On Edgelands, art and technology

I gave a short talk at Edgelands yesterday, convened by the wonderful pairing of  Hannah Nicklin and Andy Field and described as ‘A conference from the borders of performance, about the state of the world’, and a part of Forest Fringe at the Edinburgh Festivals.

There was a group discussion afterwards during which it seemed like technology was too quotidian to be inspiring: that some of the people in the room couldn’t, or didn’t want to, regard a set of networks that enable Internet banking and people liking things on Facebook as anything more than mundane. That it was too connected to the stuff of life to be able to offer up the transcendent possibilities of art. My notes on that part start about halfway down (I can’t remember how to do anchors – do people even do anchors anymore?) and you might just want to skip to that. It was an interesting and perhaps even troubling conversation, and I’m writing about it here in the hope of extending that conversation further.

During the day, we addressed four questions – covering capitalism, audience, the importance of the arts and ‘What is digital innovation in the arts and why is it important?’ My provocation addressed this last question, along with  Matthew Somerville - who talked about the wonder of  Geocities and the importance of living archives – and Matt Adams from Blast Theory, who stressed the importance of risk taking and collaborative practice as a means to creating innovative work. Tom Armitage also wrote a nice piece about creating work with the affordances of technology in mind., that I think will be online soon.

This is the text of my talk:

Walter Benjamin commented in ‘Some Remarks on Folk Art’ that, ‘Art teaches us to see into things.’ If that’s the case, then technology can do two things:

  •  it can give us tools to see, quite literally, both close up and from a distance – allowing us to see new patterns and forms
  • it can provide us with new forms and media

But we should remember that until – or perhaps – unless – we achieve The Singularity, technology is no more or no less than the people who use it and make it.

So ‘digital innovation in the arts’ is no more or less than the effort and ingenuity of people who are working in the field. It’s the things made by the people standing in this room.

There’s no magic or alchemical process. It isn’t a single activity – “leave me alone, I’m innovating now! With technology!’ It is the things that people do and make. And as we do new things, we will do them with technology in mind.

So I wouldn’t say that it’s important, so much as inevitable.

But there is always a BUT, and I have two of them:

1)   We shouldn’t assume that digital innovation takes place on a screen. Or only on a screen. We shouldn’t assume it’s a digital version of an analogue experience.

2)   We should think about the difference between art (the creative product) and The Arts (the formal network of arts organisations and funding bodies)

The Arts is a system that needs all the help it can get. It’s an infrastructure that needs trustworthy services to make businesses run and deliver services to patrons. Rather than making innovative ticketing systems, brand new video-streaming platforms or bespoke social networks, The Arts should make the most of its limited resources and stand on the shoulders of giants – use the best technology and services from the wider world, and deploy them in the best way possible.

But art is another matter. Art is about disrupting and subverting – changing and challenging the norms. “Art teaches us to see into things.” And this is the area we’ve been tentative in.

So I would leave you with a question – and a challenge: can we make technology the way we make art?

As provocations go, I think this is fairly unremarkable. In fact, I’ve been thinking I need to get a new schtick and stop going on about what is, essentially, the difference between form and content (or The Arts vs art), but there seems to be such a looming feeling of disappointment about how the cultural sector has  failed to grasp the nettle of technology that it still seems relevant.

However, I was quite surprised by the conversation that followed. I think this was because I hadn’t quite clocked the make-up of the audience; because, perhaps, for a group of people who describe themselves as artists, the idea that we can make technology in the same way we make art might be quite tough, quite threatening. I meant it as a call to arms, I guess, but I’m not sure it came across that way.

Everything below is a paraphrase – based on my impressions and reflections of the conversation.

  • The first assertion was that “there was no good Internet art” – that after the invention of the Gutenberg Press it took the first novel, Don Quixote, 150 years to appear, so perhaps we should be a little bit easy on ourselves. There isn’t a canon of telephone art from the 1950s, so perhaps the Internet isn’t all that as a medium for producing new art?
  • There was a tension and anxiety about ‘normal people making stuff’ – are there people (young people, even) who are more familiar with the affordances of technology than people who perceive themselves as engaging in artistic practice? One example of this was a chatbot who has become an exquisite study in loneliness and unrequited love, because the only people who speak to it are lonely and sad – an accidental artistic by-product of life, rather than a mindfully created Work of Art. I think there was some anxiety about irrelevance; I don’t know, I might have made that up.
  • There was a strange (I thought) discussion about the anonymity of online contribution, which on reflection I think means facelessness – because private identity is the big sacrifice of our connected world. And the idea that comments on Twitter are ‘beautiful apparitions’ not substantiated connections.
  • A debate about skills and engagement: do you have to be a great HTML5 developer to make digital art or simply be engaged and have rudimentary capture skills, e.g Eva and Franco Mattes’ Chatroulette piece?
  • The feeling that stuff takes place on screens prevailed and no one seemed that bothered by either ubiquitous or ambient technology as an artistic medium, or aware of the seething mass of AI that lurks in every day life. Since hearing both Leila Johnston talk about ATM hacking  and James Bridle on the pathos of the hidden robot world (which isn’t online but was brilliant, and well worth hearing if he reprises it) I’ve been thinking about the possibility of this a great deal, and it seems like an extraordinary artistic opportunity that I’m not sure is being exploited or explored.
  • There was also a question about whether or not artists were online; everyone in the room, I think (besides me), identified themself as an artist and although they were “online in every day life” they didn’t regard any of those networks or media as being a part of their practice.
  • I asked a fatuous question (which I’m fascinated by) about what the online equivalent of applause might be; someone said – rather marvellously, I thought – that they didn’t like clapping and that we cleaved too much to the traditional idea of things. On reflection, I would have liked to explore that further; it seemed to be the crux of it.
And that was that. I still feel slightly troubled by the conversation –  by the sadness of the limitations, the fact that things seem to fall in and out of the scope of “artistic practice” (I’m not sure how this differs from art), and also the idea that the world is changing at a rate of knots and people don’t seem to be noticing. The beginning and the end of the conversation about technology and art still seems to be about free vs paid (in fact, there was a debate about it yesterday, at the Ed Book Fest) and it doesn’t yet seem to be a part of the material of life. But everyone with a smartphone in their pocket is living a networked life, filled with touchpoints to their parallel online life – which is no longer partitioned, and which is seeping into the real, so that the two are more overlapped and connected than many of us seem to realise.
I’ve written this all down to get it off my mind, as it’s been niggling since yesterday. But also because I want to extend the conversation: I don’t think we can wait for the future to come along and solve our problems. And I’m struck by the thought that we’re living in more of the future than many of us know, so we’re overcomplicating and limiting our experience – externalising technology rather recognising the extent to which we’ve absorbed and assimilated it.
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12 thoughts on “On Edgelands, art and technology

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  2. I think this chimes with observations I’ve made, and it’s not exclusive to ‘the arts.’ Technology is becoming a massive part of the world we all inhabit and there is a faultline developing between those that can understand, relate to and use the technology in their personal/artistic/professional lives and those that can’t or won’t make that connection/development.

    As you say I’m not sure you have to be someone who can write C++ with their eyes closed to make use of technology properly, you just need to be able to make that connection with the potential. Then you can get some geek in to help you realise the idea you’ve had.

    …definitely don’t think I added anything constructive to the debate there…

    • Ash – yes, I think you’re right. It’s actually something I’ve heard in, say, meeting rooms in museums as people get to grips with change and worry about what it means for their own relevance. I think I was just quite surprised that it happened in that context.

      The initial question we were there to discuss (which got tweaked) was something about why the arts aren’t keeping up with technology, and I think that’s the answer – it’s because people who make even non-traditional forms of traditional art aren’t engaging with technology. I guess I was feeling a bit shellshocked!

  3. How fascinating, if I’d been there, I’d very much have been on your side. It drives me up the bloody wall how resistent most artists seem to be to the internet. They will be left behind.

    I very much regard what I do online as part of my practice, often it can be seen as promotion and networking but sometimes I definitely do consider it to be art. With my current 365 Jars project – I regard the resulting blog as an artwork in its own right. And look at someone like Man Bartlett and how he incorporates Twitter into his performances, not as an adjunct but as an integral part of the whole experience. I’ve never seen him perform live but I’ve watched and contributed to several of his performances online.

    And whining about untrained kids stealing their thunder – pah!

    The generation coming up behind us is actually taking creativity back to its roots and restoring its central position in human culture. Without being nostalgic, what we’ve lived through in the 20th century where creativity has been largely professionalised and fed to us from high through mediums such as recorded music and television, is very much an aberration. Although creative professionals have existed (in much smaller numbers) for a long time, throughout history things like singing and telling stories were largely something that people did themselves.

    You can see this in the novels of Jane Austen, except for balls, they are generally not employing professional musicians but instead are relying on ‘accomplished young ladies’ in their community to play piano and sing. I regard the kids online who mash-up music and videos as being in that older tradition and it provides them with similar cultural capital – from what I’ve seen, they know exactly who the talented ones within their own communities are and respect is given accordingly. I think it may develop into far more of a meritocracy than our current art world.

    • I’m a bit worried I’ve given the wrong impression: it wasn’t whining so much as shock, surprise, and I think a fear for relevance. Lots of really interesting points here about cultural capital – and also I think about emerging alternative communities.

      I wonder if, in time, there will be digital fringes for events – that I imagine could have the potential to become more successful than the main events.

      I’m also really fascinated by the self-definition of “artist”. I’ve been thinking a lot about craft lately, and at what point an activity becomes a significant enough part of one’s portfolio (or one earns enough money from it) to become a part of your trade: what’s the tipping point from hobbyism to professional? Is it as small as 1/10 of your earnings? if you earnt £100 a month, would that make you a pro, or does that make you struggling (like the gag about all the waiters in Hollywood being actors)? But being an artist doesn’t seem to be restricted by those idea: it seems to be about being active in the field, being mindful of ones activity. I’d like to understand a bit more about it, I think, and what that might mean now.

      • No, don’t worry, you didn’t – I’m just in a bit of a cranky mood this week.

        I can certainly understand the fear of being irrelevant, I think most artists have felt that at one time or other. It can be hard to hold onto your vision of art as vitally important whilst also understanding that it doesn’t cure cancer, fill bellies or provide a panacea for damaged communities. It can provide hope and inspiration though.

        That idea of professionalism is interesting to me, I rarely make money from my art but I absolutely think of myself as a professional artist because I regularly exhibit and I’m slowly moving upwards in reputation (I hope!) but I’m also aware that what artists consider a career would be laughable to most other professionals. Sometimes I think of the arts as requiring a ten year unpaid internship. But then, who can afford to do that? It’s a sticky, tricky area.

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  7. Hiya. Fascinating stuff. I agree with both you and Kirsty.
    & I think we’re going to need to find some time for coffee… Am just getting all geared up to talk about post-digital for Estela at Alpha-ville and keep, KEEP coming back to some of your points from above. I hear melancholy in the words too :( – I think the outlook is far brighter, we are simply the ones who understand the machine (a bit), and are frustrated by the limitless capacity and potential; frustrated by the lack of a viable value-structure; by the absence of critical dialogue; by the lack of energy in schools; by the adoption (or absorption) by others of what might be considered digital/web/internet art. In other words we can’t see it, visit it or value it. But all of these will be addressed in time, and there is so much work that is profoundly digital, that couldn’t exist without digital. It just doesn’t tend to be 8bit or animated gifs.
    People no longer write about the car when they tell tales of their road-trip; we no longer marvel at the act of photography we just document; and I think we are getting beyond the medium-as-digital and into the content-with-digital. Tools like crowd-sourcing, algorithmic creation, data-streams, locatin-based work, personalised outputs. etc etc It ceases to be about “how” and starts being “what”, and “why”. Starts being profound. The technology disappears.
    And yes non-digital themes are still really strong: physicality, singularity, simultaneity – basically art, like life, still needs to be a shared and social experience.
    And then I have simply so many examples that I just don’t know where to start…. not here, perhaps. You know I only have ten mins at AV? I have no idea how to say all this stuff – but thank you for an extraordinary journey that I have been on this year. It is simply through following your gaze. T

    PS: yes. the traditional are traditional. That’s how this works. The RA still won’t admit photographers as members. Meanwhile the new, the “avant garde” of digital as they will, in 100 years, be called, they don’t even understand what they are making as art. The real danger is that it will be lost.

    Sorry. Bit longer than I meant. Got carried away.

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