At the 2013 Google Zeitgeist Conference, a yearly gathering at a fancy English hotel with a programme pitched somewhere between Davos and TED Talks, Eric Schmidt, then Google’s CEO, discussed the emancipatory power of technology. Schmidt speculated how mobile phone cameras might prevent atrocities by exposing them: ‘somebody would have figured out and somebody would have reacted to prevent this terrible carnage,’ he said of the Rwandan genocide. It’s one of countless examples of a Silicon Valley executive touting technology’s revolutionary potential. But with our mounting mistrust of the corporations, platforms and algorithms that deliver us information as they harvest our own, it reads as ironic. The suspicion of big tech and media communicates just how flawed our institutions are, but does that mean we should give up on them? One institution, Eyebeam, a Brooklyn-based residency for artists whose work engages with technology, doesn’t think so.
Launched last week, the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism (ECFJ) will work to support artists interested in producing journalism on subjects relating to the role of technology in society: from data privacy, artificial intelligence and countering disinformation in political campaigns. Any person reading this in 2018 will recognize the scheme’s urgency and timeliness. ECFJ will facilitate the connection between artists and editors at established newspapers, magazines and other news sources, while supporting the artists’s projects financially (the initiative is underwritten by the Craig Newmark – of Craigslist – Foundation).
It might seem like a leap of faith to believe that such a highly-codified industry as news media might benefit from non-specialist voices. But then, journalism has not only always been made up of a motley crew of disparate workers: from anonymous sources and stringers, to photographers, videographers and graphic designers. Increasingly it is a field where access to popular opinion and citizen journalism shapes its very work. While maintaining a healthy scepticism of ‘social media revolutions’ or the Eric Schmidt brand of democracy, there’s no denying news media increasingly depends on its scrappier, agile, social-prefixed sister. See the influence of the #J25 hashtag on Twitter during the first days of the Egyptian Revolution and how YouTube played a major role in exposing the breadth (and horror) of the Syrian Civil War early on. Or take the film collective Abounaddara, for example, who have been posting videos of Syrian people’s daily lives online, as a way of allowing for an honest image of the country, and citizens’s demands of their contested government.
Beyond this leap of faith, the ECFJ puts forward a question: do artists have a responsibility and role to play in our media-led political discourse? ECFJ’s emphasis on the role of technology in society echoes some of the previous projects worked on by its Editorial Director Marisa Mazria Katz at Creative Time Reports (CTR). A five-year-long initiative which ran until 2017 at the New York nonprofit Creative Time, CTR commissioned artists to investigate pressing issues of the day. One CTR project Katz cited when we talked over the phone about ECJF saw artist Trevor Paglen shoot night-time views of the NSA’s headquarters from a helicopter, with the intention of creating an image of the US surveillance mechanism, an apparatus kept intentional in darkness. Made in partnership with The Intercept – the digital magazine created by filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill – the images were released on a Creative Commons license and were used to illustrate articles on the NSA in such media outlets as The Guardian, as well as on the cover of John Cusack and Arundhati Roy’s 2016 book Things that Can and Cannot Be Said, a collection of essays and interviews with whistleblower Edward Snowden.
ECFJ will adopt the co-publishing model championed by CTR by supporting projects by artists who have secured a commission from a media outlet (in addition, Katz is actively seeking to establish a network of potential media partners). ‘Newspapers don’t necessarily have the means to produce these kinds of projects,’ Katz explains in our conversation, ‘so we can be that institution.’ Likewise Eyebeam, which already has a journalism residency for artists, will use the ECFJ initiative as a way of expanding its artist network beyond its Brooklyn-based residency, to connect with artists around the world whose work critically engages with technology and may benefit from mainstream distribution channels.
Viewers and readers must surely benefit too. The voices of artists – musicians and poets, artists who work in data visualization, make documentaries, produce images or write about their experiences as citizens and cultural producers – are more necessary than ever in a field as all-encompassing as the technologies it uses. To face the challenges and possibilities that new technologies pose, we have learnt the hard way – through the various data breaches, leaks, rigs and scandals – that equating technological advancement with societal progress is a dangerous game. The traditions of journalism – to inquire and doubt, to report and bring to light – must also inform our relationship to technology. We should all be asking ourselves whether we are too willing to accept platforms and networks because they are convenient or because they quickly become so engrained in societies that we can no longer opt out. To look to artists might be a way of countering the powerlessness that many people feel in the face of technological advancement, rooted in the idea that these structures are too big to fight or that a preexisting technical knowledge is required to participate in its critical discourse. Look again at the list of subjects ECFJ aims to cover – artificial intelligence, data privacy, misinformation – and a simple truth emerges: these are just as much questions for artists as journalists.
Main image: Eyebeam office, Brooklyn, 2018. Photograph: Joanna Gould