Every time I arrive at MIT’s campus, I think of the campus, with its modernist architecture and technological initiative, as a futuristic wonderland distinct both in approach and in style from Harvard’s Colonial Revival brick. This high-tech look and clean-cut architecture, coupled with the school’s emphasis on science and technology, makes it an unexpected place to find a weekend conference on the arts. Yet, on Sept. 28 and 29, MIT hosted its first annual Hacking Arts event, a two-day conference of panels, start-up demos, live performances, art of every kind, and "hackathons"—marathon computer programing sessions in which participants got a hands-on opportunity to work with software. It was organized by a team of graduate and undergraduate students from Boston-area schools, with MIT Sloan School of Management students taking the lead.
I enter the MIT Media Lab at the heart of the school’s campus in the morning on the first day of the event. The first panel I attend is composed of a fascinating roster of people, from the CEO of Sonicbids—an online platform for bands, promoters, and agencies that makes the process of getting gigs and organizing regional and national tours much easier—to a YouTube Music representative who is presenting the advantages of customizable music content providers like Pandora and Spotify. In the representative’s view, these products attest to a larger societal phenomenon: the craze for having it "your way."
The talk emphasized how in today’s media landscape, individual choices thrust us into different subsets of intersecting and separate media viewerships. While some of the attendees at the panel reminisced about the good old days of collective media experience—as one participant declared during the question and answer part of the same session, "I miss MTV!”—most people seem to be happy that the customizable future is here.
Customization of cultural consumption via the internet was a dominant theme of dialogue and inquiry for the rest of the day. Entrepreneurs in music, fashion, performing and visual arts spoke of their endeavors to make independent, or at least non-mainstream, cultural agents more accessible to the general public. However, I also noted a scarcity of those traditionally defined as "creators" in the artistic field: artists. What the event did include was a broad range of entrepreneurs, programmers, and engineers.
Among the events that took place over the weekend was a panel on performing arts with Tod Machover, a composer and engineer who has done research on the intersection of technology and music, including music created by computers. He spoke of Media Lab’s creations, including the robot-assisted opera "Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant." Composed and conceived of by Machover, who is also the director of MIT Media Lab's Hyperinstruments and Opera of the Future group, "Death and the Powers" is set in a hypothetical future in which it is possible to transform one's existence into a software system. It is not just the subject matter that is futuristic: human-scale sleek robots moving with complex choreographies begin and end the piece, while moveable backdrops constructed with screens visualize the tone and atmosphere of the score.
In the same vein, a live mini-performance just before the Performing Arts session by two researchers from the MIT Media Lab, Peter Torpey and Elena Jessop, featured a prosthetic device in the shape of gloves that allows a storyteller to modify the sonic and visual components of her narrative with hand gestures.
The diversity of participants at Hacking Arts called into question traditional definitions of "creating" in the 21st century. Kathleen Stetson '03, one of the co-chairs of the event from the MIT Sloan School of Management, says, "There's a momentum that is starting to build. For instance, Harvard...started the Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge last year. Same thing last year, there's a new 10k Creative Arts Challenge as part of the MIT 100k here... Entrepreneurship centers are getting bigger,” Stetson says. The MIT 100k Entrepreneurship Competition is a competition in which aspiring entrepreneurs compete to win grant money for their pitch ideas.
Stetson says, “There's this movement towards, ‘Wait, we can create! I don't have to be an artist to create…. I can create in a lot of different ways!’ Why not get artist, musicians, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, and engineers together, and capitalize on that momentum?"
As I left the building, the first stage of the hackathon was about to start with "ideastorms"—structured brainstorming sessions centered around themes like "democratizing the arts."
The next day was a full day of "hacking" during which teams publicly pitched their solutions to some of the challenges discussed at the panels. For the first time in my life, I got a behind-the-scenes look at how interdisciplinary crossroads like MIT are tailoring our futures and fostering creative thinkers who will have direct impacts on our lives in innumerable ways, through projects like the robotic opera and new softwares that capitalize on the intersection of arts and social media.
Stetson says, "The purpose of Hacking Arts is not just to talk about the future of arts and entertainment, but to create it." After all, my general impression of MIT was not just the cumulative of its stereotypical associations. The future was taking shape here, bolstered by a conversation launched at Hacking Arts among artists, businesspeople, and technological experts.