ZERO1 is where art and technology converge

ZERO1: The Art & Technology Network in San Jose is where art meets technology to shape the future. It is a nonprofit art and technology organization with the mission of providing a platform for artists to experiment, create, and innovate. They achieve this through several different pillars.

“[We believe] artists are shaping the future [and we want to show] how artists are having a social impact in the community and in the world,” says Sarah Beth Nesbit, marketing director for ZERO1. “We’re strong at showcasing what artists are doing and why that matters.”

ZERO1 was founded by Andrea Cunningham in 2000. She was an Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellow and part of her work during her year-long fellowship was looking at how technology in the arts is manifesting in different platforms and making a difference. She wanted to showcase this on a national stage, and there wasn’t anywhere in the Bay Area – not even in Silicon Valley, which seems like the most obvious place to demonstrate and celebrate this cross-pollination of art and technology – that was really highlighting and showcasing the relationship between the two. Her goal in establishing ZERO1 was to start showcasing this and working with artists through different platforms.

The organization is best known for its biennials, city- and Bay Area-wide exhibitions at the convergence of art and technology. The first biennial was held in 2006 and they continued to be held every other year through 2012. In off-biennial years ZERO1 would host larger exhibits in the spring and fall.

The 2012 biennial theme, Seeking Silicon Valley, examined Silicon Valley as a state of mind and not just a location. The artists they worked with looked at current issues in Silicon Valley. One group, San Francisco-based design firm Stamen Design, tracked the private bus routes of tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and eBay, which bus their employees from the city into the Valley on cushy Wi-Fi-equipped private, unmarked buses. The Stamen team mapped the routes and found that the buses were bringing in 7,500 employees daily, Monday through Friday. “Since then it’s become a hot topic in the Bay Area,” says Nesbit. “They’ve gone on to showcase and talk about the map, and it has become one of the bigger issues in the new. Visually representing the data led to a spiral effect.”

In the fall of 2013, ZERO1 hosted a group exhibition called Patent Pending, bringing together seven artists who had patents based on their work. “The line ZERO1 teeters is looking at corporations, looking at technology, and looking at artists and how artists infiltrate all parts of life,” explains Nesbit. “Artists have patents. They create things from their art. ZERO1 tries to showcase artists who are at all stages of their work, to show that artists are the ultimate provocateurs – the artist as designers, as architects, whatever.”

In 2012, ZERO1 was at a point that they were able to mature and grow the organization and brought in a new Executive Director to lead the charge. “It’s kind of a startup nonprofit even though it’s been around for 13 years,” says Nesbit. “In 2012 it was still kind of a pop-up, pop-down organization. [We would have the biennial] then sit down and plan the next one, but we didn’t have an everyday presence. Now we’re able to having ongoing exhibits, events, and additional programming.”

They moved into their new home, the ZERO1 Garage, at the start of the 2012 biennial. Having a permanent home and gallery space allows them to host regular events and exhibits, and otherwise engage the arts and technology community in a much more consistent way. Nesbit says it took most of 2013 to get their year-round programming off the ground, so they pushed off their next biennial to 2015 in order to focus on that. “We’re trying not to be just another presenting arts organization or just a gallery,” Nesbit says. “We continually spark creativity and innovation within the physical space [but also want to have a presence] nationally and internationally through our fellowships and other programs.”

One of their newest programs is the ZERO1 Fellowship Program. They completed their first class of ZERO1 fellows in 2013, in partnership with tech companies and foundations including Google, Adobe Creative Technologies Lab, the Christenson Fund, and the KDDI Group. The fellows work on innovation challenges as proscribed by their sponsorship companies. The companies issued a request for proposals focused on an innovation challenge that would meet the company’s needs. Artists submitted proposals and ZERO1’s selection committee narrowed them down to five for each company. The companies then chose which artist they would work with. “Artists and designers in a company are slightly restricted with what they’re able to do within the company,” says Nesbit. “[The fellows] are able to engage in a way that maybe the employees aren’t. They’re able to tinker away and figure out whatever they’re trying to get to without the same guidelines and restrictions. They’re able to play and hopefully come up with something around the challenges.”

One challenge was looking at cross-generational storytelling through mobile apps, and artist Danilea Steinsapir ultimately created an app called Spark Chat, which pulls from pictures and texts in your phone to tell your “story” based on what you’re already capturing, bringing in a different form of communication.

The works of the 2013 fellows are on display at the ZERO1 Garage through spring, and they are currently gearing up for their second fellowship class. The fellowships are the culmination of everything Cunningham has originally envisioned when she first started ZERO1 over 13 years ago. Nesbit says, “The fellowship is kind of the core of what she’s always been striving to do: pairing arts and technology to make it a more fluid conversation and not two separate conversations.”

Another new program that ZERO1 has been able to implement is an international artist exchange program with the State Department. Working through the embassies, artists get sent to countries like Papa New Guinea, Laos, and the Philippines to work with youth and underserved populations, leading a series of workshops within the communities based on a social issue relevant to that country in the hopes that the lessons live beyond the time the artist is allowed to be there. They’re also sending two artists to the Beijing International Art Bienniale, a media arts biennial, who will be attending alongside internationally-acclaimed new media and digital media organizations like Ars Electronica.

In the more immediate future, ZERO1 is presenting a program with support from the Knight Foundation called BRING IT!, a summer programming series which consists of an open call exhibit that runs for 12 weeks. Every week they showcase a different artist or community organization along with workshops and panel presentations, each week bringing in entirely new and different audiences based on whoever has taken over the ZERO1 Garage that week. ZERO1 will provide help with programming and marketing, but the artists are otherwise able to drive the week-long exhibit and event themselves. They’ll have another larger exhibit this fall and again in spring, with plans for the next biennial in 2015.

Whether there is an exhibit currently in the space or not, ZERO1 hosts monthly art and technology talks. “We keep activating the space even when there is and is not exhibit to bring audiences in,” Nesbit says.

Much as technology is constantly evolving, so too is ZERO1. While the full scope of their work defies definition, the core mission has remained the same since the very beginning. “We have commissioned over 700 artists over the years,” Nesbit says. “We make sure we’re actually commissioning the artists that we’re working with.” She says the organization can’t really be defined in any sort of rigid, traditional way. “It’s a little harder to put us in a bubble and [still be able to extend our reach]. A lot of the work we do isn’t contained within the typical four-white-walled gallery.” If the term “new media” is a catch-all phrase that loosely describes any and all media and communication outlets that have embraced digital platforms, then ZERO1 is a “new arts” organization.