Art and tech, aesthetics and hacking meet at Eyebeam’s open studios

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Zach Gage's Chatroulette piece 'Meeting' (Heather Rasley)
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Jed Lipinski

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On Friday afternoon, Eyebeam, the non-profit arts and technology center in Chelsea, held its Summer Open Studios, giving visitors a chance to see what the center’s fellows and residents have been working on for the past five months.

During that gestation period, the artists—or at least their work—received some press attention. One of the residents, a floppy-haired young designer, programmer and conceptual artist named Zach Gage, appeared in a New York Times Magazine article by Sam Anderson about hyper-addictive, stupid games. (Anderson called him “the Bon Iver to Rovio’s Katy Perry, the artisanal free-range heirloom-turkey breeder to Zynga’s factory farm.”) Another resident, the media artist and software developer James George, has been hacking Xbox Kinect depth sensors to create three-dimensional videos. Hacked Kinects were the subject of another recent Times Magazine story, though George did not appear in that one, to his chagrin.

Brian House, a self-described “bricoleur,” meaning he makes things using whatever materials are at hand (artist Tom Sachs is something of a bricolage evangelist), has yet to appear in the Times Magazine. He does, however, work at the Times’ Research and Development Lab.

“I basically explore disruptive technologies for them,” said House, a friendly guy with a beard, who also plays bass in an instrumental punk band called Multitudes. “Stuff that might eventually affect the business in some way.”

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House’s creative work tends to be participatory, and engages with the serendipity of life. For a 2009 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, he and a friend created a re-enactment of Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal by hiring a semi-pro soccer team and getting sixty visitors to play the role of Maradona. The centerpiece of his new exhibit is called “Quotidian Record,” a limited-edition L.P. which includes a recording for which House essentially stalked himself for an entire year, mapping his every move with GPS.

“I was interested in habitual rhythms, and the idea that daily patterns have a rhythmic dimension,” he said. “This project was basically an attempt to ask, ‘What are the rhythms of my life?’”

To make the record, House created a program in which the places he visits regularly are matched with certain harmonies. Different keys correspond to different cities, and notes correspond to places inside those cities. One full rotation of the record equals 24 hours, and 365 rotations makes for an 11-minute track.

“The key of Major C, with a Major 3rd note on top—that’s the sound of my apartment in Bed-Stuy,” he said, handing over the headphones. The sound was melancholy, but also strangely hopeful. The album will be available for purchase this week at Eyebeam’s bookstore.

Nearby, Heather Dewey-Hagborg was standing by a table covered with petri dishes, each of which contained varicolored strands of human hair. An “information artist” with an interest in exploring art as a form of research, Dewey-Hagborg explained the genesis of her project, called Stranger Visions.

“I was sitting in my shrink’s office when I noticed a single hair lodged in a crack in the glass of a painting on the wall,” she said. “So I started thinking about that hair and how it got there. Whose hair was it? What did they look like?”

She began noticing hair everywhere she went, and collecting it. Then she started looking for ways to create 3D models of people’s faces, based on DNA extracted from these single strands of hair. To perform the extractions, she teamed up with GenSpace, a D.I.Y. Biology laboratory in Brooklyn. Maps on the wall showed the background ethnicity of each hair sample, which Dewey-Hagborg admitted was “a little creepy.”

Creepier still was the self-portrait mask she created, based on data from her own DNA. I stared at the mask, then at Dewey-Hagborg, who smiled. There wasn’t much resemblance, though there were similarities.

“We both have blue eyes and freckles,” she noted. “The Northern European ancestry was also accurate.”

Toward the back of the studio, laughter was coming from behind a black curtain. Inside, a few visitors were seated on couches in front of two giant screens, watching random encounters between strangers on Chatroulette. Zach Gage, the project’s creator, was sitting in the shadows.

When the visitors stepped out, Gage said, “Over the last few years, I’ve been making works around the idea that we’re living online, even if we don’t admit it to ourselves yet.” He added: “So if we’re living online, I can make conceptual works that act as software, and that treat the virtual world as if it were a real, physical space we’re interacting in.”

To make the piece, Gage hacked Chatroulette—which he admits is against the site's terms of service—so that one user watches another user on a screen that Gage is filming; he's become an intermediary, in other words, between both parties. He titled the project “Meeting” after the site-specific installation at MoMA PS1 by the artist James Turrell, who cut a rectangular hole in the ceiling to frame a section of sky.

“I wanted to frame a segment of the Internet as a space,” he said.

We watched as random people around the world relentlessly Nexted each other: someone in a Scream mask, holding a serrated machete to its face; groups of giggling teenage girls in their underwear; a dead ringer for Drake. When a user came across a masturbator, which happened frequently, the video caught the victim recoiling just before he or she hit Next.

In fifteen minutes of watching, none of the encounters lasted for more than around 7 seconds. What was the longest encounter Gage had seen?

“These two stoners sort of looked at each other for a good 25 to 30 seconds,” he said. “They were just smoking and laughing.”

What was the best encounter?

“The day I set it up, these two fourteen-year-olds came on, a boy and a girl,” he said. “One of them smiled shyly and zoomed the camera in a little bit. They stared at each other for a few seconds. Then they both Nexted at the same time.”

Eyebeam currently has a Kickstarter campaign to make physical improvements to its Chelsea space. The two gallery photos in the text are by Roddy Schrock.