Digi-anarchy at the Seven on Seven summit

The start-up and art worlds collided at Rhizome's first ever conference in London

Arts+Culture Feature
Seven on Seven conference
Michelle You (Songkick) and Jonas Lund were one of the Rhizome pairs Bex Day

Huddled away in a network of loft-style workspaces scattered across east London, as the autumn sun shines weakly outside, fourteen creatives sit deep in conversation, surrounded by post-it notes and discarded coffee cups.

It’s day one of the Rhizome Seven on Seven, the first international edition of Rhizome's Seven on Seven Conference, the meeting-of-minds summit that pairs seven visionary artists with seven leading technologists and challenges them to create something new – whether that's an app, a product, a piece of art or social media.  

Participants for this year’s event include Turner Prize-winning artists Susan Philipsz and Mark Leckey, alongside celebrated technologists such as Foursquare co-founder Naveen Selvadurai and Songkick co-founder Michelle You. (See here for Dazed’s coverage of the line-up.)

By mid-afternoon on Saturday most of the pairs are hard at work, preparing their concepts ready for presentation tomorrow at the Barbican’s brand new Milton Court theatre space.

However, as Sunday rolls around it becomes apparent that some pairs have used their day of closed collaboration more usefully than others.

 I want to be able to mutate and interact with things

“As an artist I’m used to faffing around a lot, and trying to condense that faff into one day was probably too much for me,” admits Mark Leckey to Sunday’s audience.

Mark is paired with Makeshift software developer Dan Williams, and they spend their time on stage musing over the difficulties of preserving artefacts in an authentic way within a gallery space – a discussion sparked by Leckey’s recent experience curating an exhibition for the Hayward Gallery. When objects enter a gallery space they become dead and mute, says Leckey. "It’s unsatisfactory to have objects that just sit there. I can't accept that anymore. I want to be able to mutate and interact with things."

While no clear concept or idea emerges out of their discussions, the pair insist that it has still been worthwhile. “I know it's a little bit lame we haven't got anything to show you, but it was good for me,” says Leckey.

Seven on Seven conference
You and Lund at work Bex Day

Other duos are more successful in presenting something tangible to the audience. The most competitive duo are Jonas Lund and Michelle You (profiled exclusively by Dazed prior to the event), who, working from Songkick’s headquarters in Shoreditch, approach Saturday as an intensive hack day. In the end, Jonas works until 3am to finish coding their creation.

The pair present Eeeeemail, an anonymised email exchange programme designed as an antidote to the “perfect” selves we present on social media sites. Eeeeemail will randomly select and send an item from your email outbox to an anonymous stranger, and in return you will receive an equally anonymous email from someone else’s outbox.

A live demonstration throws up some rather dull coding emails from Jonas and, disappointingly, an email without any text from Michelle. However, the pair say that it is more about the feelings the plugin generates than the actual results: “The exchange doesn’t necessarily have to be profound,” says Jonas. “It’s more about what it does to you when you hit the button rather than the information you exchange.”

(On a side note, Michelle and Jonas also bring to light this wonderful Tumblr of sad Etsy boyfriends – a testament to what true love can make people do.)

Seven on Seven conference
Alice Bartlett (Berg) discussing her Rhizome idea Bex Day

Belgian-American artist Cécile B Evans and Berg’s Alice Bartlett also choose to explore new ways to break the entropy of the internet – and its model of flawed or inauthentic selfhood – with heroku, a new app that adds up to 10 new, randomly selected Twitter followers to your account.

The pair freely admit they have made an irritating tool: “You never realize how many people are drastically different to what you’re used to,” says Cecile. Alice agrees: “It’s an irritant. It’s definitely not something that as a twitter user you want.”

British artist Haroon Mirza and Ryder Ripps, creative director at OKFocus, take the concept of irritant to the next level, causing mayhem with their geo-fenced instant messaging platform aboutwhateveritis.com. Web users clustered together in a specific location can post messages of up to 25 words in length onto a public thread.  If you move out of range, the conversation disappears.

Perhaps an offer of an impromptu spanking is an appropriate way to end a day celebrating the value of digital spontaneity

The idea originates from a text conversation with Ryders’ father the day before: in response to Ryder asking him what life was like before the internet he replies, rather pithily, “people looked each other in the eye more”. Using this as a springboard, Haroon and Ryder debate how people’s behaviour changes thanks to the anonymity of the internet – even when people are in the same geographical location.

However, from these lofty ideas things quickly descend into anarchy. A live stream of conversation from the audience, projected onto a big screen behind Ryder (Haroon was absent from the presentation), makes serious debate over the ideas behind Aboutwhateveritis impossible.

The exasperated moderator Omar Kholeif is forced to admit defeat after every one of his attempted questions get drowned out by a flurry of new onscreen messages and comments – messages that include “Call me if you want to be spanked for 500£ 0123456”, “managed to smuggle my coffee in. Screw the system" and “3D-printed gun for sale, meet out back”.

Perhaps an offer of an impromptu spanking is an appropriate way to end a day celebrating the value of digital spontaneity. Or perhaps it is evidence that given a big screen and a willing audience, the conversation will only ever go in one direction. 

As ever, Rhizome throws up more questions than it answers.

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