Give and Take: Eyebeam Art + Technology Center Reflects on Hurricane Sandy's Toll

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It's Wednesday morning, October 31st, the sky is a dull gray and Manhattan streets are eerily quiet. I am snapping photos and wading through standing water above my ankles on West 21st Street in Chelsea. A car is turned at an angle in the wrong direction in front of Eyebeam's big warehouse-like space and gas is bubbling up through the dirty water on the street. I can't open the door because electricity is out and FDNY tells me that we shouldn't break the locks, a spark might cause a fire. Apparently there's a gas leak along the whole block. So much for evaluating the damage inside Eyebeam, I can't even get in.

A lot has been written in the art press about the damage Chelsea galleries took from Sandy. But Eyebeam is not a gallery, we don’t have high-value pieces in storage, work gets made here not sold, and some of the the creative technologists we support may not even think of themselves as artists. So, in dealing with the aftermath, we were in a different situation than our neighbors. But we do (or did) have a lot of equipment to lose, belonging both to the organization and individual residents and fellows. Also in danger was our archive of 15 years of media arts history of work produced at Eyebeam.

As soon as we put the word out about the damage our archive suffered, there was an immediate and organic response from disparate groups. People pulled together, heroically, to rescue the archive. The process included groups like AV Preserve along with specialists from MoMA and Anthology Film Archives, among many other individual volunteers. It was inspiring to see such a dedicated crew coming into the building every day, carefully cleaning old magnetic media that had been inundated with salty, dirty water from the Hudson, organizing it carefully along tables and meticulously itemizing every piece for future digitization. Not only did we not lose the archive, we are soon going to store it all digitally, something that Eyebeam has planned to do for a long time but lacked the resources to realize.

And that is where the silver lining of this whole situation becomes apparent: by being an organization that focuses on always 'becoming', focusing on the future, this storm forced us to seriously consider our past and to constructively and critically examine our approach to archiving the work that is developed here. Technological art is a very future-focused endeavor, sometimes to the detriment of retaining its history. But as this organization matures, as the field matures, it becomes more and more apparent that creating the future also means tending to the past.

In our case that means thinking about systems that artists can utilize to ensure the process of creation is fully documented, from start to finish, in a way that is meaningful both to the artists and the field. We aim to build memory into the production process itself by always starting with the question of how the work will be documented and archived, not relegating it to an afterthought. Hurricane Sandy almost washed away a valuable part of Eyebeam’s history but in the process caused the organization to ensure the future will have a deeper connection to the past.

To learn more, join us at Eyebeam in New York for:
Eyebeam Resurfaces: The Future of the Digital Archive
Curated by Lindsay Howard and Jonathan Minard
January 8–12, 2013
Opening: Thursday January 10, 7:00pm–9:00pm ($25 admission, full amount is charitable donation)
Gallery hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 12:00pm–6:00pm