The trouble with technology and art

sunNothing means what it used to anymore. A few years ago, when I was working a brief, ill-fated stint at a digital agency, a colleague of mine gave a brilliant talk to the team – easily a highlight of my time there. He flashed words up on the screen and explained that none of them mean what we think they do. They were words like “storytelling”, “designer” and possibly “technologist”. That’s not what you think it is; this definitely isn’t what it used to be; this is much more like this than that. Things, he said, are changing.

As Gwyneth would no doubt say if she was here, design has  consciously uncoupled from material. Actually it’s not just design; everything has become distinct from material. As a result, I think, something weird is happening to the value of real things that exist in the world.

I’m most interested in artists who don’t self-describe as artists – somehow, unconstrained by criteria, competition and commercial pressure, their ideas seem to me to be often just better. An artist doesn’t have to work with materials, a designer doesn’t have to have an artistic idea, and I’m sure if we get to the end of this logic diagram we’ll find an artist or a designer can be anyone who does anything, so let’s stop there.

But I do have a feeling about the artistic mind, impossible as it is to pin down. There are many examples of these kinds of thinkers and I try to feature them in Hack Circus as often as I can. And it’s important that they are thinkers. I don’t care if they never make anything other than words in my head. The idea, as they say, is what differentiates the artist from the painter and decorator.

Same with writers; most of my favourite writers aren’t self-proclaimed full-time ‘writers’, at all. You don’t have to just be a writer. In fact, in this written word-based digital world, no one would expect that. But if you work with ideas or materials you have, it seems, to at least be a designer. Having put a particular hat on, the temptation is to try to make everything you do, and everything around you, applicable to your self-description. If you define, you end up defining your environment. You have to create a shape to fit into.

The trouble is, if you’re going through life wearing something big, you take up space, and you sometimes have to push things out of the way to make room. But the world is a mish-mash of contexts and (to continue this metaphor) costumes, which is not always malleable to your self-definition. If you walk into a bar wearing it, not everyone is going to make space for your enormous artist hat.

There are many good reasons not to self define by the old school terms. You don’t have to be an artist to be a great artistic thinker. You don’t have to be a philosopher to have ingenious worldview-skewing insights.

But I really feel you have to be something. And it has nothing to do with what you label yourself.

I’ve seen some very bad art coming out of the maker movement. It is as though the gaps in very weak ideas can be compensated for by the fetishising of the technology involved, and as though the right amount of the right technology can buy you the right to declare your thing ‘art’. There are cheap kits and coding workshops, and everything is suddenly available to everyone. We are being sold paint rolls and dust sheets and some of us are mistaking them for easels.

The thing is, beginning and ending with the material is a closed loop, it doesn’t let ideas in – it’s the opposite of invention. If the object is not being repurposed or consumed in some delightful thought much larger than itself, but simply being allowed to sit and be, then it’s a symbol of status or a symbol of worship – definitely a symbol. It is an honorary member of the stiff, shiny vanity club of consumer technology.

So, technology sits uneasily with the art world at the moment. No one quite knows what to do with it. We love it! It’s cool like Lego and fun like games. But is it enough for it to be “cool” in itself? Or is it obliged to make another point, like any other artistic tool would? And if not, why do we ask so little of it? Is our work with it improving such that, as we get used to it, it will naturally evolve towards a point when it will stop being obsessed with itself? Will it ever overcome the elitism of awesome, status-symbol, money-magnetising, youthful cool?

Representation and physicality split apart only relatively recently. At some point in the early 20th century, creators stepped up, en masse, to take responsibility for context rather than content. There was this great political moment in modern painting and sculpture where the material and facture – the technology, in fact – was upheld as an emblem of change. In pointing to the fact images are madethat they are all about making and the exceptional expressive power of makers, the artists were able to reject the representational norms that kept the story of history consistent. It was an attempt to rewrite history, to wrest back control of a medium and show a new path forward. And it worked.

It’s interesting that we don’t situate ourselves in the same timeline or feel a colossal pressure to question the received rules on materiality and representation. We can make anything and in our fascination with the tech, we parody our ancestors’ interrogation of materials, but there is a catastrophic difference. Every decision about what we make and how we make it is still driven by money – if not directly, then through our sense of what would appeal to people who hold the purse strings. We make things that are design-conscious, familiar or reminiscent. If we try to break those rules, and we don’t come into the room with a status of our own, then we generally discover no one is ready.

Technology on its own belongs to the tech world, not the art world. It makes a point about what’s possible to do with material and science before it takes on supplementary meaning. It is a marvel, of course, in its own way, but it is not a new idea.

However, technology dressed in a shit idea is just a shit idea with cogs on. Without a mind-expanding idea behind it, the most incredible material achievement is not great art just because you’ve put it in a pretty box. Similarly, the most beautiful artistic idea is not now the property of ‘the technology community’, simply because it uses a bit of code.

As usual, I feel we’ve trapped ourselves by being unable to give up the past; our past – our collective imagined past (hi, Instagram) and the fantasy past of Making in which we omit all the tremendous moments of reinvention. It seems to me we are still idealising material history in our work, making the preservation of this fiction the most relevant thing, without knowing why. Isn’t it cool, isn’t it awesome, doesn’t it remind us of Lego, of school, of being a kid. Not exactly the political firebrand of impressionism, is it? Are we brave enough to reconstruct the meaning of the material technology we work with, to make things that are delightful and inspiring, not commercial or derivative?

I wouldn’t say there is a lack of ambition, but there is (and isn’t there always) a lack of motivation to push beyond where the money is. If people will pay for non-ideas, if advertisers will pay for something cool, childhood-evoking, etc, why would you ever try to take it anywhere else? We’re all trying to survive, here! The other option, of course, is to make political points with digital visual culture, generally taking technology as the subject again in some way. And the results can be spectacular, but it is still a little as though the great artists of the 20th century painted with visible strokes as a commentary on the price of paint.

You might say, well, it is a matter of taste. And I agree: some people will enjoy some works more than others. But interpretation exists in a bigger world than that. It really doesn’t matter whether or not you like a piece of work, what matters is whether it’s annoying the right people – whether it’s actually changing anything. Does it have potential written right through it, on every level, not simply a particular cultural message accessible to the ‘correct’, elite viewer? To make a ripple on the level of existence one needs just two things: material and ideas. Regardless of how ugly or pointless it may be in every other sense, does this piece have something to say about what it means to be material and what it means to be an idea?

It might just be that we’re asking the wrong questions.

To return to the point at the start. The roles of designers, technologists and artists are changing to the point where someone like me could probably call myself any of those things and get away with it. There’s something nice about that for my vanity, and creatively it’s an exciting thought. But if anyone can be celebrated as anything, we undermine the exceptional ability of the truly talented and we boost ourselves further into a false economy where the genuinely good ideas are lost in a mess of amateurish rubbish.

We have an interesting showboat culture now that means one doesn’t have to be an expert to be valued. Supremely good things will still be celebrated as such, but increasingly you will see people at conferences giving talks that really amount to other people’s ideas – someone else’s work, someone else’s talent. You will see people on the internet curate sites and find themselves celebrated somehow in lieu of the original makers. Under the respectable umbrella of art and design, we have cunningly created a little society that’s sympathetic to the tired, the trendy, and those invested in the status quo.

If you don’t take responsibility for your idea (and sometimes, even if you do) the glory will go to whoever talked about it best. Because there has to be glory, apparently. There have to be heroes. It just doesn’t matter, any more, if our heroes are the ones with the ideas. It’s all in the delivery.

2 thoughts on “The trouble with technology and art

  1. David Quinn

    Nice piece. You say “The roles of designers, technologists and artists are changing to the point where someone like me could probably call myself any of those things and get away with it”. This has probably been happening since Duchamp but the real question is why do these labels matter at all?

    It’s not just that we “have to be something”, it’s that blurring the labels allows us to elevate our roles and work without cost. The words “art” and “artist” have become so debased by a kind of democratic dilution of the their meaning that it is enough to call yourself or your work art for this to be so. That this can happen before we even get to question of whether it is shit with cogs is a problem. Or to paraphrase Dash from The Incredibles; “If everybody is special, nobody is”.

    This isn’t a question of elitism. Anyone can become a Franciscan Monk if prepared to accept certain sacrifices and trials. Equally anyone can skip that bit and just call themselves a Monk. To pretend there isn’t a difference is self-delusion (and often very profitable!).

    In relation to art, tech (like any other toolset) should live and die by it’s ability to communicate the otherwise unspeakable and unknowable. Everything else is sales and smoke.

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