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Art hooks up with tech: A marriage made in…? (Includes first-hand account)

Kaganskiy, director of New Inc., the museum’s incubator, recently moderated a panel of artists at the annual Northside Festival to talk about how technology can be appropriated to make innovative art. The setting couldn’t be more appropriate; Northside — now in its eighth year — takes place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a borough where there are probably more artists, writers and musicians per square mile than anywhere else in America.

While many artists are eager to exploit the potential of technology in their work they’re also aware of the perils that technology can pose. Kaganskiy cites the example of a German artists’ collective that produces ‘Stealth Wear’ wearables designed to deflect or elude secret surveillance: an anti-drone hijab, for example, or something called CV Dazzle, intended as “camouflage from face detection.” The collective’s web site describes their objective as “an exploration of the aesthetics of privacy and the potential for fashion to challenge authoritarian surveillance technologies,” but obviously, the artists delight in provoking people and — who knows? — maybe making them think.

Wedding art and tech isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. It’s just that until recently, technology hadn’t permeated society the way it does now; people didn’t walk around with a microcomputer in their pockets — and the cost of equipment was generally prohibitive. But even now, some obstacles remain: artists still need to collaborate with engineers and software designers who wouldn’t know a Van Gough from a Matisse. That means that both the artists and tech people have to learn to speak each other’s language. It wasn’t always apparent that they could. But that was before E.A.T.

In 1967, several established artists and dancers including Robert Rauschenbeg, Robert Whitman, Lucinda Childs, and composer John Cage teamed up with engineers Billy Kluver and Fred Waldhauer to present nine successive evenings of collaborative performances at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. The event offered convincing evidence that artists and engineers could work together successfully. But would audiences respond favorably? Reviews were mixed, but about 10,000 people turned up to see what the fuss was all about.

The Armory event’s success spurred an interest in putting together more collaborative experiments — which led to the formation of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) a few months later. Kluver, who worked for Bell Labs (the research arm of AT&T), was one of its founders. It was like for artists and engineers. Artists were invited to submit ideas for projects for which the organization would then find qualified engineers. The interdisciplinary initiative attracted celebrated artists like Andy Warhol and Jean Tinguely and choreographer Merce Cunningham. For one of these collaborations, Bell Lab engineers were asked to design a machine for a performance that would self-destruct in front of audiences. It was a challenge they’d never faced before, much less ever considered. But it forced them to “get out of the groove,” as panelist Susanne Arney put it.

Arney is director of microsystems and nanotechnology at Bell Labs (now owned by Nokia). It isn’t a matter of just making people think outside the box; she wants them to think about what’s impossible and then try to do it.

Bell Labs may be under new ownership but it’s still hooking up artists with engineers. One of its more innovative initiatives — in combination with the Stevens Institute of Technology — is the Human Digital Orchestra described as “an ensemble where movement of humans in digital space creates a multimedia sensory artist experience.” The orchestra was given a chance to show off its magic in May at the Propeller Festival in Hoboken, NJ when it was accompanied by British vocalist Beatie Wood. (With its mix of tech and entertainment, Propeller was promoted as the East Coast’s answer to the annual South by Southwest Festival in Austin.) The orchestra created what Arney calls “a digital tapestry” — basically, an interactive, immersive environment where input from sensors recording motions of the audience actually modifies the performance. “At Bell Labs we’re urged to try something hard,” Arey says. She admits that there’s a strong likelihood that people will fail. “But you keep working and you keep failing” — until you don’t.

Sound — and how it can be manipulated — is something that also fascinates Alison Wood, an artist who describes her mission as “telling stories about objects – a new dimension of stories.” She’s a founder of Reify, a group of designers and engineers in New York who create ‘cross-sensory experiences.’ “You have to figure out what the goal is, what the experience is that you’re aiming for,” she says, describing her creative process, “and then try to figure out the medium and how you’re going to do it.”

One especially intriguing Reify project plays on the idea of what Wood calls ‘digital synesthesia,” which she describes as “pulling sounds out of objects.” To do this, she and her colleagues employ a combination of 3D printers and augmented reality. The 3D-generated objects — called totems — are made from a variety of materials including plastic, bronze and even a coconut husk. These printed objects are then encoded so that once played back on a mobile phone or another device, generate surprising sonic and visual effects. This means that you can actually hold, hear and see your sound sculpture. “We’re always thinking about making something faster or more efficient,” she says, but she would rather focus on “things that make me think and that can empower people who aren’t familiar with technology so that they can use these new tools.”

It’s one thing for artists to collaborate with engineers. Engineers are still human even if they have a different way of doing things. But Sougwen Chung has gone one step further and collaborated with a robot named D.O.U.G. (which stands for Drawing Operations). As an artist-in-residence at MIT’s Media Lab, Chung worked in tandem with D.O.U.G. on a drawing. The robot was programmed to mimic the movements of her hand so that it could copy her lines. It was a process, she says, that required her to slow down, pay attention and “communicate entirely through gesture.” She says that she’s attracted to “what makes me uncomfortable” — things that are difficult or seemingly inaccessible or, like D.O.U.G., not exactly alive — so that she can make them “more expressive and communicative.”

For his part, Drew Seskunas is more interested about repurposing existing industrial tools rather than being seduced by the latest gadget or technology. The founder of an experimental Brooklyn design studio called The Principals, Seskunas says that he’s always “looking for ‘wrinkles that we can exploit’ in these tools, putting them to work in ways they were never intended for. He and his partners try to produce objects and installations that look and feel more “crafted” than machine-made.

“I’m interested in art that elucidates or demystifies something.” With a Masters of Architecture from Pratt, the artist prefers to work on projects that people can “play with,” while combining disciplines that don’t seem to fit like sound and architecture – something fluid and something hard. His art also gives him the means to explore questions that don’t lend themselves to facile answers — like what is art and what is space? The answers often defy convention and acceptance by the public is hardly guaranteed. “The biggest problem with interactive design is that people refuse to accept that it has any impact on architecture, critically. People don’t take it seriously,” he said in an interview with the online magazine Cool Hunting, “It needs about 20 years of gestation before people will consider it as serious.”

Form doesn’t always follow function (although it sometimes follows finance, as one wag put it.) For artists, the form of the creation more often follows from an idea — a spark of inspiration. “You have to get up in the clouds to see the possibilities,” says Arney, “and then you come back down to earth for the tools, resources and partners you need to realize it.”

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