AI*Scry reading altars to the future. Photo: Emily Holmes / KQED
AI*Scry reading altars to the future. (Photo: Emily Holmes / KQED)

Notes From a Secret Art and Technology Sleepaway Camp

Notes From a Secret Art and Technology Sleepaway Camp

I received an invitation to the World Wide West Summit through the contact entry form on my website. “To you, one of forty,” it was addressed. The description for the conference didn’t seem too unusual: “a summit of art and technology, new media, and digital culture” taking place in Point Arena, CA, in mid-July. The conference’s theme was “Forecast:#[crystal ball emoji],” offering questions about what it means to predict the future, a topic to be explored by the participating artists, curators, activists, writers and philosophers.

The second paragraph got a little weirder: “organized sessions, happenstance occurrences, late-night bespoke ouija board seances, and wifi weather balloon levitations. With crystal balls and recurrent neural network algorithms, we will look for the future.”

Finally, when I clicked on the organization’s website, I found a brief, looping video that reiterated the basics of the invitation. No “About” page.

I’d heard of the World Wide West (WWWest) Summit from a friend who attended last year, so the secret society vibes weren’t too off-putting. I accepted, blithely ignoring the subtle wording of “accommodations in a Sea Ranch-style farmhouse and surrounding campground on the Mendocino coast.”

Camping is a great leveler.
Camping is a great leveler. (Emily Holmes)

Weeks later, I read the fine print and started asking my co-workers if anyone owned a tent I could borrow. One month after that, I found myself planting a young redwood in a soon-to-be forest plotted out to spell a wifi password in rough binary code. A drone flew above me, recording footage, and I chatted with fellow WWWest attendees about DNA and facial recognition software.

Welcome to the Summit

The founders of WWWest are Sam Kronick, Liat Berdugo, Tara Shi, and Ben Lotan. Kronick and Shi run Disc Cactus, an Oakland-based art and technology studio; Lotan and Shi also run a residency program, This Will Take Time, on site at the Point Arena farmhouse.

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WWWest began with Berdugo’s desire to start an event in the Bay Area art scene dedicated to a critical look at art related to technology; the region suffers from what she calls “put a LED on it” spectacle-tactics, rather than artwork that probes deeply into our relationships to, and the future of, tech.

After Berdugo met Kronick, who roped in Shi and Lotan, team WWWest began brainstorming. They decided to host not a public-facing event, but a smaller-scale private event that would bring together like-minded practitioners, where conversations and collaborations could take place organically. Berdugo says, “We wanted to gather the people (from the Bay and from all over the country, really) who were asking those more critical, insightful questions with their work, writing, archiving, and curatorial practices.”

The farmhouse in Point Arena, CA.
The farmhouse in Point Arena, CA. (Emily Holmes)

The first Summit took place in July 2015 in a Point Arena farmhouse owned by Lotan. The area itself is notable in media history for hosting the Manchester Cable Station, the only Japan-U.S. submarine fiber-optic cable, and for epitomizing the digital divide between those with high-speed internet access and those without.

The team considers their role as one of host. Distinct from most conferences that gather attendees in formal settings, WWWest is more like a group retreat -- for a group of relative strangers. Add to that a sense of whimsy and... camping.

The result is that curiosity and excitement seemed to supersede the normal ego-driven posturing one finds at academic and artistic conferences. Plus, sleeping in a field and pitching in to cook and clean up after communal meals are great levelers (and conversation starters).

Tiare Ribeaux hosts a talk on the coastal cliffside.
Tiare Ribeaux hosts a talk on the coastal cliffside. (Emily Holmes)

AI Divination and the Encoded Forest

The theme of Forecast:#[crystal ball emoji] played out in unexpected ways from day one. After our first dinner together, we were told that our activity for the evening would be to create a new wifi password for the site. (The high-speed wifi was only turned on at select hours in the early morning and late night, discouraging attendees from being glued to their devices; an alternate option was to walk into a field and plug in manually to the fiber-optic cable entrenched by last year’s Summit participants.)

Our primary resource for generating password options was the app powered by “alien psyche,” AI*Scry -- the latest from Disc Cactus. The app uses an “artificial neural network” that detects visual data (using an image recognition base) and automatically creates possibly relevant image captions.

The device’s failures are as delightful as its occasional moments of success. We assembled altars to the future from found objects in the house or played out tableaux vivantes with our own bodies for AI*Scry to read. From the hilariously random suggestions of “a woman sitting with her baby cats” to something about a “hot dog holder” (none of which were present), we eventually selected a phrase.

WWWester Ben Lotan demonstrates how to plant a redwood in the Encoded Forest.
WWWester Ben Lotan demonstrates how to plant a redwood in the Encoded Forest. (Emily Holmes )

Instead of simply writing the new password on the bulletin board, Saturday afternoon found us gearing up to plant young redwood trees in a grid out in a field. The pattern? The final password encoded into UTF-8: tree, tree, no tree, tree, no tree, etc.

The Encoded Forest is data storage that exists outside of our ever-changing devices, long-term thinking beyond even the cloud, says Berdugo. “This is a radically different way to save things for the future, and, while it's only 32 characters and definitely showy at what it does, it also gets me thinking about what massive scale data storage and physical encryption might be like someday.”

Spontaneity Reigns at Camp

WWW is like summer camp for artists, writers, archivists and curators who love media art, or any practices that pose a critical use of or approach towards technology. There was just enough common ground to join us together in our particular little niche set of interests, but no two participants’ work or research was identical, as evidenced by the talks and video screenings over the weekend.

Underground utility detecting-inspired aerobics led by Liat Berdugo.
Underground utility detecting-inspired aerobics led by Liat Berdugo. (Emily Holmes)

And, unlike summer camp, the Summit provided a minimum of pre-scheduled activities: many of the weekend’s activities were created on the spot, penciled into empty slots on the schedule, and no less robustly attended for their impromptu-ness.

One activity I attended simply invited me to ride in artist Ben Lerchin’s car as he drove slowly down the road, making an extremely long horizontal photograph with his custom robotic camera -- a digital scanner hacked into an analog twin-lens reflex camera.

Another spur-of-the-moment activity was a funeral procession for computer artist Theo Triantafyllidis' hard drive, which recently erased two years of his artwork. In a group of forty creative people, this type of loss is no small matter. Many participants rallied accordingly for the makeshift march, and attendees commented later on how touching -- and sometimes humorous -- Trian’s eulogy was before he dropped the hard drive into the Snake Hole.

The Library of Approximate Location on site at the Summit.
The Library of Approximate Location on site at the Summit. (Emily Holmes)

Did I mention the multiple holes, christened by WWWest team, throughout the land? One such pit was converted into a library by Charlie Macquarie, part of his ongoing project the Library of Approximate Location, which installs a site-specific selection of books in a given location, offering attendees a chance to explore books focused on the history of the West.

Secrets Don’t Stay Secrets for Long

Although the Summit is more like a private communal residency than a conference, I left wondering how to share the richness of this weekend with others who couldn’t attend. Given the ideas unearthed, the scope of fascinating research and practices shared, and the energy exuded by the people I met, how could I possibly convey that to anyone else? How could we keep all this good stuff to ourselves?

After my long and windy drive back to San Francisco, I finally realized that the Summit’s “privacy” is temporary. As artists, writers, curators and other folks working in creative fields, we’re always working on how to express ideas and experiences to others. The fruits of the Summit will go public -- through the work of its individual attendees and, for some, newly-formed collaborative partners.

WWWest recognizes we’re all in the midst of making our work and developing our practices. The weekend wasn't a culmination or the pinnacle of anything specific. Instead, WWWest is a stepping stone. It’s a coffee (okay, wine) break with fellow creators and thinkers, before we continue moving our own practices forward with fresh motivation, new collaborations, colleagues and friends near and far.

Wrapping up on the final day of the Summit.
Wrapping up on the final day of the Summit. (Emily Holmes)

Now You Can Witness (some of) the Summit

If you find yourself experiencing FOMO, don’t worry. You can start locally, with me, as I start to track down all these amazing people.

Go to the Mills College Art Museum to see Surabhi Saraf’s work in the Art + Process + Ideas exhibition. Stop by the Oakland Museum of California and hunt through the gallery of California art for Torreya Cummings’ site-specific installation. Go to the Prelinger Library, introduce yourself to Rick Prelinger or Charlie Macquarie, and ask for a schedule for Place Talks while you’re there -- a series of events curated by Nicole Lavelle. Look up B4BEL4B in Oakland, run by Tiare Ribeaux. Download Laurie Frick’s app, FrickBits, and watch your location data turn into art as you explore the Bay Area.

If you’re not ready to leave your couch quite yet, download Disc Cactus’ app AI*Scry and let that alien psyche read your houseplants (tip for success: try pointing it a "laptop on a desk"). Look up Erica Molesworth’s videos about the social implications of landscape architecture on Silicon Valley corporate campuses (I seriously thought the footage was fictional; it’s not). Watch Berdugo’s collaborative work with Emily Martinez, meta-narratives about making art through the sharing economy of online amateur actors. Explore the speculative future of DNA erasing with Heather Dewey-Hagborg. Or get lost in the retro-futuristic found-footage narratives from Soda Jerk.

That’s not even a quarter of the attendees. But it’s a start at sharing the bounty from this year’s Summit. Keep an eye out on worldwidewest.net for this year’s archive of participant names and photos. Or spend some time looking into a #[crystal ball emoji].

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