Today we’re in discussion with David Borgonjon, the Communications Manager at Eyebeam, “a nonprofit studio for collaborative experiments with technology toward a more imaginative and just world.” That’s a fairly lofty mission—can you give some background on the history of Eyebeam, and how the organization has changed since its inception in 1997?
When Eyebeam started as an “art and technology center”, there was nothing of its kind. Since then, that experimental scene has gone mainstream in the tech industry (though not without losing some things along the way). We like that—our goal has always been to be copied, and our philosophy is that this is where things kick off, not where they end up.
We were founded in 1997 in Brooklyn, did a long stint in a Chelsea garage, and recently moved back to Brooklyn to a former factory. Last year, we hit the age of majority, 18, and we’re focusing more carefully on our core: technology, by artists, for everyone.
Being a small, artist-run organization, lets us have outsized impact because of our open-source principles and the exceptional brilliance of the people who work with us as residents, students and staff. With the vision of artists and the power of technology, we could really have a much more equitable society.
In recent history, what have been some of the most interesting projects that have worked toward “a more imaginative and just world”?
An archive of future African artifacts. Lunar-phase wi-fi. Community gardens that fight against solitary confinement. Lego for electronics. Genetic portraits. Bacterial architecture. Better Sketchup avatars. 3D printers for weaving. Gender equity on Wikipedia. Crowd-funded bridges. Coding with youth who are deaf or hard of hearing. A solar-powered studio on wheels. Music that grows. Warm data. Tenant-owned real estate developers. Rap as research. Fashion as game controllers. I could keep going. That’s the last two or three years.
What is The Research Residency? What have been some of the most notable projects that have come out of it?
The Research Residency is the answer to the prayer, “If only I could quit whatever I’m doing and get paid a real salary with no strings and total support among a community of brilliant peers to make something I’m care about because I think it could change the world.” It provides a year of round-the-clock studio access, top-notch mentoring, awesome community, and up to $31,762.60 (based on a Brooklyn living wage).
The first “share” button that launched the social media revolution began at Eyebeam with the ReBlog. The residency is also key to the creation of several coding languages (including Open Frameworks, p5.js and Arduino). We’ve propelled the careers of countless artists like Cory Arcangel, Shirin Neshat and Trevor Paglen. When you add it all up, we’ve given about $3 million and 225 years to brilliant minds to just make their ideas real. Also, we supported the founders of BuzzFeed, littleBits, Delicious and Adafruit, so we sometimes joke that we’re one of the best incubators on the East Coast—without trying to be.
Your “model of practice” includes three tenets: i) Ideas work, ii) Process matters, iii) Impact counts. Can you dive a little deeper into what those mean, and how they work together?
Eyebeam is a unique mix of a think tank, an artist studio, and an incubator. Each resident and student ideally iterates through the entire model, from ideas to process to impact, many times over the course of their stay with us. We challenge our residents to iterate through the steps on an accelerated timeline.
We’re actually relaunching a series of boot camps dedicated to expanding the Eyebeam model to more people—we’re floating it under the title of “Tech By Artists,” since that’s what we do.
Eyebeam receives support from a hallowed list of institutions, including Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation. How have you made such a name for yourself, and how have you kept that name?
We attribute a lot of our success to our open-source principles. Every resident signs a contract which says that whatever they make while here has to be open-sourced—whether that’s as a software commit on Github, or a replicable hardware kit with downloadable instructions, or a published journal entry about their process. We create value for the entire field, we don’t capture it for ourselves. Eyebeam is where creative technology all begins, so when you fund Eyebeam, you fund the field.
Generosity is part of the open-source credo, and we’ve made a name for ourselves as the most generous artist residency. Most other residencies charge, or, at best, give artists —but we give a third of our budget every year directly as artist fees. Foundations notice that kind of generosity. But we’re also the most open supporter of new technologies—while we don’t give nearly the same amounts as a venture capital fund, we do it with no expectation of ROI. And we’ve found that the less we worry about those returns, the more impact we can have. It’s a kind of very focused, difficult optimism.