How Artists Are Trying to Solve the World’s Problems

Zachary Small, The New York Times, July 15, 2020

Janine Soleil’s passing was sudden and shocking. She died a week after her 75th birthday in May, which was spent in hospice care after contracting the novel coronavirus. And once she was gone, her son, the artist Dylan Gauthier, found her digital imprint everywhere: on the dating websites where she found love, on the insurance company listings for her old therapy practice and across the hundreds of other websites she had tacitly agreed to share personal data with.


“I had a realization when my mom died,” Mr. Gauthier, 45, said. “What would happen to her data in a country like the United States that doesn’t have coherent data privacy protections?”


Since her death, Mr. Gauthier has attempted to extricate his mother’s data from the often faceless third-party companies and service providers that dominate online information-sharing. “When it comes to deciding what records we leave behind, we have little conception of where things will go,” he said. “My mother was a child of the ’60s, a person who was already hesitant to post on the internet. I know she would not want to live online after she died.”


Mr. Gauthier’s search to reclaim his mother’s “digital body” has become more than an expression of grief; it is the source material behind a new artistic project called “Delete Me When I’m Gone,” which intends to provide a tool kit for anyone planning an afterlife washed clean of their digital persona. His endeavor is being funded by the Brooklyn-based art and technology center, Eyebeam through its new initiative, Rapid Response for a Better Digital Future, which supports 30 artists incubating creative solutions to a world torn asunder by digital surveillance, racial violence and a pandemic.


“There is a hunger for the generative thinking that artists can supply,” said Roderick Schrock, the executive director of Eyebeam. “I think that interest comes from a general breakdown in trust for our world leaders.”


With $300,000 raised from the Henry Luce Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Eyebeam is providing significant resources to its artist cohort tasked with responding to “a time of crisis and systemic collapse” during the coronavirus pandemic. Each artist will receive $5,000 to develop their projects and a select number will receive an additional $25,000 in October.


Funded proposals include Maxwell Mutanda’s visualization of the mobile data gap in sub-Saharan Africa, where access to the internet is often expensive; Roopa Vasudevan’s field guide for artists looking to subvert surveillance technology; and Kyle McDonald’s critique of the controversial practice of predictive policing through machine learning.


And for artists like Rashaad Newsome, 40, the program has been an opportunity to dream big. Currently based in Oakland, Calif., Newsome is developing “Being 1.5,” a virtual therapist powered by artificial intelligence to respond to the collective trauma that African-Americans experience. The idea came to him amid the George Floyd protests. “Through critical thinking with the bot,” Mr. Newsome said, “I hope people will find new ways to navigate systems of oppression.”