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Tech Meets Art

Gracey Wilson, class of 2020, laughs when she remembers thinking that zines were pronounced “zynes” (as opposed to “zeens”)—that is, if she gave them much thought at all, having never seen one. But that all changed during last semester’s Creative Approaches to Emerging Technology course, taught by Brooklyn-based new media artist, programmer and researcher Mimi Onuoha. Wilson became intrigued by the mini-magazine-like medium, which has been around since the 1930s, and created a hand-drawn zine about how we define “intelligence” in AI as her final project in the course.

Turns out, she’s not the only Oliner motivated to explore zines—which are most often small-circulation, radically DIY, self-published hand-made works that skew non-mainstream—as a means of examining aspects of technology and digital culture.

Part of the appeal of zines lies in the seeming disconnect between the intangibility of software and technology and the immediacy of the low-tech art form. “As someone who makes a lot of websites, there’s something different about a hand-made physical book that makes you really pay attention to what’s inside,” says Sam Daitzman, class of 2022. “It’s a medium where you can put whatever ideas you have into it, and when someone picks it up, there’s not much mediation between those ideas and the experience they have with the physical thing.”

Wilson and Daitzman joined 10 other Oliners at the first New York Tech Zine Fair in December, at the School for Poetic Computation in New York City. Onuoha co- organized the first-of-its kind fair with Taeyoon Choi and Ritu Ghiya, having envisioned it as an opportunity to gather a community of computer comic artists, grassroots activists, collectives, independent publishers and academic institutions—essentially, anyone interested in visualizing a better future through technology or DIY projects.

For Onuoha, who is Olin’s first creative in residence, the fair was a natural fit. She’s been working at the intersection of art and technology for a long time, and her work deals with the tensions at the heart of the Information Age. When working on her own tech zine, she was inspired to see how many others were making tech zines. She was even more excited about the diversity in the creators’ backgrounds.

“It’s not the people you think of when you consider the mainstream image of technology—white, straight men,” she says. “They are women, people of color, queer people, and from all over the country.” She thought, wouldn’t it be great to get together and create an inclusive platform for everyone working in this space? Thus, the tech zine fair was born.

The students attended the fair in a very Olin-y—and fittingly—DIY way. There had been only three slots for students to accompany Onuoha to New York to distribute zines by artists who couldn’t be there themselves. “There were a lot of us who were very, very excited to go, and who also wanted to distribute our own zines,” says Daitzman. Recognizing the issue, a group of them created an email chain and spreadsheet, and brought Onuoha a proposal: They could carpool and sleep on floors at two students’ relatives’ houses, and use the allocated funding for food. She agreed, and they all went.

The fair exceeded all expectations. About 1,000 people came through in a space designed for 200, and a line snaked down the block as people waited in the cold to get in to see the works created by more than 40 in-person vendors. It drew the diverse crowd Onuoha had hoped for: people who’d been engineers for 30 years, visual artists who wanted to learn about tech and dedicated zine artists from all kinds of backgrounds. Olin students ran out of copies of their zines about 1/3 of the way through the event.

Daitzman appreciated the opportunity to engage with people about their works dealing with subjects like the coding languages they wrote, issues of accessibility and surveillance, online misogyny and accountability. “As an engineer, it’s really important to think about how technology is used and its effects on people,” she says. And Daitzman, for one, is hooked on how zines let engineers communicate about human and societal ideas. She’s currently starting a zine collective at Olin and plans to apply for a fellowship to purchase additional supplies for all studentsto use to create zines.

The experience has helped Wilson see aspects of the tech community she hadn’t before. “Mimi has brought really cool projects and a unique mindset to Olin,” she says. “It’s encouraged me to think outside the traditional engineering sphere. I’ve always liked music and art and I didn’t think abouthow to use engineering to pursue artistic passions and consider jobs I hadn’t considered before.”


More on Mimi Onuoha

As the part of Mellon Grant-funded creative in residence position, Onuoha teaches at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she earned her Master of Professional Studies. She has been in residence at a variety of venues including Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, Studio XX, the Data & Society Research Institute, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and the Royal College of Art.

During the second half of her Olin residency, Onuoha is teaching an independent study coursecalled Impossible Maps. A small group of students will partner with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and a number of community youth organizations to create pieces that consider the intersection of art, data and space in new ways. Students will make maps (or map-based creations) that function as artful objects.