By the time Olia Lialina took the stage at the Seven on Seven conference this past Saturday at the New Museum in New York, the word “technology” had been invoked several dozen times. That, for Lialina, was a problem. “The word ‘technology’ was pushed on us to un-empower us as computer users,” she said. “I think something bad happens when you say ‘technology.’ ” With words less over-arching and more operationally specific, “we could maybe have powers to reprogram,” Lialina said.
To do that, we might need some help from technologists, which is precisely the point of Seven on Seven: to pair artists with developers and tech-world thinkers in the service of creating a project. In past editions of the conference (this was its ninth under the direction of Rhizome, the New Museum’s digital art and culture enterprise), participants were given 24 hours to develop their projects, but this year, they were allowed to have more extended dialogues. A few of the projects seemed properly thought-out; one even seemed like it should have existed already.
The afternoon’s keynote speech, given by MTV News writer Doreen St. Félix, was dense. She projected an image of a white man wearing an orange Fubu jacket and said she would be talking about “failures of language.” Her topic related to cultural appropriation and how online revelations of race are more prevalent now than in the early days of the Web. “More often I’m amused, because it’s funny,” St. Félix said, referring to white people posting pictures of Timberlands. She moved on to more insidious forms of appropriation, such as white alt-right users who masqueraded as Black Lives Matter activists in an attempt to implode the movement. The awkward language in their tweets blew their cover.
The day’s first presentation, by artist Addie Wagenknecht and MakeLoveNotPorn founder Cindy Gallop, began bombastically. “What if…,” Gallop said. Wagenknecht completed her sentence: “…it was really easy to talk about sex?” Gradually they revealed their topic. “Sexting! Woo!” they said in unison.
Together, they had created a design for an app called ConSensual, which allows users to sext without fear of revenge porn or hacking. “If we feel safe, we can be our ultimate sexual selves,” Wagenknecht said. The app has its own set of Snapchat-like filters (LOVE THAT, for hot pictures;
NOT SO KEEN, for less-hot ones) and its own set of sexting emojis. (“Forget the eggplant,” Gallop said.) The app still needed funding, but Gallop and Wagenknecht felt it was important because it came to its subject from a female perspective. “Men, you have no idea how happy you would be in a world equally designed, 50/50, for both of us,” Gallop said.
Two presentations retrofitted old technology for new users. Lialina was paired with Mike Tyka, a cofounder of Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence program. Tyka hadn’t heard of Blingee, the website where users can add kitschy GIF-like stickers to photos, so Lialina educated him. “He was hooked immediately,” Lialina said. She lamented the fact that it was getting harder to see old stickers on Blingee, so Tyka offered her a gift: a Geocities site where she could see and play with 440 jewelry-related Blingee stickers. Lialina, who had until then appeared stoic, couldn’t help but smile as she moved a spinning low-quality diamond around the screen. She called the site “a treasure trove.”
For a different project, Vox Media engineer Nozlee Samadzadeh helped artist Bunny Rogers create her own Web 1.0–style site. (It had a .ART domain name; .ART had sponsored Seven on Seven, and its logo was brandished all over banners around the stage.) On the site, Rogers could see random screenshots she had accrued over time, as well as a photo of the Seven on Seven audience that Samadzadeh had taken at the start of their presentation. Rogers noted that the site was “a gift from Nozlee to me”—with a “CMS for just one.” Samadzadeh, who is accustomed to more sophisticated interfaces, said, “I don’t really see Web 1.0–style homepages, but I’d like to see more.”
The collective DIS wanted to create something very of-the-moment, so they worked with Rachel Haot, the managing director of the “global innovation network” 1776, to create Polimbo, a Tinder-like site that distills political views by allowing users to swipe left or right on various issues. According to Haot, there are more than two times as many Tinder users as there were voters in the last U.S. presidential election. “The question was, how can we make Tinder users into actual voters?” Lauren Boyle, one of two DIS members present, said. After asking audience members to weigh in on net neutrality (users could swipe left or right on things such as, “Internet access is a human right”), they could see which politicians they matched with. Some in the audience wondered about the project’s efficacy. Wasn’t the app a little biased, given that its creators clearly had some views of their own? “Yeah,” Boyle said, laughing, “it is.”
Working in a similarly humorous vein, artist Jayson Musson partnered with Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti, who appeared at the conference via a video message. Musson introduced his creation through a different video in which he played Gary White, who was billed only as “Visionary, Not Poor.” He presented Blockedt, “the first anti-social social media.” Its slogan: “Keep the phone, lose the people!” The app, which was more or less just a white screen, did not actually exist. “I wanted to create a social media app that just didn’t work,” Musson said. “It’s kind of like a Pinterest that no one would use—an oasis of nothingness.”
A lack of content seemed to be a point of curiosity for Chinese artist Miao Ying and Mehdi Yahyanejad, the founder of Balatarin, the Iranian equivalent to Reddit. Both hail from countries were censorship impacts what people can see online. They discussed “invisible censorship,” or when algorithms filter out certain results. “They make your life inconvenient in the sense that you consume only what they want you to consume,” Yahyanejad said. Together, the duo made Filter Bubble Detox, a site that provides groups of articles on different sites of a political debate: conservative and liberal, alt-right and far left, and so on.
Artist Constant Dullaart and Chris Paik, a partner in the venture-capital firm Thrive Capital, closed out the day. They discussed what Dullaart called “the commodification of your attention”—the constant battle by brands to get your clicks. To understand how the experience of social media can be gamed, they reached out to various groups that control analytics. They couldn’t disclose which groups they contacted, but, Paik said, one group asked, “Are you interested in what people think, or are you interested in making people think something?”
They decided on the latter and worked with various companies to effectively buy users. Meanwhile, though no one had seemed to notice as the conference happened live, real users hired by companies had started a storm of fake comments on Rhizome’s Facebook page. “This is just wonderful! Art dealing with new technology!#7on7NYC,” one wrote. A few hours before the event, Dullaart had also created a Twitter account for Roy Batty, a murderous cyborg in the film Blade Runner. Batty had just one tweet—“All these moments lost in time, like tears in rain”—but by the end of the day, it had 13,000 retweets, many from bots. Dullaart, on stage, seemed satisfied with this development but also a little sad, so he promised to make it disappear, “like tweets in rain.” He pulled up the tweet and pressed delete.