The Nonprofit Eyebeam Is Handing Out Tens of Thousands of Dollars to Artists to Develop New Tools to Fight Digital Inequality

In the first phase of the project, the organization will give $5,000 grants to 27 artists.

Hito Steyerl's work at MoMA in New York. Photo by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress.

It may not be the kind of open call to artists you would expect in the midst of a health crisis.

But an ambitious project by Eyebeam, the 22-year-old New York-based nonprofit that promotes art on the forefront of technological innovation, is all about tasking artists with imaging new forms of equitable digital engagement.

Through the project, titled Rapid Response a for a Better Digital Future, Eyebeam is asking artists to design “new ways of interacting through the internet,” according to a prompt. Among the proposals that will be considered are those that make the internet more accessible; ones that develop artificial and natural intelligence solutions; and others that help artists develop new and essential skills.

The initiative will unfold in two phases. In the first, the organization will hand out 27 $5,000 grants to artists who apply through the open call, which closes on May 30. In phase two, those artists will be invited to apply for one of five additional $25,000 grants to turn their ideas into reality. 

The initiative came together in March, after Eyebeam was forced to cancel its longstanding residency program, which has more than 500 alumniincluding Jill Magid, Cory Arcangel, and Torkwase Dyson.

“I threw my hands in the air and said, ‘I don’t know what a residency means right now. I don’t know what a program that’s predicated on people coming together in space will look like in the future,’” Roderick Schrock, Eyebeam’s executive director, tells Artnet News.

As the organization batted around new initiatives to replace the program, artist Hito Steyerl, who serves as one of the nonprofit’s advisors, observed that many of the suggestions being made had to do with surveillance capitalism, a term coined by theorist Shoshana Zuboff to describe an era in which big data has supplanted oil as the world’s most prized currency.

“That’s the thing that our organization needs to prioritize and turn the heat up on, because it’s foundational to a lot of the inequities and issues that the other suggestions were addressing,” Schrock says.

So Eyebeam put the money earmarked for its residency towards the Rapid Response initiative, and two philanthropic bodies—the Henry Luce Foundation and the Mellon Foundation—chipped in another $300,000, effectively doubling the program’s budget. (The money not going to artists will be put towards a project manager and an independent evaluator to oversee the project, as well as jury and advisor fees.)

The open call went live April 21. Since then, Eyebeam has already received more applications than it ever gets for its residency program—and it expects many more submissions to come in.

“If there was ever a time to create a protected space outside the economies of art and technology,” Schrock says, “this is the moment to do that.”

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