GOOD PRACTICE Form and function: where art meets technology

Many artists are already embracing the digital revolution, as a new Nesta study has found. John Davies explains

It’s easy to forget how much tech- nology shapes art. Without it there would be no books, painting on canvas, photography or filmmaking. But the effects of arguably the most important technological change of all, the Digital Revolution, are still emerging.

Almost 50 years ago at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Cybernetic Serendipity, the groundbreaking 1968 computer art exhibition, was held and recent years have seen a string of high-profile UK exhibitions involving art and new technology. These include the 2009 V&A Decode exhibition, 2014’s Barbican Digital Revolution, 2015’s Somerset House Big Bang Data and 2016’s Whitechapel Gallery Electronic Superhighway (pictured). Several publications too have highlighted the role of new technology in creative activity such as Jonathan Openshaw’s Postdigital Artisans and Lucy Johnston’s Digital Handmade, published last year. Nesta has also explored through its Digital R&D Fund for the Arts how technology such as augmented reality and drones could help arts organisations grow their audience reach and business models.

Fascination with these two areas remains and the combination of artistic and technological skills is likely to play an ever more important role in the UK economy; reflecting the growing pervasiveness of technology and the UK’s expanding creative industries.

To better understand what is happening at the interface of these two domains and how technological change might affect the arts, Nesta studied data from the internet platform – an online platform that enables people to group together and host events dedicated to specific topics such as tech, business, music and fine arts and culture. While Meetup data will not capture activities that don’t use the platform, it does provide a relevant and up-to-date starting point to understand what is happening and where in the UK.

We assessed a broad range of areas involving artistic skills, acknowledging the diversity of topics where these are used, such as computer games, fashion, music, graphic design as well as fine art. As almost all artistic activity involves some form of technology the focus was on newer technologies such as 3D printing and work that was soft- ware based.

London, in particular, was found to account for a high proportion of activ- ity combining artistic skills and technology. This is partly because there is more Meetup activity in London, but even allowing for that, there was more art-tech activity than would be anticipated based on levels of overall platform activity. This probably relates to London accounting for a comparatively high proportion of employment in Science Technical Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and creative occupations.

A number of the Meetup groups we analysed related to long-standing activities that combine artistic and technical skills, such as creating com- puter games, visual effects and other creative activities where the use of software has become almost ubiqui- tous, such as music production and architecture. But we were also able to identify new areas of artistic and tech- nological collaboration emerging such as data visualisation. Another finding is that one of the places where activities combining art and technology are occurring is in Makerspaces - where people gather to share resources and knowledge, work on projects, network and build.

In contrast, there was found to be relatively little activity related to fine art. This could reflect a limitation of the data source - perhaps this activity is on another platform such as Eventbrite or is organised offline - but it could also mean there is comparatively limited use of newer technologies by fine art- ists in the UK.

A factor that may stimulate activity in this area in future, and which there is some evidence of in the data, is the availability of low cost digital plat- forms such as the Kinect, Raspberry Pi and Arduino, and open source software like Processing and openFrame- works that are providing common tools which creative practitioners can experiment with. These tools and their associated communities should help lower the costs to artists of engaging with technology.

A number of the technologies identified in the study, 3D printing, virtual reality and the internet of things, increase the opportunity for the personalisation of art, allowing experiences to be tailored to the individual. Personalisation of course already occurs in art, in portrait painting for example, and indeed can be seen in some of the works that featured in Cybernetic Serendipity. It does though seem plausible that as these technologies grow in popularity we will see more and more activity where art-works are directly personalised to the audience via technology.

Examples of recent work of this nature includes Mat Dryhurst’s Surveilling the Audience at Southbank Centre where musical compositions were created from the audience’s personal  data, and Memo Akten’s and Chris Milk’s interactive installations which respond to the movements of visitors in galleries; both of whom have made use of the Kinect and OpenFrameworks. There should also be more scope for people to be directly involved in co-creation. One example of this is a platform created by Assa Ashuach where users can co-design 3D printed objects by changing design parameters.

A creative future increasingly influenced by technology need not be an impersonal one and understanding where art and technology meet can, given the strength of the UK’s creative industries, act as a signpost to at least part of our economic future.

State of the Art: Analysing where art meets technology using social network data is available at

John Davies is creative and digital economy research fellow at Nesta


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