I spent most of my Saturday evening watching the live stream of « Seven on Seven » at the New Museum on the Bowery from my home in Geneva. The name of the event comes from the curated pairing of fourteen artists and technologists. Their task was to produce *something*, I am quoting the organizers, over a period of about twenty-four hours. As usual with such innovative formats, productions were unequal, some pairs being more inspired than others. Or maybe it was that their respective interests turned out to better match for each other, so they ended up unveiling something that went beyond a hastily hatched concept. In any case, the entire event was extraordinarily stimulating. The « clou » was probably meant to be Laura Poitras documenting in Beijing, where it took place, the creative encounter between Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei and Jacob Appelbaum of Wikileaks’ fame. It turned out to be undoubtedly inspiring given the stature of all involved yet I could not help but sense it was infused with a touch of complacency largely absent from the other presentations. Stardom at play! The Wei Wei – Appelbaum might have been a better fit for another forum, although thanks to Wei Wei there was, of course, a very significant artistic component in it. I happened to find the other interventions more relevant to the current art vs. technology conversation.
It is not a new debate, but it is obviously taking place in completely different circumstances than before, largely because of the extreme sophistication of today’s « machines », or rather their algorithmic brains. As it happened, and by pure coincidence, during the lunch pause, I opened Saul Bellow’s newly released collections of essays, « There Is Simply To Much To Think About » – isn’t it? – and jumped right into a 1970 piece titled « Machines and Storybooks: Literature in the Age of Technology. » In it, Bellow bemoans the interest shown for technology by younger writers, a theme he came back to in his 1976 Nobel Prize lecture. « Now as power-minded theoreticians see it » writes Bellow in his essay, « the struggle between old art and new technology has ended in the power of technology. » Bellow goes on quoting Arthur C. Clarke: »It has often been suggested that art is a compensation for the deficiencies of the real world; as our knowledge, our power and above all our maturity increase, we will have less and less need for it. If this is true, the ultra-intelligent machine would have no use for it at all. Even if art turns out to be a dead end, there remain science. » Bellow calls the statement « silly » and proceeds to eviscerate it in his essay. But the question stays in his mind. A few years later, as he receives his prize in Stockholm, at the conclusion of a spirited defense of the novel, this is what he says: « What is at the center now? At the moment, neither art nor science but mankind determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. » (…) What (Joseph) Conrad said was true. Art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential. »
And that is precisely what the wonderful stimulating participants to « Seven on Seven » did on a Saturday afternoon in New York.