven on Seven

A report from the 2016 edition of Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference

BY Matthew Shen Goodman in Opinion | 24 MAY 16

One could describe the first seven editions of Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference as a somewhat aimless hackathon. Seven artists paired with seven technologists, with 24 hours to produce and publicly present literally anything: ‘an application, artwork, provocation, or whatever they imagine,’ as the organization still puts it. Although the participants in the conference – held each year at New York’s New Museum – are often framed as taking a risk by braving failure in the spirit of multidisciplinary experimentation, the immediate stakes have never been quite apparent. What would actually constitute failure in this case? As everything thrown at the wall is bound to stick, Rhizome has attempted to insert tension into the otherwise slack proceedings: a one-off attempt at thematizing the conference (last year’s ‘Empathy & Disgust’), politically timely participants such as Ai Wei Wei and Laura Poitras, the reality show time limit.

Beyond the ticking clock, Seven on Seven shared with the hackathon that particular tech ethos that simultaneously emphasizes start-up bromide (‘Fail Fast, Fail Often’) and public presentations of an end product (such that, as long as you’ve got something when your time’s up, you’re commended for trying). Of course, hackathons are also often hosted by frustrated organizations scrambling to capitalise on the capacities of technology. All of that data, some of it even big, just waiting for someone to hack it. Despite the easygoing attitude, Seven on Seven has always had a similar whiff of desperation, Rhizome attempting to finally dig up the mythic treasure promised at the intersection of art and technology.

Ingrid Burrington (artist) and Meredith Whittaker (Founder, Google Open Source Research Group). All images courtesy: Rhizome

Settling in for opening remarks last Saturday, it was surprising to discover then that this year’s participants were given ample time to confer, the time limit now abolished. Perhaps Rhizome realized it was a silly constraint, and perhaps they’re no longer desperate. Host affiliate the New Museum is increasingly flush, having just raised USD$43 million to double its space and renovate the building housing New Inc., the ‘museum-led incubator’ of which Rhizome is a tenant, that it hopes will be an art-tech gold mine. As Rhizome - a born-digital institution - hits 20 years of age, it can calm down a bit, shucking off the bluntly boosterish and innovation-hungry rhetoric around new media and technology. That language can feel outdated now that it’s obviously a fool’s errand to try to extricate either side from the digital-physical divide (if such a divide could even be said to exist anymore).

Keynote speaker Astra Taylor ushered us into this new long-term world. On the heels of her recent essay for The Baffler, ‘Against Activism,’ Taylor argued for the gritty slog of infrastructure building that is political organizing over the symbolic, at times fleeting work of consciousness-raising activism. This rejigging of the leftist imagination guided Taylor’s debt organizing efforts with the Rolling Jubilee and the Debt Collective, who recently produced a mobile app that helps students file debt disputes with the Department of Education. Before levying a challenge to Rhizome to include political organizers in Seven on Seven, Taylor noted that while the app had required a number of lawyers to cut the legal Gordian knot posed by government bureaucracy, it was fairly simple for software developers to create.

Jennifer Steinkamp (artist) and Rana el Kaliouby (Founder, Affectiva), ‘You App’

There were few technologically complex projects on display. Affective computing start-up Affectiva co-founder Rana el Kaliouby and artist Jennifer Steinkamp engineered the conference’s sole application. Working with programmer Alex Rickett and Affectiva’s software, Steinkamp created a program that made a cartoon caricature that changed emotions and glowed in different hues as it tracked the user’s facial expressions. As an audience member noted the possible links between Affectiva's work and phrenology, Kaliouby began to make semantic distinctions between ‘genuine’ smiling (which Affectiva’s algorithms could recognize) and happiness (which it apparently could not). One came away thinking mostly about how we’d soon be masking our emotions not only from other humans but also from our phones (if only to keep our devices, as Kaliouby has previously conjectured, from telling Kleenex to send us a coupon whenever they think we’re sad). Coupled with White Rabbit VR founder Mike Woods, artist Trisha Baga turned Rhizome’s request to do something with virtual reality into a rambling presentation on how difficult it is to do anything at all with the technology, which remains the incredibly expensive province of corporations. With Woods in agreement, the two ended with an ‘inside out virtual reality play’ consisting of an Oculus Rift-sporting Baga pantomiming typing while Woods read from Dolly Parton’s autobiography, the scene lit by a single flashlight.

The bulk of what occurred then was mainly research-based writing projects and various forms of old-school storytelling, enlivened by the occasional dash of new media. Speculative fictions meant to comment on our current moment abounded. Responding to the contemporary preoccupation of looking people up online before meeting them in person, rapper Junglepussy and New York Times writer Jenna Wortham pitched a hypothetical chemical patch that would, like an IRL version of attention-focusing apps like SelfControl, keep you from Googling someone. Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou and YACHT singer and Motherboard Futures editor Claire Evans presented a three-act drama about growing human/AI tensions in a near-future California. Four bots read the play’s parts, their genders and voices randomized in each performance by a computer script that made for an interesting enough technological conceit in an otherwise slightly generic bit of sci-fi.

Moderator and Rhizome Artistic Director Michael Connor with participants Junglepussy (rapper) and Jenna Wortham (Staff Writer, the New York Times)

On the more satirical end of things were Google Open Source Research Group founder Meredith Whittaker and artist Ingrid Burrington, who led the audience through an overly long joke. The two purported to have found a grimoire entitled ‘The Realm of Rough Telepathy’ that detailed an ancient magical analogue to the Internet. Smart phones became ‘scrying mirrors,’ service providers ‘fiefdoms.’ Halfway through an extended gag on 32 versus 128-bit ‘runes’ (or IP addresses), one wished they would drop the metaphor about how confusingly arcane the Internet can be, and talk plainly about their shared fascination with the obfuscatory nature of the Internet’s digital and physical infrastructures. Hito Steyerl and mathematician Grant Olney Passmore took a more explicitly political tact, the two building a wiki to document ‘insane mathematics in public policy.’ Citing a callous economics paper proposing ‘A Unified Theory of the Illegal Immigrant System,’ Steyerl and Olney read the website’s initial article to the audience, a letter to Donald Trump about building infinite detainment centers, or ‘Trump Trident Hotels,’ to detain the imminent and ceaseless wave of undocumented immigrants conjured by Trump’s xenophobic public policy. While the pair’s astonishment that math could be used nefariously grated at times, coming across like an e-flux edition of How to Lie with Statistics, people certainly use applied mathematics to justify terrible things, and one could see the wiki having an actual life beyond Seven on Seven.

Last came the featured duo of creative polymath Miranda July and writer and coder Paul Ford. The two alternated reading a text that first appeared to be a fictional piece in second person. Full of multiple ‘you’s’, the story iterated details – the person described was born in Winnipeg, then Guiyang, then ‘the town where David Bowie was arrested for smoking pot’ – as the projector showed images and videos taken from social media. It became quickly apparent that everything was lifted from the online lives of the audience members themselves. Rhizome had handed over the guest list beforehand, July revealed during the Q and A. Aided by radio journalist Starlee Kine and a Twitter-aggregating search tool built by Ford, the pair had embarked on a mass cyberstalking binge.

Image from ‘You Made This’, a presentation from Miranda July (artist, filmmaker, and writer) and Paul Ford (writer and Cofounder, Postlight)

It was an odd moment, reliant on relatively low-tech trickery and a reporter’s eye for patterns rather than some futuristic surveillance apparatus. (Based on the appreciative murmurs of recognition, it seemed that people were happy to be interpellated back to themselves, unperturbed by the secret scrutinizing.) Audience members unknowingly made co-participants, it was also a fitting reminder of what Seven on Seven really traffics in: not resource-intensive spectacle, nor end products (most collaborations live on only as video documentation on the conference’s online archive), nor groundbreaking concepts, but the vague idea of a relationship tenuously held between people in increasingly porous roles. Everywhere is the intersection of art and technology now, and there may be nothing to be found at that junction besides ourselves, each of us a hacker, aesthetic visionary, or, at the very least, unwitting collaborator.

Matthew Shen Goodman is a writer and an associate editor at Triple Canopy.