Last Saturday, several groups of artists, scholars, entrepreneurs, writers, and more gathered in the basement of the New Museum for the second annual Open Score symposium, where they delved into topics like artificial intelligence, how memes relate to blackness, and ways the internet can create social infrastructures. The afternoon was co-presented by Rhizome, a contemporary arts organization centered on intersections of art and technology.
Open Score, which aimed to “discuss how technology is transforming culture [and] consider how … digital forms are called upon us to assist with tasks that range from the most banal to the most urgent,” was easily able to both adhere to and explode perceptions of academic panels and conferences. Each panel was populated with well-educated, articulate people who dutifully engaged with a complex topic, but instead of centering only people with fancy degrees spouting academic jargon, both panelists and panel attendees were a fairly diverse and accessible bunch.
The majority of panelists were also people of color, many of whom were artists or creators and discussed their own work in the panel. This seems like a significant improvement to last year’s Open Score: In a writeup for ArtNews, writer Alex Greenberger mentions that a panelist at last year’s Open Score remarked that hardly any works by artists of color were discussed at the symposium. In fact, award-winning artistic duo Mendi + Keith Obadike, whose conceptual eBay piece “Blackness for Sale” came up in last year’s Open Score, was a panelist this year.
Over a period of nearly 5 hours and a whole lot of intelligent thought, here are some of the intriguing points we took away from the afternoon of learning.
Nowadays, you don’t have to introduce yourself verbally.
At the start of the “Blackness in Circulation” panel, each member of the panel had a moment to introduce themselves. Artist and writer Hannah Black decided to do so via Twitter, silently typing tweet after tweet in almost rapid fire succession. The tweets were projected on the wall, and the browser was repeatedly refreshed so the tweets appeared in real time. Black’s introduction used some of the most academic wording of the panel, but the ability to read and digest her words at one’s own pace made this type of thinking more accessible. Not to mention, her words were archived for posterity.
Memes and blues music have more in common than one may think.
In “Blackness in Circulation,” Rhizome’s assistant curator of digital arts Aria Dean moderated a conversation between several black artists and writers about the relationship between memes and blackness. Much of the discussion was how black culture and AAVE often makes its way into now-mainstream memes and humor, to a degree where white meme creators will use black language in their memes to accrue cultural capital without crediting or sometimes even acknowledging its origins. Thus, “Blackness” circulates separately to “black people,” the panelists offered. Keith Obadike compared memes to blues music, as both blues music and many memes can be traced to creators of color, but they are both constantly being “covered and reinterpreted,” to the degree that their origins become blurred or irrelevant to the people consuming the media.
Not everyone is concerned about encrypting their data.
Nowadays, and after the election particularly, information on how to best protect your digital self has been widely proliferated. Facebook introduced opt-in encrypted messaging and apps like Signal surged in popularity. Hannah Black brought up that it can be difficult to “convey the urgency of secure data in a surveillance state,” noting that people of color don’t seem as concerned with the practice, while she frequently sees white men online stressing the importance of taking any and all measures to ensure data security. Mendi Obadike offered a succinct explanation for this disparity: “How much should I invest in protecting data when I could be stopped and frisked?”
We should be careful how we talk to Siri.
In the panel on artificial intelligence titled “Together in Electric Dreams,” moderated by Nora Khan, it was frequently discussed that while the “ideal” or “default” human is often portrayed as male, AI systems and chatbots are largely designed as feminine. This, they proposed, is connected to AI’s function as essentially a servant, but a “compliant” servant to whom you need not be polite or kind. However, these AI systems exist while human service workers are still plentiful. So this free-for-all attitude allowed towards compliant AI systems could influence how we treat these human service workers in not-so-good ways.
Katherine Cross imagined AI ideally to be “small but significant moral educators,” and panelist and artist Sondra Perry suggested there be “consequences for the way we treat these beings,” i.e.: if you’re misogynist to an AI system, it causes your phone to freeze for a day. If only.
Humans may not be be dominant intelligent species forever.
Artist Ian Cheng categorized AI’s current state as an early drafting process of sorts, where we’re “progressing through layers of crap” in order to explore the potential for what AI can be. Right now, “AI is us,” but that will not always be the case. In the future, it is likely AI will “become sentient” and humans will be “de-centralized,” in a phenomenon referred to as the “Copernican trauma.” To do this, Katherine Cross (a trans woman who is open about how she’s used technology to become both “heavily cyborg” and “more human”) said AI must undergo an evolution where it no longer acts and looks “human.” What that might look like is anyone’s guess.
AI can teach us about ourselves.
The saying is “you are what you eat,” but it’s also true that you often are what you create. Creating technology is still expensive, and an audience member who travels the world photographing humanoid robots stated that most of these initiatives are privately funded. So, a lot of money is going into making “sex bots and killing machines,” aka the kind of gratuitous things seen most frequently in mainstream pop culture. AI can also “really brutally” reveal our own biases; panelist Patricia Reed called AI a “disease and a cure” that can both “overtake and undo human narcissism.” Perhaps the most blatant example of this was when the chatbot Microsoft released this past March became essentially a Nazi in under 24 hours. That “Copernican trauma” is starting to look a lot like karma.
The robot uprising is already here.
No, it’s not what you think. Katherine Cross explains that most “robot uprising” fiction stems from “guilty memory of the future,” where we “realize what we want for AI,” which are usually tasks we are no longer interested in or able to do as humans. Sondra Perry asked, “What are ethics around people we wish would labor for free?” Cross connected this “uprising” concept to the online harassment phenomenon of today, which she explained was a tool heavily dismissed for years until it did damage that was too great to ignore. Now, harassment perpetuated by technology has essentially impacted global politics. “The robot uprising is already here, and it is us,” she said.
Facebook groups are more than just places for memes and arguments.
The final panel of Open Score, “Out of Isolation,” delved into the ways the digital realm can create “networks of care and interdependence,” as well as “structural transformation and economic redistribution.” One of the panelists moderator Grace Dunham recruited was artist Elizabeth Mputu, whose caps-lock-laden bio classifies her as “A #THOT ONLINe <3.” Mputu created two very popular Facebook groups: inb4, a “virtualmag” and space to post selfies, and TeachMeTeaseMe, a discussion/advice group for matters of relationships and sexuality and a place to post nudes. The latter was deleted by Facebook about a year after its creation but partially archived on Tumblr.
Fellow panelist Christopher Glazek was a member of TeachMeTeaseMe, and so were several people in the audience, creating an immediate familiarity and sense of connection. Mputu’s Facebook groups and the impact they made on herself and their thousands of members were a central topic of the panel discussion, indicating that though we raise our angry fists at Zuckerberg and his flawed empire, the social network has undeniably aided in the creation of crucial communities.
If you’ve never been on social media, you could instead use your time to create a global housing subscription service.
“Out of Isolation” panelist Christopher Kulendran Thomas caused a bit of a stir when he declared that he had never been on social media before. Considering that much of the panel was about community building online, it managed to be one of the most subversive statements made. He acknowledged this leads him to “permanently indulge [his] own feeling of isolation,” which is partially furthered by the fact that he constantly moves. This way of life has given way to Kulendran Thomas’s latest venture, New Eelam. Simultaneously an artistic project and an actual startup, New Eelam is a “subscription housing service” on a global scale aimed at allowing people to live anywhere without the pressure of homeownership.
Internet users could fall into isolation through social media, but landowners could fall into the trap of “isolation by policy.”
On the flip side of that, “Out of Isolation” panelist Christopher Glazek referred to people in the Midwest and other areas who continue to reside in failing areas. Some may question why they stay, but Glazek pointed out that some of these people cannot leave. The reason? “Underwater mortgages,” an unfortunate phenomenon profiled by The Atlantic in a piece titled “Stuck With a House That Can’t Be Sold.” This, Glazek says, creates an “isolation by policy,” as the real estate they’ve invested in becomes a chip on their shoulder rather than a welcome shelter. The internet, as exemplified in Mputu’s Facebook groups, can combat this physical isolation by creating a community accessible anywhere with a computer.