Rhizome’s Seven on Seven brings together seven leading contemporary artists with seven ‘game-changing’ technologists. Loosely inspired by EAT’s (Experiments in Art and Technology) 1966 series of performance events, it asks the pairs to collaborate in making something entirely new over 24 hours. The results of this process are then presented to an audience the following day.

An annual event in Rhizome’s home city of New York since 2010, last Sunday saw its inaugural international outing at the Barbican Centre, London. Seven artists – Susan Philipsz, Jonas Lund, Mark Leckey, Aleksandra Domanović, Cecile B. Evans, Haroon Mirza and Graham Harwood – were teamed with innovative makers and creators from the worlds of software design, engineering and developing, including Michelle You (Songkick), Naveen Selvadurai (Foursquare)and Alice Bartlett (BERG).

The day’s presentations ranged from a data-heavy diagnosis of an age obsessed with collecting statistics but never really analysing them, to artistic presentations of video, potential installations, and live experiments into media and browser-based artworks. An issue that was raised again and again was the changing parameters of privacy, particularly in terms of our online presence and the trust we place in social media platforms. Many of the pairings used this as a basis for their work together, either touching on the ethics involved, proposing an overhaul of the semiotics of security, or directly hacking these platforms in order to question the trust we place in such detached mines of information.

An extended conversation

One of the highlights of the afternoon saw 2008 Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey and software developer Daniel Williams present the outcomes of their 24 hours together. This was done in the form of an extended conversation about the elements of each other’s practices, merging their work and views about the ‘Internet of Things’ through a discussion of Leckey’s artistic and curatorial practice.

It was interesting to note that they both considered themselves to be working in this area, yet had very different notions of what this meant. Williams took the phrase to mean objects that he networks by plugging them into the Internet (or vice versa). Leckey, however, talked about the possibility of artistic objects having a continued agency, reflecting his frustration with objects as ‘dead media’ which can no longer be played with, and his interest in flip-flopping (pushing a work of art between the physical and digital worlds and back again, a process which is explained beautifully by Robin Sloan).

Speaking to Leckey later, he expressed concern that the pair had not presented a fully formed product or plan, but hoped their presentation had showed how he had been truly engaged with and inspired by Williams and his work. “As an artist I am used to faffing around,” he said. “Trying to compress all of that faff into one day was just too much.”

This is one of the most interesting things about such an event – it is not all about walking away with a neatly packaged project. Just as valuable are conversations that challenge and extend an artist’s practice, and may also lead to future collaborations. Leckey, for example, said that both he and Williams were keen to further the potential of their discussion.

Anonymous and neutral

The pairing of the artist Haroon Mirza with Ryder Ripps proved to be both illustrative of this concept and of Rhizome’s ethos. Ripps, an entrepreneur, technologist and artist, explored the similarities between his and Mirza’s approach, explaining how they made, built and hacked their way to a final product: a real-time, geo-located chat server called aboutwhateveritis.com. To quote from a text from Ripps’ absent partner Mirza, this is “not an artwork… it is a form of communication”.

The beauty of this anonymous, neutral, browser-based interface is that it is built purely to allow people to talk about something, in some place – to talk “about whatever it is”. It is not made for “existential one-upmanship” – as final team of the day Jonas Lund and Michelle You described our use of the social media sites in high circulation today – but rather for real-time, space-specific linguistic collaboration. You can walk into a gallery and participate in the creation of an alternative, located Internet, accessible only when you are in that particular place. Ripps spoke of the product’s potential for a more egalitarian form of art criticism, and that “cultural critique doesn’t need to be an essay, it can be a tweet.”

The seven pairings developed dynamic and varied conversations and end products, but most striking were the similarities between the core themes and principles of the discussions and proposals. A sense of unease about ‘Big Brother’ culture in every sense materialised: mistrust of claimed ‘transparency’, of enforced curation, of others’ ability to analyse our data, preferences, movements and settings – and then to decide what we are able (or unable) to see.

Aleksandra Domanović pointed out that the first thing her partner Smári McCarthy did was to show her how to encrypt her email and turn off location sharing settings on her devices; Cécile B Evans and Alice Bartlett looked for a way to cheat the recognition and analysis tools used by Twitter to gather data and target advertising, with the aim of creating a more spontaneous, serendipitous world. The result of their collaboration is Entropy, an app that acts as an irritant to your Twitter account, making it impossible for the usual algorithms to ascertain your target marketing category. (Jonas Lund and Michelle You’s programme eeeeemail.com had a similar aim. It randomly shares items from your sent mail with complete strangers, and starts an anonymous trade of previous, uncensored correspondence.)

Craving for authenticity

A central issue of self-design and the craving for authenticity (both in the gallery space and online) was something that each team seemed to perpetually return to. In particular, they demonstrated a desire to break out of constantly repressing cycles of self-(mis)representation and go beyond our own filtering mechanisms into something wholly new and truly interesting.

Commenting on the repetition of these themes, Rhizome associate Lucy Sollitt said: “The desire to ‘be a bad filter’, as Jamie King put it in his Keynote speech, seemed to be a common concern amongst the artists and technologists during the afternoon… They showed a desire to brush up against the neatly packaged filters which we use to access and navigate information, social relationships and our environment, and ask how things could be done better – or more badly – by revealing the hidden and inserting randomness and the unexpected.”

Seven on Seven is all about reaching beyond the protracted, often messy and indirect means of production and collaboration to get to the very heart of what it is these artists and technologists do; to create something new which says something about what we are, and what we are experiencing right now. It’s this intention that lies behind the whole concept of the event – an atypical mode of questioning and working that can often reveal the most exciting, unexpected and experimental projects and processes.

Seven on Seven took place at the Barbican Centre, London on 27 October. More information on rhizome.org/sevenonseven. Footage of the event will be available soon on rhizome.org and artplayer.tv

This article was co-commissioned with welcometosync.com