Simple, Effective, & Unintended: The Hack According to Evan Roth by Sewon Kang

One Saturday in February, ten other students and I spent the day with a self-described “Bad Ass Motherfucker”: Evan Roth, the brilliant young artist behind Evan Roth//Intellectual Property Donor. As a part of the exhibition, Evan led a daylong workshop that provided a glimpse into the mind of an artist who sees the world as a place full of opportunities to fuck shit up for the better. 

The day began with a crash course on the ideas and artists that inspire Evan and his work. Given that we were choosing to spend our weekend at a workshop, it seemed appropriate that he started off by saying that having fun is an essential motivating factor in life. Doing fun things that aren’t required of us by school or work is what drives much creative activity, especially on the Internet. During the workshop, we considered the Internet for its potential to communicate and share ideas and Evan showed us the work of artists who see the Internet as an artistic medium, as well as a vehicle for humor, interaction, and activism. The openness of the Internet and the availability of its content provide a perfect breeding ground for hacks, the kind of artistic interventions that Evan realizes both physically and virtually.

A hack, Evan explained, is a playful and clever misuse of systems, a system being a form of existing infrastructure that hackers identify and subvert. In the hands of a hacker, a system gains new purpose that has little to do with the system’s original intended use. For instance, any city with a public transit system has most likely been hacked by graffiti artists. A transit system is intended to carry users from point A to point B but, in the hands of a graffiti artist, the system becomes a billboard that moves through the city, ready-made to display work. Such opportunities exist all around us, and are often hidden in plain sight. Hacking is thus a form of creative disrespect that empowers anyone with the ingenuity and guts to change the way we experience the world.

One of my favorite Evan Roth hacks is a simple public intervention called “How To Keep Motherfuckers From Putting Their Seats Back.” We’ve all been there: you’re sitting in the economy section of an airplane, wondering how the person in front of you has the nerve to put his seat back when there’s so little legroom to begin with. Instead of getting mad (or maybe as a result of getting mad), Evan uses a simple zip tie to tether two seats together and prevent the passenger sitting in front of him from being able to lean back and cramp his space. What’s key to this hack is the fact that Evan was able to document the whole thing and make sure that this little lifesaver could be shared and used by anyone who has access to the Internet.

Hacks are simple, effective actions that can make all the difference, whether you’re on a flight for seven hours or are trying to bring about social change.  And the best part is, we can all perform a hack if we start to notice the opportunities that are all around us — but keep in mind that a hack’s potential to create change is often contingent on its documentation.  If a message is to be shared or if information is to be communicated, you have to demonstrate how you made that change.  And with the interconnectivity granted to all of us by the Internet, those changes have the potential to be spread far and wide to other people willing to make changes too. 

Toward the end of the workshop, Evan had us hunt for systems on campus and in the streets of Middletown to get us thinking about potential hacks in our own lives.  Now that we had an idea of how hackers see opportunities, we were encouraged to look for simple and quick interventions that could be staged in just a couple of hours. We looked at infrastructure such as campus signage and municipal fire hydrants and  brainstormed ways to use these systems for new, unintended purposes. Then we broke up into teams and staged some interventions of our own, documenting the results so that we could share them with the rest of the group. Although none of these hacks is going to change the world, we had a lot of fun staging them. More importantly, we were made to see that we can change anything with a little creative disrespect.

This fast and fun creative exercise got me thinking about how this approach could be used on campus for more goal-oriented actions. How can activists use systems that are already ingrained in campus culture to their benefit? What’s hiding in plain sight that can be used to wake someone up and send a jolt through her system? What playful hacks can be staged to encourage people to change Wesleyan for the better? These are the kinds of questions that pop into my head now as I walk down College Row or through Usdan, thanks to Evan. There are systems all around us; all we have to do is notice and hack.