More about art, technology, and experience

Last night (most of) my family attended the reception for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. What’s cool is that this program has been around since the ‘20s and claims some startling alumni like Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Robert Redford, and Joyce Carol Oates (and many others at this level — it’s funny to think of these artists submitting for teen awards).  

Of course I was proud to honor my son (drawing) and my daughter (writing, couldn’t make the reception). Walking through the exhibition, I was struck by how conventional the works were (albeit very impressive). Painting, drawing, photography. A few photos of sculptures. I feel I’ve been waiting for years for the art world (broadly conceived, not just the Art World) to catch up, technologywise, with the rest of civilization. When photography as art began to emerge — 100 years ago! — it seemed to spell the end of representational painting. I believe strongly that technology drives transformations in artistic production (see also my posting on Tim’s Vermeer), and it follows that the art that tells us the most about the world today (wherever) must take place in the context of today’s technology. (This is not at all because technology itself is the only story —  in short, it’s because technology is always intertwined with language/culture and economy in the broad sense, much has been said, and will be said, on this).

You might think, well, these are kids in school. They are learning the basics. But two weeks ago, my son and I navigated a few art fairs here in NYC (Armory, Scope, and Volta).

We had a blast and saw some good work, but again, I was surprised at how much traditional painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture we saw. The topics were often up-to-the-minute (police brutality was a recurring theme), but the media themselves were quite familiar. 

The obvious argument here is that these are art fairs — commercial affairs — and readily acquirable and hangable art forms are the most appropriate media here. And ditto for commercial galleries, which the fairs are mirroring. 

Against these are not so many forces that I’m aware of, but — and I’m serious — the Burning Man phenomenon presents an alternative. This is a culture that is rooted in the notion of immediate experience and recognizes no academic limits.

I would not make a generalization that this west-coast phenomenon of large-scale, immersive works is necessarily better than more orthodox art, but the vitality is hard to dismiss, as is the sense of vision and the future, which is unabashedly on display. The blurring of lines between art and architecture, between artist and participant, between performance and spectatorship seems critical, if one wants to understand the most resonant art experiences to be had today.

Lastly: scale. Which seems more vital to the 21st century: a labyrinth of little galleries full of pictures and objects or a smaller number of grand productions, executed by far-flung, online-coordinated teams, that almost impossibly spring into life, to be experienced by the throng? 


Lessons from Sony

The Sony hacking blow-up — with all of its aftershocks — surely has a lot to teach us. And it will be interesting to watch how various strains of corporate America — as well as non-corporate citizens — modify their habits in response.
I run a startup called Tunnel X that offers, for free, secure, private online conversation. Tunnel X takes a number of measures to help ensure that your online conversations aren’t read by anyone other than the person you intend.
I talk to people all the time about what we do — friends, industry people, fellow cocktail partiers — and overwhelmingly the response is, “that’s cool. But I don’t need that. I’m not a drug dealer or a terrorist or a cheater. Who cares what I’m saying?”  Well, I doubt many people at Sony, if any, anticipated what happened. Regular email and regular texting — not to mention social apps like Facebook and Snapchat — are simply not secure. Even if you are not being individually targeted, your account could be in a large group that get hacked and released to the public. How would you feel about every email, every text, you have written and received going out to the public domain? (Gizmodo has a good take on that here.)
Practices will have to change. I predict that by the end of 2015, things will look different. Security will be better (there will still be weaknesses, but security will improve). Encryption will be more widely implemented. And people will be more careful about what they send over the Net. I think people should be able to have a private conversation online. That’s why we created Tunnel X. 
How is Tunnel X different from, say, corporate email? (And of course this is a broad comparison — different companies have different policies and practices, and I don’t pretend to know how Sony operate their IT.) 
First, our focus is on security. Access to our servers is conscientiously protected. You might think, well, Sony is a big, resourceful company with an IT department — aren’t they protected, too? The answer is, you would think so. But we have seen again and again, at many companies, including Adobe, a software company, that security lapses are commonplace.
Second, all the messages stored on our servers, waiting for people to read them, are very well protected with state-of-the-art, 256-bit encryption. This is relevant to the Sony incident because the hacker team broke in and didn’t just intercept some messages coming through. They grabbed a huge number of stored messages. If someone manages to break in and steal all of our messages, they still won’t be able to read them. 
Third, access to individual accounts is notoriously easy for hackers to obtain. Even many of the secure messaging apps use basic username/password authentication. At Tunnel X, we use a long, 256-bit key to sign you in. On our web site, this is derived from a digital photo that you can recognize and keep safe on your computer plus a 6-digit PIN (on mobile we generate the image file for you and keep it in the app on your phone).
Lastly, Let’s remember the context in which you read and write messages. Your inbox sits on your computer screen most of the day. We read our texts waiting in line to order a sandwich and sitting in a conference room. Taking our more sensitive conversations out of the promiscuous stream of email and texts is a good move.



Visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum

The 9/11 Memorial Museum has been in planning and construction for longer than most probably anticipated. But really it’s been a relatively short interval. The history of the museum as memorial of atrocity is relatively short, and when a museum plans to be around for a long time, a little bit of historical perspective can only help. The questions of the memorial museum’s process and future — for our view of events is bound to evolve over time — are huge. Shortly after the 2001 tragedy I joined a committee at the Van Alen Institute to discuss memorial process. Edward Linenthal, who wrote on the Oklahoma City memorial museum, came to speak to us, mostly about the intensity and difficulty of negotiations among stakeholders.

We have all read about the controversies of the 9/11 museum’s founding, so I could easily imagine the obstacles facing the designers when I visited the museum last week. The model has been established by the modern Holocaust museum. The entry pavilion — the small part of the museum above grade — is not so successful. Clad in diagonally framed metal, it resembles a toppled building not unlike the fallen towers.

Immediately below is a recognizable modern museum lobby with information desk and gift shop. 

It starts to work after this point, as you descend a long ramp and stairs and the space opens up into a vast cavern. It still feels like a modern art museum — and the artifacts eerily resembling modern sculpture reinforce this — but it starts to immerse us, gently, into what happened in this very spot, not very long ago. We see traces of the destroyed buildings’ foundations. While this could have seemed simply technical, recognizing the severed structure both anchors us psychically to the scene of the events and orients us. We recognize that the envelopes of the former towers (now inverted as fountains, voids in the plaza above) have been rendered as abstract, silvery surfaces, always present throughout the museum.

The massive exhibition space is conventionally divided into areas devoted to aspects of the attacks and the aftermath. Thankfully, these are not neat little galleries — there is always a sense that we are exploring an archeological site. 

The space under the footprints of the towers are reserved for memorials to the dead. There are exhibits devoted to a history of the Trade Center, to the rise of Al Qaeda, Stephane Sednaoui’s photographs, but the section that really brings you back to the insanity of September 11 is in a far corner, closed off by glass, like going into a conservatory. Here we experience the sequence in order, from the sounds, the smoke, the breaking news stories, to artifacts and accounts. It is dense and hard-hitting.

The whole experience is fittingly epic — I was there about an hour and a half and could easily have spent another hour, difficult as that would be. 

What is missing? The world feels so different, in many ways, than it did before that day. Who would have guessed that at least 40 times the number of deaths on September 11 would result from the subsequent wars? It is possible that I missed it, but I wanted to see an attempt to portray the international and American societal transformation caused almost entirely by that day. 

How will the memory of those events will change over time? In twenty years, when my kids bring their kids to the museum, what will it mean then?


River of Fundament

Last weekend I was lucky for the opportunity to join a group of fellow parents for a tour of Matthew Barney’s studio and a preview of a couple of clips from his new film, River of Fundament. I don’t like to type “film” because Barney isn’t really a filmmaker, although virtually his entire output has been structured around films, most notably the Cremaster series. Barney is really a sculptor, in the contemporary sense in that he is inspired by research, process-intensive, and certainly highly conceptual. He is the heir of Duchamp, Beuys, and Serra. The new work has a strong operatic quality (literally, with a sung libretto). I asked if he would ever be interested in live performance, and he said no— he wouldn’t be able to get the closeups he needs. This says a lot about his filmmaking: The films are highly composed, choreographed views of sculpture and performance. They are not visual storytelling. Yes, this could be said about most “video art,” but with Barney there is enough of a narrative thread and cinematography that people often view him as a filmmaker.

This project (the film is 5.5 hours long, showing next month at BAM with intermissions…) embodies the Barney process: he started with a Norman Mailer novel, Ancient Eveningsset in pharaonic Egypt and which Mailer had suggested to Barney before the author’s death (Barney worked with Mailer on Cremaster 2). We have themes of ancient egypt, crypts and pyramids, a theme of Mailer’s wake in his Brooklyn Heights home. Barney unpacks the essence of his motifs — they seem to be formally connected by linking Mailer’s writing aerie and an ancient pyramid, and thus we get the ambitious sculptural objects we saw in Barney’s studio (shown in these pictures).
Barney is the deepest, most metaphysical, and probably the most important artist of our generation. He absorbs themes that interest him, often starting from a geographical place, examining historical events, archetypes, traditions. Rituals are transformed and abstracted until they begin to represent systems of different scales— societal, geological, sexual. He gets at the way systems overlap and repeat themselves at different scales. Think of a goofy science video, say, about the mammalian circulatory system. People wearing puffy red costumes represent the red blood cells, carrying little bubbles of oxygen. Silly looking, but drawing parallels between human activity and cellular activity. My mind always feels expanded after experiencing the work. 
In portraying these scenarios, Barney creates iconic objects, elaborate props that are replete with symbolic references. These sculptures are typically fascinating and beautiful— industrial, biological, baroque. This beauty, along with a peculiar confidence and determination usually evident in the characters performing in the scenarios, suggest that these systems in equilibrium are in a way perfect, the highest forms of life. In fact in this beauty there is more than a glimmer of decadence— are we observing the rituals of highly developed systems just before they collapse? 



Tunnel X beta launch!

A couple of years ago, all people wanted to hear about was social. Share links were being added to everything. Of course there’s no arguing with the significance of social. But it seemed clear that so much of our private communication was moving to the Net with scant protection from prying eyes — co-workers, friends, kids, the government, et al. And most of one’s communications went through just a few media — email, txt, Facebook, maybe a few others — which meant that leaving one of those platforms open on screen revealed too much. Moreover, I found it annoying to maintain a conversation by email. Messages would come in whenever, between spam and business notes and amazon receipts. If a thoughtful message from my friend Steven came in, I’d flag it to read and respond to later, when I wasn’t in the middle of five other things.

I called the solution Tunnel X to represent a private connection between two people. But it was only a concept and design until I met Steve Schneider, almost a year ago. Steve is a veteran CTO who got the idea immediately (my experience has been that some people get it immediately while some, particularly some technical types like my Google-employed hackathon partner a year ago, scoff at the idea of fixating on privacy— they are social zealots). We quickly allied and began to build Just before the new year, we launched the public beta, and I invite you to give it a try!

How is Tunnel X different from other ways of having an online conversation? 

First, a tunnel (an account) consists of exactly two conversing confidants. There is no notion of an address or handle (like or @liftin). This would give you an identity on the system that could be tracked and that mixes messages together. If you want to converse with multiple people, you create multiple, unrelated tunnels. This segregation protects you. We also protect you with our sign-in ritual. Instead of picking a username and password (people tend to pick easily guessed passwords), you use an image that you have created (a digital photo) plus a PIN for good measure.

We ask nothing about you. Not your name, not your email address. All your messages are encrypted , and only you and your confidant can access the key to decrypt them. We cannot. You may be surprised to learn that most messaging platforms do not encrypt stored messages. In fact some services, like gmail, use your message content to target advertising. I think of a tunnel as a room with two keys, shared by the two confidants. 

Your messages are preserved in a dialogue in your tunnel. I am not a fan of the disappearing message, à la Snapchat, because a) this kind of security is false — anyone can record the message if they are determined and b) I am interested in more serious messages that you may want to read twice and refer back to. Snapchat is more appropriate for teen gossip, where the inconvenience of capturing curbs the endless ricocheting of rumors. I hope that people find the simple experience of corresponding on Tunnel X to be the most satisfying, even pleasurable, way to carry on an online conversation. By the way, this conversation may be “asynchronous,” where we leave messages for each other to be read at our leisure, or “synchronous,” where we are online simultaneously, as in a chat room.

Eerily, the news cycle has obliged us with a daily barrage of Net security headlines over the last several months, from Ed Snowden to the Chris Christie traffic scandal. These days it is much easier to explain why we are doing this. Privacy is not only for outlaws. It is a right that has been eroded by the ubiquity of personal data.

Try Tunnel X, and tell us what you think!