Eyebeam in Objects: A Conversation with Roddy Schrock

How many artists does it take to screw in a light bulb? If we’re suggesting with bare hands, then probably none when that light bulb is at Eyebeam. Based in New York, NY, Eyebeam is a nonprofit institution that caters to the intersection of contemporary art and technological advancement. Its residents are not only art workers, but many times engineers taking time for creative, off-book projects. Through October 31, Eyebeam has partnered with Portland gallery Upfor for the exhibition Eyebeam in Objects. The exhibition asks seven former Eyebeam residents to consider how their working concepts could appear as tangible things. In this conversation with Roddy Shrock, we discuss Eyebeam as a space for innovate making and the consequences of this brand of exploration on exhibiting institutions.

Curator Roddy Schrock (b. 1976), director of Eyebeam, builds programs and residencies, bringing together artists, designers and technologists to engage the public. He studied electronic music at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, Netherlands and Mills College, CA. Schrock is adjunct faculty at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and sits on the Netherland-America Foundation Cultural Commission.

Ashley Stull Meyers: Eyebeam is best known as a space that fosters “new media” artists. Can you speak to the term new media? Is it aspirational – or are there ways in which it’s limiting? I’m curious to know what language you prefer.

Roddy Schrock: I think the phrase “new media” is essentially useless at this stage of the game, unless one is explicating historicity. I feel the same about the phrase “post internet” – there is neither “new” nor “post” at this point. Any living artist remotely engaged with contemporary culture is equally at the epicenter of shifts in technology as we all are. This epicenter is everywhere at once. 

I do tend to say “emerging practice” as a more all-encompassing description of experimental practices and platforms that are critically engaged with technology. 

ASM: What was the impetus behind this brand of critical engagement? Why explicitly champion the convergence of art and technology?

RS: Eyebeam was born at a time, in the late 90’s, when thinking around technology was naive and utopian. As an aside, I think much current thought around technology is still naive but no one even pretends that the outcomes will be utopic now. At that time, which I am old enough to remember, the influence of techy west coast neo-liberalism was still tied to vestiges of fluffy hippy ideas. Think: Whole Earth Catalog.

I think in New York it was different but there was still a sense of everyone being “blinded by science” with these new tools. In the art community, Eyebeam was the place to go try new practices and it brought people like Christian Marclay, Mariko Mori, and more together to implement micro-computers and new software in creation of their work. It also brought people like Jonah Peretti who have a more entrepreneurial take on things. There was, and still is, nothing like it. 

Artists have worked with emerging technologies since there were artists and technology to put together. I think that is obvious. To have a center that explicitly champions that coming together was, and continues to be, vital. At this point the questions are totally different than they were in the 90’s—or at least we’re getting closer to asking the right questions now than we did then. In our last residency call, we included focus questions such as, “What is the relationship between race and online space?” and “How does the ubiquity of emerging technologies influence notions of self?” It’s not a matter of the technology being something outside of us any longer; it’s within us all.

ASM: Eyebeam prides itself as being a laboratory, or space for R&D. This is an increasingly popular idea as institutions that show art embrace more process transparent initiatives. What distinguishes Eyebeam from other models of artist “labs” we’re seeing?

RS: Other than being the first of its kind in the United States, as well as the place where the word “technologist” was first used, we continue to bring a very wide range of practitioners. That’s unique. We are not interested in one particular medium, focus, or practice, but instead believe that it is the mix—the combination—that is important. Having creative practitioners that range literally from artists making work to hang on a wall to software and hardware engineers, we are able to engender a very unique and extraordinarily valuable type of conversation. It sometimes makes it difficult to predict exactly what will come out of our residency programs, but when we look back on things like OpenFrameworks or the work of Cory Arcangel, we can say very confidently that this loose structure, this crazy experiment, literally shifts the creative tech and art worlds. 

ASM: What was the thought behind that decision? Including engineers and programmers as residents is, in my view, what truly differentiates Eyebeam. Any good stories of blending the (perhaps not so disparate) demographics?

RS: I’ve worked with both types enough at this point to understand that they think they are different—but in fact the same parts of their brains are being put to use to make their work. I mentioned OpenFrameworks which is one of the big success stories. But as someone who hangs out with these people every day, I adore the small interactions in the kitchen over coffee, where someone like Lilian Kreuzberger, a painter, mentions that she is exploring metaphors of the internet and immediately the engineers in the room start explaining TCP/IP packets and routing prioritizations. The next day she embarks on a wholly new path based on now having a deeper understanding, at a granular level, of how it all works. And then you also see the engineers are reminded of how poetic the work they are doing actually is. I live for these moments! 

ASM: We spoke briefly about the deteriorating conditions for makers in metropolitan centers like New York and San Francisco because of shifting economic interests. Tales of art workers being priced out or forced consider other avenues for commodifying their work are rampant. What does it mean for Eyebeam to be situated in New York and to engage with so many regional artists?

RS: Eyebeam is located in New York, but in order to thrive we have to become a national resource. I’ve been in my position as director for five months and already we have embarked on three west coast initiatives, including the show at Upfor Gallery, a partnership with Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center and a BuzzFeed fellowship, the latter two in San Francisco. I would love to launch a residency with the city of Chattanooga, with the fastest Internet speeds in the nation! This is a huge country and we need to look outside of immediate surroundings sometimes. That being said, Eyebeam is a New York center. And I think it has a New York spirit in many ways. 

ASM: Many of the artists who come through Eyebeam do not typically produce objects. Speak to this as a shifting model of art production and what it means for exhibitions.

RS: Well, I think the whole world of creative practice is moving away from objects so we are well-positioned in that regard. Now collectors can purchase code, or performance. This is a trend that needs to become the norm, in my opinion. 

ASM: Let’s talk more specifically about the work in Eyebeam in Objects. Zach Gage‘s series “Glaciers” speak volumes about contemporary consciousness by examining Internet culture. Google search results are presented as akin to Haikus, with the exception that they change as the zeitgeist does. Work like that is Eyebeam’s mission statement personified. Who else in the show nailed the concept of Eyebeam as object?

RS: They all did! 

ASM: Especially Addie Wagenknecht, I think. Her work manifests the beauty and danger of open-source culture with 3D printed firearms. Her engagement with new technologies and the laws that struggle to keep up is extremely political. Tell me about the decision on behalf of both you and the artists not to shy away from politically charged questions.

RS: Again, our creators are doing nothing differently than what artists have always done. If artists don’t engage with the social and political issues we all are facing, then who will? I wouldn’t entrust it to politicians. I mean, the laws on the books around copyright read as though they are a prehistoric document discovered by archeologists. Artists are without fail at the forefront, whether it be the work of ACT UP or Kara Walker. The artists we work with are often politically active because they realize that we all have skin in these new games. They often see it before the rest of us do.

ASM: Why bring Eyebeam in Objects to Portland?

RS: Why not? Portland is a creative hotbed with a burgeoning technology scene. I can’t wait to come back.



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