Artists Are The New Inventors

The internet was built on a foundation of expectation of goodwill and shared resources. Quickly that notion was put to rest, as the ideology of “connecting everyone” was grafted onto toxic forms of entrepreneurialism, leading to the monster known as social media.

We just witnessed the dangers that result when festering online wounds infect democracy itself. I think we now have an opportunity, over the next years, to improve protections around the interplay between life lived online, individual well-being, and democratic self-governance in the digital age.

This year has forced institutional experimentation in a way that no other has. At Eyebeam, the public invention and idea space, we are seizing the momentum to both ambitiously build and shed expectations of what an arts institution can be.

Last spring, we were forced to pause our flagship residency, beloved for generating new work together with artists and the community. I threw my hands up in the air, admitting that I did not know what a residency looks like in a pandemic. But inspired by Shoshana Zuboff’s masterwork The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), which examines the new, dark frontier of power that commodifies personal information at the expense of democracy, freedom, and our human future, we issued a call, “How do we begin to exit surveillance capitalism as the dominating form of digital life and what can replace it?”

This week, we launched eight magnificently inspiring and radical, visionary projects that can be distributed publicly and freely to create a more just, equitable world. And we are announcing today to our community that an extraordinary gift from Ford Foundation will allow us to transform Eyebeam, (mostly) shedding and trading our physical residency for ambitious funding cycles for artists who want to address issues of access and social justice.

We are doing this in a two-fold manner, firstly by launching an expansive new program called Fractal Fellowships. This new model creates autonomously, self-generating artist fellowship nodes, seeded by a first round of fellows that then unfold into additional phases of fellowships, at scale. The result is a new series of self-propelled, funded, smaller fellowship groups that will ignite art and invention, globally. These fellows will be united by the guiding question, “Can democracy exist and what does it look like?”

Simultaneously, we are working on new ways of creating equity and collapsing hierarchy internally. We are doing this by adopting key components of holocratic (flat) working methods, emphasizing team autonomy over individual autocracy, and allowing for quick spin-up of exploratory initiatives which foreground team members’ areas of expertise and passion.

Grounded in our core values of openness, invention, and justice which act as guard-rails for all decision-making, we will identify and launch transformative new works of art and invention but to also model how an arts non-profit can be, acting as a corrective to established views of invention that value new-ness over equity and entrepreneurialism over the public good.

As of today, Eyebeam will be less of a residency and more of a distributed catalyst and incubator. There will be opportunities for physical fellowships, but not in any form that resembles the past. We are growing up.

And the results from this past year, in which we began growing into more of a civically engaged global connector for some of the most radical thinkers and makers around the world, give us confidence that we are moving in an exciting new direction. From the Rupture: Ideas and Actions for the Future, our four day online/offline festival celebrated their artworks and delved into adjacent questions and possibilities, from the role artificial intelligence can play in QTPOC mental health and healing to the new and open frontier of performance in digital space for movement artists suffering the shuttering effects of the pandemic.

It is my belief that we are in a moment that can truly benefit from artists, not acting as wannabe entrepreneurs, but as peer experts in thinking through problems of our time from an expansive and dynamic perspective, resulting in unexpected outcomes and novel means of navigating this treacherous and complex moment.

It is important for organizations like ours to ask, what are the ideals we should be striving for within democracy and how do we elevate the needs of the many when digital tools are invented by the few?

I am confident that deep investment in artist-thinking around these issues is a key piece within the larger puzzle. We are in a strange moment. Zuboff insists that we can either have democracy or we can have surveillance capitalism. I think we need artists at the table to help dive into the hidden corners of these societal shifts as they are happening, to untangle these questions and invent. I can’t imagine how we’ll get to a better place otherwise.

 

Roderick Schrock, Executive Director