NEW YORK--"We skipped the paparazzi," Eyebeam director Amanda McDonald Crowley said as she welcomed several hundred people to the digital art center's annual benefit on Tuesday night. "We've got a photo-taking duck."
That requires a little bit of context.
On display at Eyebeam's "Freedom and Creativity"-themed benefit, held at the organization's headquarters in the post-industrial West Chelsea neighborhood, were a number of commissioned artists' and fellows' projects. One of them was Taeyoon Choi's "Camerautomata," literally a robotic duck that skittered about the floor, Roomba-like, taking photos with a camera embedded in its head and then printing them.
But that was just the start of it. This year's Eyebeam benefit featured a surprise live performance by the Walkmen, an MC gig by Comedy Central's John Mulaney, a DJ set by the downtown trio known as the MisShapes, and an auction of bizarre items that had all been found on Craigslist.
That's because the guest of honor was Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, selected for his company's values and community ethos. The newspaper industry, with advertising revenues hurt badly by online classifieds like Craigslist, might beg to differ, but the free-spirited Newmark is inarguably a geek hero.
"Pick almost any project coming out of Eyebeam and you'll see an attempt at humanizing the technology that so much of the world is rushing to cash in on," Eyebeam founder John Johnson said as he introduced Newmark.
He hailed the Craigslist founder as the embodiment of that goal. "(Craigslist is) a community service that does something simple very, very well. It connects people to people and the things they're looking for," Johnson explained. "It has fostered a community that is both local and international, and has helped to provide millions of stories that illustrate that people at heart, when given the chance, are basically good, helpful, and trustworthy."
Accepting the dedication, Newmark insisted on staying humble. "Craigslist is a platform where people give each other a break, and you know, that ain't bad. And I'm honored by this and I feel pretty flattered, but the reality is that before I came over here, I was doing customer service at the hotel, and in the near term I think there's about 30 to 45 minutes of it remaining when I get there. And that's what we focus on."
At the reception prior to the benefit dinner, Newmark--sporting a Barack Obama campaign button--had been checking Twitter updates about the North Carolina and Indiana on his iPhone.
To support Eyebeam's mission while continuing to keep Newmark the center of the evening, the evening also featured an auction of several oddball packages that consisted exclusively of items mined from Craigslist. A "political package" featuring a talking Bill Clinton doll and a Palm Beach County voting machine from the 2000 election (among other things) sold for $750; a "wacky technology package" that included an antique typewriter, an '80s-era computer, and some hand massagers sold for $1,050; and an assortment of art including a Marilyn Monroe piece by Andy Warhol, a DC Comics cell featuring the supervillain Brainiac, and a vintage T-shirt featuring art by downtown New York icon Keith Haring sold for $5,300.
Comedian John Mulaney, who was explaining each of the auction items, gave some background on Brainiac, a high-tech villain whom Superman started battling in the 1950s, and then said, "If you know what I just said and understand it, you did not go to prom."
Judging by the appearance of the attendees, the only Eyebeam benefit-goers who didn't go to their high school proms were the ones who considered themselves too cool to show up. The mix of designer dresses and skinny hipster jeans was, for the most part, too chic to be geek-chic. The tech community was represented strictly by a few well-connected luminaries like Gawker Media founder Nick Denton and Personal Democracy Forum czar Andrew Rasiej.
The event was also, apparently, highbrow enough for benefit-bouncing socialite Kristian Laliberte to make an appearance: he waltzed into Eyebeam's headquarters carrying a gift bag emblazoned with the logo of luxury lingerie brand Agent Provocateur, proudly declaring that it was his second party of the evening already. I regrettably didn't ask Laliberte, who according to gossip columns will be the star of a reality show about New York's posh Upper East Side called The 10021, if he has any clue who Craig Newmark is.
The presence of Taeyoon Choi's omnipresent paparazzi duck, however, kept the quirk factor high, as did a comic monologue from Mulaney, who referred briefly to Craigslist ("I love Craigslist! It has so many different faces! If you're not comfortable talking to drag queens in real life, you can do it there!") but preferred to stick to non-tech topics for the most part.
"Pirates never have a big enough chest," he mused when discussing buried treasures. "In movies, the chests are always overflowing. Why is that? I think with the eye-patches, they have poor depth perception."