Half the discussion surrounding the digital world seems to revolve around its utility in the real world. How does digital life produce wealth? How can it be used to increase political participation? Can art be made from or in it? It's no wonder that some digital citizens throw up their hands and write the questions off as the carping of eternal grandparents.
Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, a non-profit in San Francisco, has chosen a different route, neither exegesis nor abandonment. Instead (get ready for the sexy), they are the Large Hadron Collider of the digital world, banging people, ideas, approaches, concerns and populations together for the sheer joy of seeing how bright a flash and big a bang they can make.
That's not necessarily how Gray would put it. Their tagline is "social consciousness through digital culture." But it's the conclusion I've come to after speaking at length with Cullen Miller, director of public programs for the foundation.
With support from IBM, the NEA, Twitter, the Knight and Mozilla Foundations and others, Gray has created a number of projects and programs that bring together civic and cultural stakeholders to explore digital media in their own worlds.
- Curated an exhibition of MIT's SENSEable City Lab that explores the changes in the civic landscape brought about by sensors and handheld electronics.
- Launched a fund-raising tool called Seaquence that expresses arts support as a "musical lifeform," essentially making audio-visual music from the act of donating
- Designed a Creative Studies Program, educational coursework that CTS program will takes "students from the fundamentals of creative coding and computing to the advanced technicalities known by the field's most adept designers"
- Work with the City and County of San Francisco to turn government-provided data sets into visualizations that illustrate the city's situation in novel ways
From the Digerati to the Block: Cullen Miller on the Gray Area
"We do reach out to communities in the hopes that they will effect change, including political change. We have a 5,000-square foot venue in the Tenderloin where we bring people together, including those in the neighborhood. We have a number of projects that are civically-inclined, like the City Center Festival and the SENSEable City Initiative, which we think have a positive impact on the neighborhoods.
"We host community hackathons. These show real potential for investors and have the potential to better the neighborhoods they're located in. We're also fostering a new research program, Gray Area Research, where residents and others in our larger digital network to do research together. This project actually grew out of one of our hackathons.
"Our creative technology studies program breathes life into the community, shows people getting involved. We don't want people alienated in their own neighborhoods so we encourage development from ground up, catching people in the neighborhoods up with what's going on in the wider network. When people first look at code, it intimidates, it can appear indecipherable. What we want to do foster an environment where if they're not technically adept, they can learn and gain control. The CTS program is a platform for people to understand and employ the concepts of digital creation.
"Give a painter a paintbrush, you can't know what they're going to do and that's the beauty of it. When we empower students with skill sets, there are an infinite amount of things they can do. Someone takes the soft circuitry course and winds up making the next space suit. Another student opens up their government due to their data skills. This is a new way of collaborating. It doesn't end with the skill sets in place. It ends up with connections with other people. That's what we're here to do."