Technology and art: Engineering the future

Oringially published on the BBC.

Think art. What comes to mind? Maybe Picasso, Rodin, Dali.

Now think technology – and you’ll probably imagine a smartphone or a computer.

Throughout history, technology has provided artists with new tools for expression.

Today, these two seemingly distinct disciplines are interlinked more than ever, with technology being a fundamental force in the development and evolution of art.

All over the world, people are engineering our future. The internet, digital fabrication, nanotech, biotech, self-modification, augmented reality, virtual reality, “the singularity” – you name it, all of this is altering our lives and our view of the world and ourselves.

Scientists, software developers, inventors, entrepreneurs – but also musicians, visual artists, film-makers and designers – are busy creating new human experiences.

Thanks to them, not only is original art being made everywhere, but entirely new art forms are evolving as well.

More and more artists are pushing the boundaries of art, looking outside of what’s perceived as “traditional” to incorporate other aspects into their work.

Art is becoming less and less static, taking up many new different shapes, from printing digitally created sculptures in 3D to flash-mobs to photographers lining up hundreds of naked volunteers on the beach.

Power of the web

And the rules of the game are changing, too.

Since the beginning of the postmodern art era, roughly from the 1860s, the most influential players – renowned artists, museum curators, art critics, art fair promoters and, especially, powerful gallery owners – have been dictating the behaviour of the whole art world.

But modern ways in which art is created, produced, distributed, marketed, preserved and supported have shifted as a direct reaction of the world’s transition to a socially connected, digital society – to the age of the internet.

Traditionally, artists have been going to a gallery with their portfolio, and the gallery decides whether the work is good enough to expose.

Now, they turn to the web – to exhibit their work and to sell it, too.

With new services such as crowdfunding, for the first time artists are able to raise money online to pursue their ideas.

In 2011 alone, crowdfunding website Kickstarter raised almost $100m in pledges with more than 27,000 art-related projects.

Artists use social media as a powerful tool to change the relationship between collectors and the public, effectively spotting people looking for specific artworks.

Possibly, the traditional art market – collectors, gallery owners, critics, curators and even other artists – may question whether the artist who uses the web for promotion is a true professional.

But whatever the reaction may be, the change is already happening, and it is too important. The art market will grow on it and get used to it – it always does.

True art?

Throughout history and up until very recently, mostly the elite participated in the development and creation of art, while the rest of the society was left to enjoy viewing masterpieces.

The public was merely a passive observer.

Today, in our connected world, almost everyone creates. Almost everyone participates.

With the internet and new technologies of fabrication, remixing, editing, manipulating and distributing, it is becoming easier to create things – and share them with the world.

What is changing and probably – arguably – for the worse is that it is now easier to create “art”, and we see a lot of “bad” art being created and exposed.

A huge concern is that, as a result of so many new tools and techniques, we may lose our sense and ability to evaluate what is great art.

In art, what becomes popular is not necessarily great, and vice-versa. Many new art ideas and artworks were hard to digest when they first came out.

I do see a challenge for artists to be simultaneously more open to new technologies that lead to novel forms of expression, and also staying truly creative and imaginative.

But still, the boundaries are limitless. And as technology, and especially computer technology, continues to progress, there will always be those who will experiment, pushing the envelope of what has been done before – and who will excel at it.

Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, once said: “I don’t think we can predict nor prescribe the future of art. It is the famous ‘etonnez-moi’ [astonish me] of Diaghilev and Cocteau’- great art always surprises us, takes us where we expect it least.”

Bold directions

So what do artists focused on creating new art by using technology really need to think about?

One graphic software developer, Rama Hoetzlein, says that “new media” artists of today have to think not merely about the tools of the present, but also to engage in a dialogue with the artists of the past, who both haunt us and challenge us to rise above the mundane.

I believe that any modern artist needs to remember about pushing the art forward, inventing, defining new paradigms of expression with powerful meanings.

It is about the experience the artist delivers to the public – whether it is provocative, whether it changes how the viewer thinks, feels and views the world.

This is what really counts, and it has nothing to do with the techniques that the artist chooses to use.

So the goal of a contemporary artist who is choosing to create art with new technologies should not be to “extract” meaning from the technological platform, but to use it as a base for new bold directions.

And in my opinion, it is the art that pushes the limits and defines new meanings that will change how we think and feel – today and in the future.

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