Technology is a wooden leg

ledpanel1People often ask me what it is I love about technology. It’s got to the point where I feel it’s time to say something.

I don’t love technology. I love that there are tools which allow me to be creative in ways I wouldn’t be able to be, otherwise. I’m not a great painter or draughtsman, so I use technology to help me make cool-looking visual art, as a kind of prosthesis for the skills I’m missing in that area.

That’s it.

That’s the extent of my feeling about it. Technology is a wooden leg.

Society values tech very highly, which is why I end up talking about it a lot; people pay me to talk about electronics more frequently than they would pay me to talk about charcoal.

But to me technology is just one tool in my creative kit, and a relatively insignificant one, at that. I am creative in many, many more ways. I like to write – so I do that. I like to put on shows and entertain audiences. I love making magazines and directing things. Last year I fulfilled a dream and co-wrote and produced a musical. This stuff is so, so much cooler to me, and so much more impressive and self-actualising (sorry) than the fact I can download some free software and mess about with it.

But so pervasive is digital’s PR, the question keeps coming up, the assumption that it’s connected to passion, not utility, and that it’s something otherworldly and inaccessible to normal people. This does no one any favours, and leads to some really weird, nonsense characterisations of the person using the tech in their work.

You’re a digital artist. You’re a technologist. You must love technology. Why do you love technology so? I always thought it was so difficult, so cold. I’m sure you’ll know about this, as a technology person. I don’t get technology like you do, I struggle with it, but you must have an amazing passion for it. What is it you like so much about it? How did you get into it? It’s such a strange thing to like.

Isn’t it funny that tech, the medium, is something one must feel passionate about, at the expense of the point of the work, or the subject matter? Was Lucian Freud a ‘paint artist’? Was he interested in the human form, colour, fragility, contrast and personality? Or was he mostly booked to talk about his fascination with, and innovative explorations of, oil paint? Was Degas known for his fascination with the theory and culture of the pastels community? Or for those ballet dancers?

There are people working with tech who are really into tech, don’t get me wrong. It’s a rich, new, and interesting area. People love the code-ness of code and want to express the beauty in the complexity of the data they see all around them. I mean, this is a very real phenomenon, and great work is coming out of it all.

I am a bit more straightforward – I just love colours and interesting people. It’s actually sort of a shock to realise, recently, that I’m a kind of portraitist. But if you look back through the things I’ve done over the years, at the heart of it all you’ll find interviews – hundreds and hundreds of interviews. And I’ve been driven to put interesting people centre stage, often literally. Now, of course you can call it what you want (a lot of it has been a kind of journalism) but portraiture sure fits a lot better than digital artist.

I have been contacted by strangers at least four times since I’ve been in Helsinki (two weeks), all of them asking for advice, connections, or contributions to projects for which I don’t feel at all qualified. Not because of some kind of imposter syndrome, but because I feel I’ve been mis-categorised due to the tools I have sometimes used. These tools, and sometimes the aesthetic, are shared by people who buy into this thing called digital culture, which is quite alien to me and my intentions.

For the most part, the culture of digital has no relevance to the meaning of the work I make. The problem is that if you know anything about digital, and you want to make a living, digital will force you to become its evangelist. Digital is an extraordinarily jealous master. You can’t just use it casually and expect it to keep quiet and get out of the way, so your message can stand for itself. Indeed, in my experience, you’ll only get paid to use it in art – through commissions and residencies – if you also share some of its values and claims with your audiences. You set out trying to showcase the marvellousness of someone – a real , living person – and you end up selling the usefulness or cheapness or easiness or cleverness of the tech you’re using, at the same time. This has happened to me over and over again, in everything from the Hack Circus shows to my most recent residencies.

Whatever you make, if there is one tiny digital aspect to it, then the press, write-ups, audience and language come from tech. Digital culture sends its messengers over first. Then the rest of the art world rejects it, like mother duck turning its back on a duckling after it was picked up by a child.

But my work has nothing to do with technology. Nothing. The common feature is people communicating playfully with each other. Communication tech has brought that to new audiences, sure, and electronics brings a new aspect of dance to life. But it has had no influence over the subject matter, which in the case of the dance stuff is not ‘tracking movement’ or ‘displaying data’ – but showing people. And yet I get about two messages a week from people (often people who’ve read my Rambert site) asking me about motion tracking, data, sensors, etc. (This dance example is just one, it’s not my main point, but it’s an important one.) To me at least, the movement is the least important thing about dance, and when tech fixates on movement, it can feel like digital is indulging itself again, trying to reduce dance to something that looks like tech, rather than get out of the way and see it for what it really is.

This is a bit of a lonely place to be, incidentally. The closest thing to what I’ve been doing with dance is, I guess, photography, but I have yet to be categorised with photographers. Perhaps they’ll come later. At the moment I only hear from the digital world, and I struggle more and more with its culture, and the expectation that I am producing work in its name.

So this is why I say: I don’t care about technology. I care about being paid, which is why I’ve ended up representing it to those who value it, but I can’t keep doing this. It’s the least important aspect of what I’m trying to do. Caring about being paid is of course a big problem for anyone with a clear sense of their identity – but when digital is holding the purse strings it absolutely demands that you are a techno mega fan, a full member of its club.

One reason why I find it so hard to accept digital as the future is because its conflation with a series of technological advances is erroneous. As it goes forward, it goes nowhere. Digital exists inside a culture which is, in some ways, regressive and controlling. In privileging the medium and its own agenda at all costs, and creating a value system where extraordinary feats of human nature count for nothing, it’s the opposite of the reactionary art movements of the 20th Century. I feel like we are going backwards.

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