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What lies behind the relationship between art and technology?

Alejandra Rodriguez


September 19th, 2018

Technology and art have been crucial aspects for the evolution of humankind. But how do we define them and how are they related to one another? Art is the expression of emotions, thoughts and desires usually depicted through visual forms such as sculpture or painting. These art forms are appreciated for their beauty, their power of evoking or their capacity to question an idea or a fact. Technology is the application of methods and knowledge for practical purposes.

Over the years, the advancements in technology have made it possible for artists to explore different ways to express themselves and to provide meaningful and interesting experiences to audiences. This means that the evolution of technology is reflected in artistic practices. In fact, in ancient Greece, the word “techne” could be translated as “art” and it referred to the method and knowledge by which a task is achieved or a material product is created. The words “technique” and “technology” are related in origin to “techne”. Also the greek word “poiesis” is the activity of creation; the act of bringing to being something that didn’t exist before, which requires a method and the application of knowledge.

This means that “techne” and “poiesis” can be applied to both, the activity of art and technology, as they intend to create pieces or products that are aesthetically valuable or that solve a specific problem by means of using knowledge.

Information arts: an interdisciplinary approach

We just explored one way in which art and tech can be related. However, I would like to examine another approach, perhaps less traditional, in which the practices and way of thinking of artists become part of the activities and research of computer technology.

According to the book “Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity”, information arts is a non traditional approach that intends to explore how computer engineering research is done from an artistic perspective and according to artistic methods. Usually, when people execute scientific research, they pose questions related to technical aspects, such as how they can deliver a product or finish a task faster, more easily, or with more effectiveness. The artistic perspective, on the other hand, focuses on what is the social and cultural meaning of specific practices and how they are conceived. This is important for the technology and computer engineering world, because the artistic approach can penetrate into their practices and question them from their roots, opening a new path to rethink and innovate. For the computer scientist, Alvy Ray Smith, artists are “explorers at the edge of culture”.

According to this perspective, the relationship between technology and art is not linear (in which the first one serves as a tool for the second one) but rather, they interact in a transdisciplinary relationship. Generally, when relationships between disciplines are established, people use a multidisciplinary approach, which consists of the intersection of certain aspects: each discipline shares elements or practices that are compatible or useful for other disciplines. However, in this approach, the fundamental structure of disciplines doesn’t change. Multidisciplinary practices can be represented with the well known schema of circles that overlap.

Transdisciplinarity, on the other hand, aims to fully open disciplines to changes in their fundamental structure and practices based on the interaction with other domains. Similar to the multidisciplinary approach, the scheme to represent the concept of interdisciplinarity would be permeable circles that share the same frame. Thus, disciplines are able to expand their practices beyond the usual context of application and will have an “anticipatory vision” of what can be accomplished in the future as a result of the interaction and implication with other fields. “In transdisciplinary research, the point is not just application of given methodologies but also implication—a result of imagining entirely new possibilities for what disciplines can do.”

Coding the art

Artists and computer scientists are learning and exploring the possibilities of applying “art thinking” and “engineering thinking” to their processes. Although there is a wide discussion about whether coding is an artform in itself, many people argue that computer codes and algorithms can be understood as a creative and artistic practice. Let’s examine how the worlds of coding and art interact.

In 2013, the Smithsonian Design Museum began acquiring “art code” for its permanent collection. In collaboration with Ruse Laboratoires, they created the first algorithm auction that was carried out in 2015. The art sales included important people from the art world and it was the first algorithm auction to celebrate computer arts. Artists that work with computer arts are called “interactive artists” and we can differentiate them into two groups according to their approach:

  • The first group is interested in representing coding itself. For instance, the printout of “Turtle geometry” a system created in 1069, that demonstrates how the effective use of computers can change the way students interact and understand mathematics. The system was created by the MIT professor Hal Abelson who was an activist for internet freedom . “Turtle geometry” was very influential on the world of technology education and it was presented in the auction as a commemorative print out of one of the earliest versions signed by Abelson.
  • The second group of interactive artists aim to create artwork where code is not directly represented, but where the spectator can see its power to build pieces that are practical or have an aesthetic value. For example, DEVart is a platform where programers push the limits of art and technology to create wonderful art installations. The platform gathered three of the best interactive artists of the world to create a unique art piece using code for the exhibition Digital revolution which explores and celebrates the influence of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and other technologies on how art is executed and understood.

Also, the “var t;” initiative combines art and code to encourage people to learn how to code by means of famous artworks. The founder of this initiative, Jenn Schiffer, a web developer and artist, believes in learning from both art and technology by recreating famous paintings with JavaScript. She created a website with a very familiar tone where she talks about her processes and how her personal experience can relate with the life of the artists whose artwork she is interested in. The website is divided into sections, each one of them dedicated to examine the motivations and objectives of artists as well as to narrate and illustrate her process of recreating these art pieces with JavaScript.

Is technology allowing everyone to become an artist? The “democratization” of art

A new form of art has emerged and access to art has also changed. Nowadays, it is not necessary to go to a gallery or museum to look at a piece of art; now you can have it in your mobile. In fact, today many artforms need technology to be completed: augmented and virtual reality, audio tours, touch-screens, and the Internet are becoming crucial for audiences to enjoy art.

However, this relationship is not as recent as it seems. Artists started to use the Internet as their main platform in the second half of the 1900s with the establishment of the World Wide Web, which enabled people to find new tools for creation, investigation and interaction. One of the pioneers of this new form of art, called Net.art, was the artist Vuk Cosic, who created software to convert pixels from famous moving and still images into ASCII code (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). Cosic has explained that Net.art is a subversive movement that aims to question the limits of what can be done with art, how people understand it, and what are the mediums by which it is created and experienced. Some artists who belong to the Net.art movement have explored the aesthetic concept of codes and “glitches” and how errors can become an artistic tool. For instance, the group JODI works by deconstructing web pages, questioning and challenging the user to interact with different patterns on the web. This artistic purpose is a way to explore the limits of traditional interfaces and user experiences.

Also, the Net.art movement posed the question of availability, authenticity and copyright, which is a subject that is still widely discussed. Many Net.art artists have created their pieces by means of hacking, copying and appropriation, taking advantage of the endless possibilities that the Internet brought with it.

Nowadays the internet continues to make information available and we face an era of immediacy and connectivity, which is changing the way users have access to content and images. This is a subject that we discuss in our article “The most important UX trends for 2018”.

With the emergence of tools like virtual reality and the power of social media, people are no longer spectators. They have become the protagonists of their own experiences and the creators of their own content. This strongly influences how art is conceived, created and “consumed”. Nowadays, there are a variety of tools for creating, manipulating and distributing images. For instance, thanks to smartphones that are equipped with high resolution cameras, the aesthetic sense of photographies is no longer reserved for artists. People who own smartphones are potential artists because they have access to a variety of technical tools. These new technical possibilities combined with the power of social media are bringing new possibilities of aesthetic creation.

How art is changing the way to attract the attention of customers

Companies realize the power of the interchange of knowledge and practices between art and tech. Organizations are creating attractive and amusing experiences to launch their products and encourage people to engage with their brand.

For instance, YesYesNo is a collective that creates interactive projects that aim to provide fun and interesting customer experiences by exploring the scope of technology. They create art installations that combine an artistic and aesthetic approach with research and development. They worked together with Nike for the launch of Nike Free Run+2 City Pack series, in a workshop called “Paint with your feet”, developing software that allows runners to create a painting with the movement of their feet. During two days of workshop, people were invited to record their movement to create a customized image based on the style, speed and consistency of their run. At the end of the workshop people recieved a high resolution print of their images as well as a personalized shoe box with their names, the distance they ran, and their path on the box surface.

The YesYesNo collective has also worked with the advertising platform of Google Art, Copy and Code which aims to create new ways to conceive and develop advertising and brands as well seeking to offer unique experiences to users. The final outcome of this initiative is the combination of the work of copywriters, artists and technology, with code at the center of their processes. Art, Copy and Code along with the YesYesNo collective developed the “Talking shoe” which is a shoe capable of making commentaries based on its movement and activity, thanks to the incorporation of sensors, speakers, and bluetooth. The shoe is connected to the Internet, and each movement is captured through a gyroscope. This data can be uploaded to an application to be translated in real time to motivational and fun commentaries. This project clearly shows the efforts of the technology industry to connect the physical and the digital world using creativity.

Finally, art and technology can be related in a variety of ways, from using coding to make wonderful art pieces, encouraging people to learn and explore computer engineering, to adopting the way of thinking of artists to reshape traditional technology practices. When the evoking power of art is combined with the practical solutions of technology, innovative and meaningful products and experiences are created, and the spheres where tech and art take place expand and evolve. Art and technology are migrating to non-traditional practices and both artists and the technology industry can take advantage of these new possibilities.

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