Eyebeam, an art and technology non-profit that sits in a magnificent though forbidding storefront loft on 21st Street, finds itself in the middle of a period of renewal. Having made its name by hosting events and exhibitions that crossed between cutting-edge visual art and innovative technology and supporting artists like Casey Reas, Marius Watz, and Golan Levin, budget issues and the economic downturn caused an unforeseen lull in activity. After struggling through problems with funding and having to cut down staff, the institution is now making a concerted effort to refresh its image, pushing public programming, showcasing its artist fellows and residents, and launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the renovation of their front-room space.
ARTINFO recently sat down with Eyebeam’s interim executive director Patricia Jones, who has filled the role since December 2011, in the space’s cavernous bookstore to discuss the institution’s identity problems, how they’re overhauling their public image, and the goals of the renovation.
What is your role at Eyebeam while the organization continues its search for a permanent director?
My function is really not only to serve as the overall exec for the organization as the board is identifying a permanent director but also moving it forward and making changes that are necessary to keep the organization on a positive upward track.
One of the problems Eyebeam has had is that many people don’t know what the institution is and exactly what purpose it serves.
Eyebeam’s basic function is to promote the intersection of art and creative technology. Essential to that focus of the organization is funding artists to work in residency here for extended periods of time, some for five months on specific projects and others for a full year on expanding their work and developing their tools. We bring all these extraordinary people together to allow them not only to work independently on their own projects but to collaborate and learn from each other as well.
I think one of our great strengths is that we have a cross section of artists who are all doing extraordinary things, and they are able to help each other. We’re not a typical artists colony… You’re exchanging ideas and meeting new people, not only the other artists who are here but also the people who come through Eyebeam and take part in our programs. Much of what our fellows do and what everyone does here is communicate their work to the broader public. It’s a way of helping New Yorkers and people interested in the field of art and technology to understand the cutting edge of that field. That covers a wide range of programs, whether it’s urban interventions or whether it’s gaming or digital visualization… In all of those areas we try to highlight the best work.
Though public programming has ramped up recently, Eyebeam has been relatively quiet over the past few years. What are some of the issues the organization has been facing?
The biggest issue is that because we were founded by one individual, John Johnson, the organization has not been diversifying its income enough. And that’s one of the challenges of moving ahead: making it less dependent on so few sources of income. As many non-profits in Europe are learning, it’s not good to keep all your eggs in one basket. The staff has gotten much smaller than it was and we are having to do a lot more with a lot less. I think we need to raise our visibility and get people to understand more about what we do in order to expand our funding base.
Eyebeam is located in a giant, semi-finished warehouse. What is the institution like as a place and a space?
Eyebeam has this extraordinary space in the heart of Chelsea. It was bought before this area of Chelsea really got developed, so it’s rather an amazing place to have sandwiched between Paula Cooper Gallery and Haunch of Venison, with one of Gagosian’s many outposts down the block. I think one of the challenges for Eyebeam is to use that space effectively and to take advantage of the resources we have here. We need to make it more than just a place artists can work; we have to create a space to host public programs. The location gives us a lot of flexibility in what we offer to the public.
We currently have a big exhibition that will be here through the summer called “Surface Tension,” which was developed at the Science Gallery in Dublin, but we also have large lectures, symposiums, hackathons, and other events that also fill the space. We’re trying to use the space for a variety of purposes and take advantage of it as much as we can.
Aside from the space for public exhibitions and workshops, what are some of the resources that Eyebeam has for artists?
We have studio workspace, video and sound editing suites, and some expensive pieces of technology like our 3D printer and laser cutter that artists wouldn’t easily have access to on their own. We also try to have enough equipment so that if artists want to present their work, we have the screens and the sound equipment and the lighting.
Your ongoing Kickstarter is raising money for a renovation of the front part of the space. What’s the plan for that overhaul?
Right now our main entrance is also a public bookstore. It has big double doors but it’s not that visible from the street, so you can’t get a sense of what’s going on in the space. Next to the bookstore space currently is a space that’s used for workshops and evening events and more private programs. It usually has a screen down in front, so it’s hard to see in.
We wanted to change the spaces around so that what is now the workshop area can be opened up, because it has a much wider façade of glass that will be a much more inviting entrance into the space and give people a much better sense of what’s inside. The goal also is to put an exhibition space directly in front of that entrance so that people will actually see projects installed
The thought is to turn the back area into a pop-up coffee shop and meeting space where people can come in — a more social space. It’s a way of making much more visible some of the smaller projects that we’re working on and have something continually in the front that will be interesting to the public, as well as a hang-out space. And since there are no real coffee shops in this part of Chelsea, we assume it will become a popular draw [laughs].
Aside from the renovation, what other kinds of projects are you hoping to get funding for?
The other big thing that we’re starting this summer is a real rethinking of our image and graphic identity. We’re working with a firm called Project Projects, and the goal is to have the new image identity ready for the time when we do renovations in August. The goal with all of this is to have an identity that’s not fixed in stone, one that reflects the changing identity of the field and the changing nature of Eyebeam.
After the renovation and the re-branding, what do you see in the next few years for Eyebeam?
It’s still a work in progress. We’re very well known within a small community of people involved with art and technology, but we’re not that well known outside. We’ve done a lot of collaborations with people, but very often I don’t think our own identity has come through clearly. My goal is to do more things that are clearly Eyebeam, and give Eyebeam a real focus, to have a number of things that people are going to say, “Oh that’s happening at Eyebeam, that’s going to be great.”