Convergence: Art, Technology, Process and Tool

The following was written as part of a series of posts for the Canada Council Blog from guest bloggers at Convergence: an International Summit on Art and Technology, at The Banff Centre, from November 27–29, 2014.

Watching and Dreaming (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Watching and Dreaming (2001: A Space Odyssey), 2014

When I moved to Toronto in 1999, I had little concept that art and contemporary technology (in particular computing) could be combined. One my foundational experiences was Subtle Technologies, a festival and symposium linking art and science practises. It was there I met Camille Turner and Jim Ruxton who suggested I visit InterAccess, where I discovered the world of art exploiting computation, robotics and interactivity. I consider my own practise under the trajectory of works by artists in the Toronto community, such as Normal White and David Rokeby. The art-science-technology community in Toronto set the basis of my artistic and academic career, which currently involves working at the intersection of generative art, brain science and artificial intelligence.

Convergence focuses on the myriad of intersections between art and technology across multiple disciplines. What is technology? It is tempting to think of technology under our contemporary lens; touch-screens, portable devices, biotechnology and robotics may first come to mind. I define technology as any arrangement of material or energy that functions to extend the abilities of the agent employing it, i.e. technologies are tools. Under this conception, some of the earliest technologies are found objects such as sticks and stones, as well as language, fire, drawing, etcetera. By virtue of the focus on creating artworks, art productions depend on technologies, including charcoal, canvases, paint and brushes. Artists have always employed whatever tools are available in the service of their artistic visions. While some artists may be content to employ existing tools, others may seek to break free of their dominance. These artists emphasize the unstable aspects of tools: subverting dominant processes by misusing them, or by creating new tools (albeit from necessarily existing tools). As described in this post, a high degree of craft and skill can only be obtained over a period of intense practise supported by tools that are stable over time. If an artist is constantly creating their own tools, they are unlikely to arrive at a high degree of craft.

If the use of contemporary technology in art production is the norm, then why is technologically oriented art, after some 50 years, still underrepresented in contemporary art? Video is fairly well accepted, while many technologically oriented artworks remain under recognized. This is despite the fact that early video, and other uses of electronics, all originated in an artistic context around the 1960s, e.g. Experiments in Art and Technology. Video art has been accepted in the broader contemporary art world partially because its stability and industrial dependence make it collectable and maintainable. An institution can be confident that a video artwork can be maintained over the years with appropriate care and is thus a worth-while investment. Artists making their own tools, or subverting existing tools, may not be able to depend on this same industrial support. Artworks pushing the edge of contemporary technology are not easily maintained. Rather than a somewhat straight-forward process of video transfer, these artworks may need to be entirely reconstructed in order to maintain them. Institutions are put in the awkward position of maintaining obsolete technologies. When that fails, they must decide how to reconstruct a work in order to preserve its unity.

Despite the cultural contribution of conceptual art, institutions still emphasize their associated objects. An off-the-shelf ladder becomes highly valuable as a component of Ceiling Painting, by Yoko Ono, where its artistic function (to be climbed by the viewer) is lost in order to preserve the art object. Perhaps the acceptance of technologically oriented art in the contemporary art world is doomed to failure as long as institutions continue to fetishize the art objects themselves. Consider an alternative model where processes of production are supported, rather than objects themselves. When an institution purchases a work, they could enter into a contract with the artist to continue to maintain and remake the work as technology changes, preserving the work’s unity and supporting the artist.

I look forward to engaging on these topics with artists from multiple disciplines at Convergence.

Original Post on the Canada Council Blog.