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.