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Coders And Creatives Intersect At MIT’s Hacking Arts

Jay Calderin, founder of Boston Fashion Week, speaks with fashion writer Angela Cravens Chander (L) and Jill Sherman (R), CEO of Modalist, at Hacking Arts' fashion session. (Franklin Einspruch)

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Is there an app to help us get over our fears of public speaking? How is technology opening up access to high fashion? Can new solar-powered designs bring electricity to more of the planet?  What happens as art sales move increasingly online?

Those were some of the questions addressed at Hacking Arts, which took place this past Saturday and Sunday at the MIT Media Lab. Panel presentations, business pitches, meet-and-greets over food, an art exhibition, and a code jam that ended with prizes in several categories of hacking glory sought to cross-pollinate creative types from across the worlds of art and design, technology, and business.

I missed the opening music session on Saturday morning, which I regret, because it began with a demonstration by Media Lab Ph.D. student Eric Rosenbaum of “MaKey MaKey,” an electronic component that allowed him to wire up a stage full of people into a human synthesizer.

But I arrived in time to see the fashion session (pictured at top). Dressformer demonstrated its online application that allows your customizable avatar to try on clothes that you then can purchase. They’ve put an enormous amount of thought into the physics of cloth so that it falls naturally around your digital representation. Energetic 19th Amendment co-founder Amanda Curtis then explained how her website allows fashion designers to engage in small-scale, self-started projects and introduce them to critique and potential markets. It’s bootstrapping, reinterpreted as “stiletto-strapping,” she said.

Joshua Rosenstock's "Fermentaphone." (Franklin Einspruch)

Joshua Rosenstock’s “Fermentaphone.” (Franklin Einspruch)

Joshua Rosenstock’s “Fermentophone” was the scene-stealer at the six-hour-long art exhibition organized by local curator Lisa Lunskaya Gordon. Jars of fermenting kimchi, pickles, and the like were topped with little glass vents with mounted light sensors. These in turn were wired through an Arduino board to produce various musical tones. Together they improvised a minimalist composition of sustained notes and brief blips. Rosenstock, a Somerville-based multimedia artist who teaches at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, explained that the piece allowed him to combine his loves of art, technology, and food in a single work.

Attached to the exhibition was a project called “Little Sun,” a plastic yellow flower with a solar-charged halogen bulb designed by the internationally feted light artist Olafur Eliasson and the engineer Frederik Ottesen. “Little Sun” has a business plan to make its luminous flowers available as an inexpensive commercial product and thereby bring light to the many people on the planet who live without electricity.

"Little Sun"'s installation in the windows of the MIT Media Lab mezzanine. (Franklin Einspruch)

“Little Sun”‘s installation in the windows of the MIT Media Lab mezzanine. (Franklin Einspruch)

Over lunch—for which standing-height tables were clustered together for people to discuss topics suggested by different signs placed upon them—I sidled up to the financing cluster and spoke with Emma Dunch of Dunch Arts, a New York-based arts management company. “One of the common themes throughout the sessions that I’m hearing is that the live performance and the recording are reversing in importance, and this is happening each in its own way across the various mediums,” she said. “Increasingly, the ‘live’ aspect of performance is becoming a production mechanism instead of a final product.”

I returned to the visual art and design session. The startup presentations came from Boston-based Liora Beer of New Art Love, an app that cleverly supports the display and sale of work from artists’ studios in conjunction with, but not exclusively so, open studio events, and Curiator, a Pinterest-like application that lets users curate virtual exhibitions with an eye towards buying the works collected into them.

A group of insiders, indeed, perpetrators of the transition in the art world from in-person viewing and collecting to web-based viewing and collecting talked on the panel “The Digital Canvas: Art beyond the gallery walls,” moderated by Evan Garza, who among many other things is a founder and director of the Fire Island Artist Residency. Panelists included Sam Aquillano, executive director of Design Museum Boston; Aditya Julka, a founder of online auction site Paddle8; kinetic artist Jeff Lieberman; Lindsay Moroney, vice president of operations at Artnet; and Kelly Sherman, an artist and management consultant. The discussion wasn’t revelatory to anyone following the art market, but it was interesting to hear them say that the in-person experience of art remained supreme in everyone’s opinion, theirs included. The mediated, digital experience of art was an imperfect substitute, but nevertheless one that enables more people to enjoy the original work of art, even if in a reduced way.

I put a question to the panel about art criticism: if we’re looking at an increasingly democratized art world, which is a natural result of technological dissemination, what is the place of art criticism? I directed the question particularly to Moroney, whose company, Artnet, last year stopped producing one of the earliest and longest-running online art magazines after sixteen years of publication. (It continues as the foremost database of art market information, which had long been its core business.) But Garza, a critic himself, answered, “Social media gives everyone a microphone, but Jerry Saltz and critics of that level didn’t go away. Print remains preserved.”

After the panel, Moroney pulled me aside. “Those of us on the database side used to start our day by reading the magazine, and we were heartbroken to see it discontinued,” she confided. “There’s so much noise that meaty criticism is priceless. But people are trending toward buying art simply because they love it. As an art historian, I want the best art to advance and for the best criticism to have a place. At the same time, I want artists of all levels to sell their work so they can make a living and make more art.”

Emi Kioizumi, student at MIT Sloan School of Management, leads a discussion before the hackathon. (Franklin Einspruch)

Emi Kioizumi, student at MIT Sloan School of Management, leads a discussion before the hackathon. (Franklin Einspruch)

The last event of the day was a hackathon. All comers got up on stage to give 30-second pitches for an idea that they’d like to see developed. Anyone wanting to work on the idea met up with the pitcher afterwards. I tagged along with Eric Wei, an economics student at Harvard with a velvety voice, a profound interest in oratory, and an especially nifty idea: an application that would allow you to practice public speaking without the terror of an audience. The program would rate your reading of a script on the basis of various virtues, intonation, cadence, and so on. This idea drew an able team of hackers, musicians, and musician-hackers: Kent Zelle, Julian Lenz, Eric Evenchick, and Felipe González. The team went upstairs to hash out the idea and get to coding.

The following afternoon they presented a mock-up of the application to a panel of judges that included local multimedia artist Janet Echelman; management prodigy David Feldman; Felix Hallwachs, the CEO of Little Sun; Berklee professor of management George Howard; and Joanna Meiseles, senior director at MassChallenge, an organization dedicated to entrepreneurship in Massachusetts.

Wei’s application, dubbed “SpeakEasy,” won the best all-around category of the hackathon. Each team member was given $200 in gift certificates, and the team will receive the mentorship of both MassChallenge and Founder.org, which identifies promising students like Wei and helps them become the founders of companies that will carry out their ideas.

“It was a fantastic experience,” said Wei. “I’m grateful to MIT, and to my amazing team, for bringing ‘SpeakEasy’ to life. I would never have been able to do it by myself.” The goal of Hacking Arts, to cause such diverse talents to intersect fruitfully, seemed duly met.

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