Ebon Fisher

Ebon_Fisher+ZoaCodes-Yale_Radio3“Exploring new kinds of art and media-sharing rituals in Williamsburg Brooklyn in the early 1990’s, Ebon was one of the key contributors to both a scene and an aesthetic that continue to sow seeds far beyond their wee geographic origins.”

            – Robert Elmes, Founder, Galapagos Art Space

As Ebon Fisher sees it, art is not a thing or a symbol but a confluence of living systems. An artifact only has meaning when it is threaded into the public nervous system and a collective pulse has leaped into being. Ebon has endeavored to nurture a public pulse in a variety of forms, from street and media graffiti to digital feedback systems to the cultivation of creative networks in a struggling community. His system of network ethics, the Bionic Codes, has been presented online by the Guggenheim Museum and broadcast to 10 million Japanese television viewers. His nervoid works have been discussed in Flash Art, Domus, Newsweek, Die Zeit, the Drama Review, BoingBoing.net, and represented in numerous museums and art history books. Ebon’s codified social networks have even been inserted as a graphic “hack” into a page of diagrams in the Wall Street Journal and permanently inked into the skin of at least two human beings. Wired Magazine has dubbed Ebon “Mr. Meme”(1) and New York Magazine included him in the “New York Cyber Sixty.”(2) Java Magazine cited him as a “Visionary of the New Millennium.”(3)

Ebon Fisher's Bionic Code at Galapagos Art Space with Fuji TV
Bionic Code, “Bypass Elitist Node,” projected on floor of Galapagos Art Space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and broadcast live by Fuji Television to Japan in 1997.

One of Ebon’s first social-ecological confluences was a Moon ritual he conducted in 1980 on writer Michael Chabon’s roof with Rebecca Bogart and another friend, artist Karen Ellzey. The ritual incorporated feathers gathered up from a cock fight and moonlight reflected in spherical bowls of water. Ebon soon moved from Michael’s roof into the streets of Pittsburgh, where he rendered diagrams of brain cells – complete with nuclei and branching dendrites – onto walls, bridges and abandoned trains. One of Ebon’s professors at Carnegie-Mellon University, Jim Denny, introduced him to another graffiti artist, Keith Haring, who was just then inventing his signature language of barking dogs and radiating babies. After a couple of beers at a Pittsburgh bar, a discussion ensued about the charms and truths of uninvited public art. Although the opportunity presented itself, Ebon did not follow Haring to the galleries of New York. Instead he decided to take his investigations into nerves and cultural ecology to Cambridge, MA, where he could be closer to the pioneering media work being conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After receiving a BFA from Carnegie-Mellon in 1982, Ebon moved to Cambridge, where he took the morning shift at a bakery. He soon signed up for an evening class in computer programming and began to use a large bulky computer to explore ways to create a brain stimulus system. Completed in 1984, Ebon’s program, Book.dat, was capable of producing an endless sequence of random patterns. A computer, given enough time, could print out virtually every combination of black-and-white expression in low resolution. It could also lull the human observer into a stupor – a feedback system between coder and code that fascinated the artist. This unusual effort at infinite expression opened the doors to graduate study at MIT.

Within a few months Ebon was invited to teach at MIT’s new Media Lab which was to open the following year. In the spring of 1985, he began teaching a course called “Creative Seeing,” which encouraged a radical rethinking of art, media and culture. He took his students to MIT’s anechoic chamber to experience complete sensory deprivation, and to the roof of the tallest building on campus to imagine being extraterrestrials watching human television for the first time. Meanwhile, Ebon took classes with artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, and one of the founders of cinema verité, Ricki Leacock. Environmental artist, Otto Piene, became his thesis advisor.

Ebon also began to familiarize himself with the structuralism of Noam Chomsky and in the world outside of MIT, he began to discover post-structural theory which was heating up in the local music scene under the tutelage of Boston College professor Stephen Pfohl. Inspired by a froth of punk-inflected critical theory, Ebon drifted away from his Austrian advisor’s fondness for opera and formulated a rock theater production as a thesis project. His production, Viscera, incorporated a live band and immersed a local scientific audience in a pulsing sequence of media which reflected back on them their own belief system: the Solar System evolving out of a dust cloud and our bodies emerging from single celled life forms. The goal was not to prove the theory of evolution, but to generate an intense sense of social ecstasy among a group of people disinclined to indulge in such rapture.

Soon after graduating with a Master of Science in Visual Studies from MIT, Ebon took a job as a computer imaging specialist for the Boston Eye Research Institute. On the weekends, he began to form a rock ensemble to further explore biological themes. Ebon wrote the music in collaboration with his band and sang the strange, biomorphic lyrics. The ensemble eventually adopted the name Nerve Circle and brought on five dancers. The group steadily honed its productions and dove into Boston rock clubs and theaters. Nerve Circle eventually wound its way into performances at Harvard University and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Towards the end of a two-year run, the Boston police shut down one of Nerve Circle’s high intensity, immersive loft events. Within a week Ebon’s landlord cancelled his lease, and Ebon decided it was time to move to New York.

On a cold December in 1988, Ebon moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and began to seek out freelance computer graphics work in Manhattan. Without his full troupe of performers, he decided to transform Nerve Circle into a new entity. Inspired by his mother’s Quaker activism in Philadelphia, he began to conceptualize Nerve Circle as indeed a circle of nerves. Nerve Circle would encompass information-sharing rituals, often in a circular form, or involving nerve-like branching networks. The goal was to explore information-sharing as a form of emergent social music. To this end Ebon invited a variety of collaborators and employed simple, accessible media devices that were appropriate to a struggling neighborhood like Williamsburg in the 1990s: video, television, radio, phones and even the simple device of shutting off the power in a room to create a media void. David Pescovitz, a writer for Wired Magazine and co-founder of BoingBoing.net, said of Ebon’s approach, “Long before Friendster, locative media, and emergent everything, Ebon Fisher saw the beauty in telecommunications technology as a conduit for cultural and social experimentation and connection. His art is a delightful reminder that communication is really about communality and that the most important nodes in the network are us.”

Nerve Circle’s productions in Williamsburg included an Eyeball Scanning Party in Ebon’s loft above a furniture factory; a Weird Thing Zone situated in a border area between several different ethnic neighborhoods; circular media-sharing gatherings called Media Compressions; and a massive Web Jam interweaving numerous autonomous systems created by 120 collaborators. This last production, titled Organism, drew 2000 guests to an abandoned mustard factory in the spring of 1993. The audience was the lifeblood of Organism, dancing and interacting in a labyrinth of systems from six at night until nine the next morning. The throbbing, sprawling hybrid creature was broadcast live over WFMU. Poetry was faxed in from underground art scenes around the country. On the success of Organism, Ebon was invited to introduce Larry Harvey and Maid Marion, two of the founders of the Burning Man Festival, at their first New York reception at CBGBs nightclub.

As Ben Map wrote cheekily in the Village Voice in January 1991, Nerve Circle’s unique social systems helped to foster “a network of media droids” in Williamsburg(4). Writing for the New York Press in 1991, Mark Rose noted that Ebon’s Weird Thing Zone played an important connecting role between cultures. Mark quoted Chris Lanier, director of El Centro Cultural de Williamsburg: “Something happened at that festival. A coalition was formed.”(5) Newsweek picked up on Ebon’s social algorithm, Web Jam(6), which was then picked up by Wired Magazine’s Jargon Watch column. In 1998 Suzan Wines wrote in Domus, “Organism became a kind of symbolic climax to the renegade activity that had been stirring within the community since the late eighties.”(7) Reflecting on Organism in 1997, Claudia Steinberg wrote in Die Zeit, “Events like these finally established Williamsburg as an artists’ colony.”(8)

Organism circle - Ebon Fisher - Yale Radio 2
Planning circle for Organism, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1993: Ebon Fisher is seated in black hat and to his left: Dávid Dienes, Vlasta Volcano, Vernon Bigman, Yvette Helin, Matty Jankowski, Pegi Vail, David Brody, Fred Valentine, Robert Elmes, Anna Hurwitz, Sarah Barker, Cliff Crepeau, Megan Raddant and Karen Cormier. Other organizers of Organism’s webs included Stavit Alweiss, Dan McKereghan, Melanie Roche, Myk Henry, Jessica Nissen, Jeff Gompertz, Colin Crane, Amy Shapiro and Kevin Pyle.

The creative community that came together during the early 1990s in Williamsburg, now referred to as the Immersionists, shared a common interest in cultural innovation and deep involvement in their local environment. These young artists, musicians and urbanists made immersion in their immediate world more critical than participation in a remote, and often disappointing “art world” across the river. Culture, art, entertainment and biological survival fused together in a highly spirited local ecosystem. Ebon’s Nerve Circle was one of a raft of pioneering Immersionist operations in Williamsburg that included the Bog, Epoché, the Lizard’s Tail, Keep Refrigerated, Lalalandia, Fake Shop, the Green Room, the Pedestrian Project, Mustard, IFAM, Galapagos Art Space, the Outdoor Museum, Open Window, Hit and Run, Four Walls, the Outpost, Arcadia, Alien Action, Sens Production, Rubulad and the innovative community school, El Puente. 

The largest productions of the early Immersionist scene included the Sex Salon of 1990, followed by two Cats Heads, Flytrap, Organism, Mustard and Lalalandia’s exquisite underground nightclub, El Sensorium, which was crafted almost entirely from materials recycled from local factories. Immersing themselves in a 24 hour matrix of parties, printed matter, urban agriculture, music and gender-fluid performances were artists like Gene Pool, DJ Olive, Doc Israel, Tony Millionaire, Medea De Vyse, Miss Kitty, Jennifer Miller, Jeff Gompertz, Anna Hurwitz, Myk Henry, Terry Dineen, Jean-Francois, Rube Fenwick, Yvette Helin, Gabriel Latessa Ortiz, Mariano Airaldi, Maria Alejandra Giudici, Ignacio Platas, Kurt Przybilla, Megan Raddant, Rob Hickman, Louisa Caldwell, Jessica Nissen, Fred Valentine, Lauren Szold, Dennis Del Zotto, Patty Butter, Stavit Allweis, Kit Blake, David Brody, Kate Yourke, David Henry Brown, Noemie La France, Ken Butler, Robert Elmes, Kevin Pyle and Genia Gould. Helping to build an Immersionist discourse, local media emerged such as The Nose, Worm, Waterfront Week and Nerve Circle’s phone-in rant line, 718-SUBWIRE. 

Ebon is currently assembling a book on the Williamsburg Immersionists with co-editor, Ilene Zori Magaras, a former archivist for the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim and the New York Historical Society. Writing in his Brooklyn gallery blog, Ethan Pettit wrote recently on the project:

Immersionism is the jewel in the crown of the 90s New York underground. It is the de facto subculture of that time and place and helped give rise to Brooklyn’s current creativity. It overlapped the art world, to be sure, but it also overlapped the tribes, the digerati, the body anarchists… a perfect storm was born. Ebon Fisher was among the dozen or so instigators of this extraordinary, inventive passage, and he is likely the movement’s most articulate theorist.”(9)

What the press and literature has often failed to acknowledge – and what Ebon and Zori’s research is establishing – is that Brooklyn’s reinvention was a lot deeper than the rote gentrification that is so often associated with urban art scenes. “Gentrification” is a misleading term that more often resigns to, rather than critiques, the real estate interests that cause rents to escalate. Wholesale multi-story and multi-unit housing development – often initiated by long-standing property owners – actually impedes creativity, grass-roots innovation and lasting community development. It is despite the intrusions of deep pockets and tax abatements – and clichés like “luxury” and “hipster” – that there is still a generous, innovative, and risk-taking culture in Brooklyn today. That culture has deep roots in Brooklyn’s industrial past, in the Jazz-informed music scene in Fort Greene, and in the Immersionist subculture that took root near Williamsburg’s Northern waterfront. 

Since his days as an instigator and cultural activist in Williamsburg, Ebon Fisher’s media projects involving biology and social networks have appeared in several art history books, among them Jonathan Fineberg’s Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being(10). Ebon’s Bionic Codes and Zoacodes have been exhibited throughout Britain by the Royal Scottish Academy, at PS1/MoMA, The Soros Center for Contemporary Art, and in a major survey of 20th century art at Le Centre International D’Art Contemporain de Montréal. Ebon has lectured around the world, including a TEDx talk in Vilnius and a keynote speech at an IEEE conference in Venice.

Ebon has also taught media, art and theory at numerous colleges and universities including MIT, the Massachusetts College of Art and the New School for Social Research in New York. At the University of Iowa he created a new media arts program called Digital Worlds, and he was honored as The Marjorie Rankin Scholar-in-Residence at Drexel University. Ebon is currently the director of an experimental media studio, Nervous Media. 

Ebon’s website: NervousMedia.net

Footnotes

1. Matt Haber, “Mr. Meme” Wired Magazine (August, 1993) 2. “New York Cyber Sixty” New York Magazine (November 13, 1995) p. 48 3. David Pescovitz, “Visionaries of the New Millennium” Java Magazine (January 1997) 4. Ben Map, “Cheap Thrills,” The Village Voice (January 30, 1991) 5. Mark Rose, “Brooklyn Unbound,” New York Press (March 6-12, 1991) p. 10 6. Melissa Rossi, “Where Do We Go After the Rave?” Newsweek (July 26) p. 58 7. Suzan Wines, “Go with the Flow: Eight New York Based Artists and Architects in the Digital Era,” Domus (February 1998) p. 84 8. Claudia Steinberg, “Vis-à-vis Manhattan,” Die Zeit (September 19, 1997) p. 77 9. EthanPettitGallery.com blog, May 15, 2016. 10. Jonathan Fineberg, “Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being” (Prentice Hall, 1995 and 2000)