Eyeo 2016 : People, Politics & Speculation
It was five years ago The Eyeo Festival began assembling creative coders, data designers and new media artists for a week of investigation and inspiration in Minneapolis. In those early days, the festival largely reflected the outlook of its tech-centric creators. Topics like generative drawing, flocking simulation, and projection-mapping stole the show, and it was amazing. Today, Eyeo has grown up. Recognizing the narrowness of those initial conversations, it now includes a diversity of perspectives on technology, culture and society. Here are three such perspectives I absorbed last week:
1. The Human Aesthetic
The aesthetics of New Media have long been dazzling, mechanized, glitchy, virtualized, and slightly schizophrenic. In 2012, James Bridle’s seminal Tumblr began collecting examples of this so-called New Aesthetic. The effort had a lasting effect, making us more conscious of the physical world’s digital substrate and the systems that surround and surveil us. That said, perhaps we’re moving on. This year’s presenters seemed equally enchanted by a new, more human-centered narrative.
This turn is epitomized by Kawandeep Virdee. An installation artist renowned for large and technically complex projections in public spaces, Kawandeep described recent attempts to strike a simpler and more spiritual pose. Taking after Sol Lewit, Pattern Drawings finds Kawandeep executing physical algorithms in marker. Despite its simplicity, this new direction became MORE participatory than his usual assemblages of sensors & projectors. He used Facebook Live to broadcast drawing sessions and inspire real-time audience reactions, then employed Instagram to inform his intuition on where to go next.
Kyle McDonald seemed to be moving in similar directions. Even as his projects employ ever-advancing forms of machine intelligence, they somehow remain fixed on the human condition. His keynote addressed this tension with a thought experiment: “If Ella Fitzgerald never sang a single song, and a both synthesized her tomorrow, would it feel the same?” Or, when machines can create, what then makes us human? Blind Self Portrait embodies that question, exploring the aesthetics of human-machine collaboration. In it, the participant’s hand is guided by a robot to draw their own self-portrait. The question: who drew it?
Gene Kogan explores the same tension in Book from the Sky. A deep-learning network digests a corpus 1M+ handwritten Chinese characters, then asked to combine them and generate new ones. There’s no official character for ‘Androgynous Ruler,’ but might we find it somewhere within this virtual imagination? The output is strikingly human, and one can’t help but anthropomorphize. What delta lies between its creative process and our own?
Adrian Segal provides one last example of New Media’s human-centered turn. While most data visualization fetishizes the complexity of graphs and numbers, her work veers in a strikingly physical direction. Adrian communicates information via direct sensory experience with human-scale forms. Her Grewingk Glacier is an ice sculpture depicting the shrinking size of that Glacier’s terminus since 1865. The accompanying video of the piece melting in the sun helps make climate change tangible.
2. Political Ambitions
The discussion of our human relationship to technology naturally evolves into one of our social & political relationships. This year’s Eyeo showed examples of design being used to mend tears in our social fabric. These projects take us beyond the gallery and toward discussions of alterity, activism, and policy.
Paola Antonelli set the stage. Her keynote on Quantum Design helped position designers as those best-equipped to explore our ambiguous future. She identified such spaces between the digital and physical (Little Bits), human and animal (Liu Xue), male and female (Jessee Kanda), developed and developing (Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen). Design, she asserts, can render these alternative spaces & give them shape.
Salome Asega and Ayo Okunseinde took up Antonelli’s challenge with the IYAPO Repository. An exercise in Afrofuturism, the repository preserves artifacts of black culture rescued from the distant future. For example, a crystal pendant that glows at the location of police-involved shootings, or a wetsuit that vibrates with Atlantic tidal patterns, evoking the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade. Each plays in an ambiguous space between reality and fantasy. Moreover, attribution is ambiguous. Salome and Ayo host Design Thinking workshops with the local community to co-create each concept. In doing so they find creative ways into difficult political conversations.
Nicky Case also uses design to address social maladies. Parable of Polygons uses algorithms to illustrate emergence, or how harmless personal choices can produce harmful social effects. A series of interactive simulations shows how individuals with small biases toward homogeneity can self-organize into societies with deep lines of segregation. By tuning the simulation, users learn that having a small bias toward heterogeneity is better for all. Case uses design to translate peer-reviewed social science into accessible political knowledge.
Josh Begley cuts even closer to the political core. His work foregoes metadata entirely, gunning straight for the human core. Officer Involved uses Google Street View to collect images of the sites of police shootings, while Fatal Migrations does the same for border-crossing deaths. Metadata+ is an app that notifies its users of each fatal American drone strike. Unlike most data visualization, Begley’s work does not seek to promote understanding. It seeks to provoke visceral, emotional and political response.
3. Actualized Speculation
Injustice has always inspired artists to create, and critical design / engineering has long been part of that narrative. This year saw those speculations going further than ever before. It seems the same toolchains that empower teens to launch bootstrapped startups are also enabling artists to bring their speculative visions to life. Built with startling speed and fidelity, these provocations ring even more true.
Caroline Sinder and her Social Media Breakup Coordinator provides our first reference. Researching systems of abuse on social media, she transformed her studio into a pop-up offering advice on how to negotiate breakups online. Caroline wanted to better understand how we might encourage civil behavior, discourage troll culture, and short-circuit harassment. But each participant also paid per consultation. Is this a real business or ‘just’ art? Fact or fiction? Research or design?
Tega Brain asked similar questions with her project Smell Dating. Interested in the hyper-judgmental culture of contemporary dating, Brain created a matchmaking service based entirely upon smell. Participants are matched based on their blind ratings of smell samples taken from others’ clothing. The resulting media backlash was sensational, but in it lies seed of truth: We may have taken dating too far. Only by stepping beyond the ‘normal’ could Tega bring that realization to light.
Lauren McCarthy also engineered her way toward social truth. Follower is a service that provides users a real-life follower for one day. This is surveillance as a luxury experience. It questions our relationship to attention online: Do we all really just want to be followed? This question is all the more pointed for the app being made real. PPLKPR is an app and wearable that documents the emotional impact of every person in your life. Which stress you out? Which make you happy? Which get you excited? It’s easy to read this as social satire, but beta testers actually reported the device extremely helpful for optimizing their time & social energy. Should it exist, or remain art?
An interesting picture emerges when we overlap these three themes. We see a community of human-centered artists and designers, confronting an unjust society, and more empowered than ever to develop real solutions. Is this the birth of a new discipline? Today I see an ocean of possibility somewhere between artistic practice, social critique, and entrepreneurship. Only next year’s Eyeo will tell if that vision rings true.