Towards technology-centric art

All art is technological, and all art is produced by some kind of algorithm. The culture of the art world just tends to obscure those facts. I’d like to propose an approach to art that I would call “technology-centric” art, which would do the opposite. By illuminating the technological nature of art and laying bare the algorithm of its creation, I think this approach could help the art world engage more fruitfully with modern society, and better invite viewers to participate in that engagement.

I should note that by “technology-centric”, I do not mean “technology-positive”. Rather, I imagine a kind of artistic analogue of what science & technology studies is to sociology. Criticism, however, depends on literacy, so technology-centric does entail technology-literate.

The algorithm most artists use seems to be some version of:

  • Acquire skills in some artistic medium
  • Absorb influences from teachers, other artists, Tumblr, whatever the cuties at museums seem to spend the most time gawking at, etc.
  • Generate ideas by bouncing back and forth between conceptual motivation and aesthetic feelings
  • Fabricate the artifact by applying acquired skills to implement the idea in one’s medium of choice
  • Display the artifact in a gallery, usually with a description written by a curator

The technology-centric art-generating algorithm would look more like this:

  • Determine a budget
  • Find raw materials and processes to use by trawling trade journals, browsing materials catalogs (such as those for architects or industrial designers), strolling through wholesale goods markets in Shenzhen, surfing GitHub
  • Reflect on 1) what the artifacts you find would enable you to do within your set budget, 2) how those artifacts reflect and relate to their societal niche, and 3) all the things artists normally think about – emotions, narratives, current events, philosophy, so on and so forth
    • Could you purchase a machine to mass-produce some object that every viewer could take away with them? Could you create an installation that makes use of some special property of the technology? What types of art object would highlight the unique qualities of the material?
    • What social forces shaped the specific form in which they came into existence? What forces do they exert in society? How might they be seen as metaphors or analogs of aspects of society? How do they make you feel?
    • What kind of art do you want to make?
  • Fabricate the artifact, using hired labor for any requisite specialist skills, and documenting all goods and labor that went into it
  • Display in a gallery with fabrication documentation (accessible as a paper booklet, website via QR code, and/or through AR headset)

But why, Karson, why?

One of the most interesting and consequential aspects of the modern world is our ever-increasing ability to make and do stuff, at cheaper and cheaper cost. Having a sense of what we, as individuals, organizations and a species, can do, now, with what economics, is fundamental to understanding modern society. The economic and political aspects of technology are clear enough. But technology is no less important to artistic and philosophical perspectives on all of this *gestures wildly*.

I’ve been frequently disappointed with art that touches on technology in an unsophisticated way. Often, it serves mostly to rehash well-trod tropes (“industry v. nature”, “tech eroding human autonomy or skills”, blah blah blah), hopefully at least updating them for the new sciencemagic du jour. Often, artists and curators alike seemingly fail to grasp the basics of the technologies their work ostensibly is in dialogue with, causing technologists to conclude that there’s nothing of value in all this art stuff, and laypeople to come away either more confused or with even less nuanced, less sophisticated views than they arrived with.

Documenting and displaying the fabrication process would also help de-mystify both art production and technology. If successful, I would hope viewers would come away feeling that both art and technology are interactive components of the gameworld of their life — not just background art to be passively consumed, but manipulable objects that can be produced as something out of nothing and bent to their will.

So, who? When?

In principle anyone could practice this approach. With a successful enough crowdfunding campaign, there’s no reason someone with no prior art experience couldn’t produce something as impressive as a Chihuly installation. In practice it seems like it would be very helpful to have a team with a diverse set of artistic and engineering skills.

In part for that reason, it would make a great course for undergraduate engineering students, especially in collaboration with an art program. It would allow them to explore whatever areas of engineering and whatever skills they are most interested in, likely collaborating in interdisciplinary teams, and engaging creatively with societal issues in a self-directed way probably at least as useful as any required ethics module.

In any case, I would love to see exhibitions of art produced in this way. There would be many interesting ways to thematically organize pieces — by budget, by various categorizations of technologies, by social issue addressed by the work. What would an exhibition of $12 works of tech-art be like? $120? $1200? What about an exhibition of works using 3D printing? Or reflecting on the role of computation in society, through a whole array of computing technologies?

What might this look like?

The ultimate genesis of this idea was in Shanghai in 2016, when I met someone who worked for a company that made high-tech conveyor belts. She showed me a mesmerizing video clip of a massive system ferrying a panoply of items around a cavernous, glittering factory space. It occurred to me immediately that the system would make for an amazing installation in Shanghai’s Power Station of Art, a former power plant with all the vast expanses of cold, smooth concrete and airy headspace for which postindustrial spaces are so beloved. It could twist and wind all around the entry lobby space, soaring into elevated plateaus and dropping to knee-level, allowing a few paths through the tangle of rolling steel which would envelop visitors in the roar of mechanical circulation of goods. The selection of items to populate the installation was obvious enough — one of everything off Taobao, or as close as you could get. I still think this would be a cool idea, although I’m far more excited about what other things people could come up with from this approach.

Deng Yufeng’s (邓玉峰) “Secrets”, in which the artist purchased the personal data of 346,000 residents of Wuhan from a data broker and displayed them publicly in an art gallery, is also a simple but extremely powerful example of what this could look like. The piece received possibly the highest mark of honor for contemporary Chinese art — it was shut down by the police immediately, who proceeded to charge the artist with a crime for exactly what he was criticizing.

Cai Guo-qiang’s (蔡国强) firework art also seems to me to be driven primarily by the technology itself, and exploring its intersections in a Chinese cultural context with tradition, violence, 热闹 (excitement), pollution, ambition, beauty, and so on. There’s no denying the looks on Cai and his team’s faces watching Sky Ladder execute successfully are only a hair’s breadth from those in the NASA control room when Perseverance touched down on Mars.

There are probably other artists who have taken similar approaches, or been inspired by similar thoughts. Apparently Isamu Noguchi once commented that engineers were the truest artists, because they created things that were useful (“useful for whom?”, might have been my rejoinder). Why shouldn’t engineers be artists in the conventional sense as well? The reverse is already true, whether we acknowledge it or not.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close