"It’s easy to laugh at Y2K now, but what are we laughing at?"
Perry Chen grew up on Roosevelt Island, the relatively isolated strip of land that sits in the New York’s East River under the Queensboro Bridge. I grew up in Manhattan but could see the island from my bedroom window. This island seemed, culturally speaking, so far away from the belly of the beast, though, geographically speaking, close enough to hear the beast’s belly rumble. So when Chen told me he was a Roosevelt Island native I couldn’t help but find some poetic significance in it, as I’ve always seen him as figure who works close to the action, but only by some kind of happenstance proximity. That is, whether in the tech or art arena, he tends to create with a hyperawareness of the relationship between the center and the fringe, and therefore never settles in either.
Chen co-founded the Southfirst gallery in Brooklyn in 2001 before launching Kickstarter in 2009 and becoming a TED Fellow. In between, he lived in New Orleans and worked on electronic music. He left Kickstarter in 2014 to focus attention on his art practice, most recently his archival investigation into the cultural and technological phenomenon of Y2K. That project, titled Computers in Crisis, was recently presented as part of the New Museum's First Look program in conjunction with Creative Time Reports and Rhizome.
Chen’s work as an artist, like the technologies it explores, often answers questions in ways that give rise to more questions. So I asked him the ones that seemed most crucial to understanding the ideals and ideas that lie at the locus of it all. We corresponded over email and chatted over a couple coffees at our shared neighborhood watering hole.
Gideon Jacobs Do you ever feel like the Y2K scare reads a bit like fable? Maybe it’s just the nature of viewing a phenomenal event with fifteen years of distance, but some of the plot points are so absurd that they’d be almost hard to believe if they weren’t fact. Is it just difficult to relate to the 1999 version of ourselves, of society? Or was Y2K just that weird, that wild, that extraordinary of a technological/cultural event?
Perry Chen Y2K was and continues to be wild and layered. It was the first mainstream apocalyptic scare since the nuclear threat of the Cold War, a full-on—CNN, ABC News, Time Magazine—mainstream event. It was also nested in a moment (the late 1990s) where we were trying to deal with this huge technological shift—the real-deal arrival of the internet, cell phones becoming ubiquitous, and the related mania of the US stock market’s tech bubble.
There was also a ton of fuel for the Y2K scare. It seemed reasonable to many that there was a price to pay for all the rapid technological changes. It was a very technical thing that was actually understandable to almost anyone—that computers might “think” it was the year 1900 on January 1st because they’d read “00” as 1900, not the year 2000. But the biggest thing was that, until maybe a few months into 1999, no one could really say what would or wouldn’t happen with any credible certainty. So many systems were interconnected in so many ways, and they all relied on software and chips that might be susceptible to the Y2K issue. Endless scenarios were possible and plausible. To have something be so complex and unknowable, and have it possibly affect so much, is absolutely wild.
It’s easy to laugh at it now, but what are we laughing at? The hyperbole and media frenzy is easy to laugh at—I’m with that. We also created a Y2K industry, but that’s just what we do in this country—everything becomes an industry. And I think it’s these memories that drive us to look back at Y2K with great amusement. Separate from the hyperbole was the threat itself. People think that the whole thing was a hoax, but that’s much harder to say. What was prevented? What didn’t need prevention? Was the scare unfounded? Or did the scare push us to get ahead of the problem? There were no comprehensive post-mortems on Y2K. The companies, government, and press all quickly dropped it after it became an embarrassment on January 1, 2000. Without further insight, and by remembering Y2K as a joke, I think we lose an opportunity to understand more about the nature of facing uncertainty.
GJ You say that your work “explores the intersection between technology and uncertainty.” Would you say that technological progress increases what we know, or really just adds to the uncertainty? Do you see some fundamental goal of technology being epistemological by nature, or oriented by a pursuit of truth/knowledge?
PC Probably both. Technology brings tools to better understand things (microscopes, Wikipedia), but there will always be the unknowable, and as we understand things better, new gaps in our knowledge are constantly revealed to us. Technology intersects with uncertainty by pushing into the vast uncertainties, like with space exploration, and by creating them, like with the Y2K issue.
As far as its goal, “technology” is such an encompassing term—fire, the wheel, the printing press, the internet, an iPhone. It’s too varied to have a singular nature. A lot of technological advancement is about making things more efficient and easier. Others speak to impulses, like those to explore (space travel) or gain power (military technology). Technology is often, like so many things, simply revealing of what we want and who we are. Twitter didn’t make people want to communicate in short bursts with a public audience; it revealed a surprisingly large desire to do so.
GJ Okay, so if technology is “revealing what we want,” can the same thing be said of the cultural aspect of the Y2K phenomenon? Everyone seems to love a good doomsday scenario. There are, of course, people who actually take some kind of satisfaction in the prospect of our species’ demise. How do you make sense of the psychology surrounding Y2K? Where does it fit in history’s many examples of feared apocalypse?
PC There’s always a feeling that there will be inevitable consequences from large technological shifts. For instance, the printing press was, rightfully, feared as an existential threat to oral storytelling traditions. As Y2K emerged, it filled this narrative as a consequence of our increasing reliance on computers for more and more.
It made sense to people—change wasn’t going to be so smooth, the stock market wasn’t going to only go up, everybody wasn’t going to benefit so easily. The people developing and pushing new technology seemed to form a chorus that sounded like they had the solutions to and for everything, but this will never be completely true.
Beyond this, Y2K also gave survivalists/preppers an event to prepare for full-bore. It also spoke to technophobes' deep suspicions, even offering the possibility for a world—post-Y2K disaster—with less technological reliance. It armed religious millennialists with a story of how the world might end. Y2K was very much a social phenomenon (Andrea H. Tapia, who studies technology and subcultural identities, writes about this in her paper Y2K and cultural opportunism).
As far as where Y2K fits with historical apocalypses, it jumps out as remarkable in modern times as a mainstream event, not just something dreamt up by fringe believers. And of course, the timing lining up with the actual millennium meant it merged, somewhat elegantly, with the natural uncertainty and awe around the impending millennial moment itself.
GJ Why explore all this by creating an archive?
PC With Y2K we faced great uncertainty, unknowability, and complexity. It was a force in culture, media, government, technology, business, and yet, what have we learned from it? It has been not only unexamined, but has come to be strangely verboten.
I interviewed many people deeply involved in working on Y2K who repeatedly told me that it was like a hole in their lives—something they couldn’t talk about because it’s been reduced to a joke (many authors of Y2K books even remove them from their list of published titles). Nobody is interested in the work that went into trying to prevent disaster, or even the possibility that much might have been prevented. And, thus, we have no entryway to discussions about what Y2K illuminated about our ability to deal with uncertainty, unknowability, and complexity.
We’ve allowed ourselves to remember only the hyperbole of Y2K, and, in doing so, have reduced the entirety of the Y2K phenomenon to a punchline. There’s much more underneath, and an archive works to preserve these elements and invite people in for a second, and deeper, look.
GJ To me, this project has a similar spirit to your 2001 project Virus, not just because it’s also art that concerns technology, but because it’s presentation without commentary or editorializing. Virus was just displays of computer codes that manifest as viruses, right? The artistry lied in trusting the weight and phenomenal nature of the content enough to present it as simply as possible. The archive of Computers in Crisis feels similarly straightforward. I’m curious, is this is a conscious choice? Do you see your practice as an artist to be about directing attention as much as it is about creation?
PC I have been attracted to the practice of revealing certain hidden or forgotten things in ways that are immersive or draw you in. I hope it does feel straightforward, but there’s still a lot of form beyond the content alone—an archive of books, light-boxes of code in a dark room, live interviews. So, yes to both: Yes to drawing attention, and yes to creation.
Computers in Crisis is similar to the Virus installation we did at Southfirst in 2001, in that there’s a strong intent of: Here is this thing you’ve heard of, but in a different way. For Virus, we showed the code of four known computer viruses. I had never seen what a virus looked like, but we were hearing about them on the news at the time as this new bogeyman—this new thing to fear—without being given any actual information. I wanted to present them so you engaged not with the commentary or editorial, but with the code of the viruses itself. I suppose both of these projects strip away and present something obscured by hyperbole.
GJ So, is the demystification of technology the elusive common denominator of your work? It’s hard to trace a single thread through your career in the tech world and art world, but it seems like your projects aim for quality via simplification via honesty. Maybe that’s a crude way to put it, but how would you describe your mentality in designing experiences, artistic or technical, or other?
PC I am interested in how we deal with uncertainty, and technology intersects with uncertainty in particular ways that have drawn me in. But I’m more interested in us—our humanity, our biases—than I am in technology itself.
For any project, I usually slowly circle around an idea––doing research, talking about it, getting excited about possible forms. I’m getting my bearings and trying to figure out what is at the core and what’s pulling at me. And I’ll keep pulling on these strings until something starts to click. Then working on form may become a bit more primary—shaping the experience/expression—along with editing of concept and form to trim away what feels unnecessary, or too clever.
I think these phases and methods are common to many practices. If you’re creating something that is primarily functional, that will drive so many decisions. The thing I appreciate about working on art versus creating a functional system is a well defined beginning and end to the work. Systems are often like living organisms—they change over time, while authorship becomes hazier over time. They are reactive by nature.
Gideon Jacobs is a Brooklyn-based writer. He grew up as a professional actor in New York City and is most known for his role in the 2001 comedy, Wet Hot American Summer. He currently serves as the Creative Director of the prestigious photo cooperative, Magnum Photos. He writes a column for VICE and is in progress on his first substantial work of fiction.