The digital arts, a field open to creation

Un moment de l’espectacle de dansa i poesia visual #14::SKYLINE_EXTENDED:: creat per Kònic Thtr. © Kònic Thtr

From the art world, new technologies —and especially present-day digital technologies— have always been a field for research and experimentation, as well as for critique and reflection. Artists have countless and unforeseeable opportunities within reach to continue using and challenging them. We initiate the debate on the relationship between art and technology and ask ourselves what role the digital artist should assume.

The advent of the Internet introduced a new age in the relationship between art and technology. Since then, the digital arts have changed so much that it is increasingly difficult to hold onto and enjoy the works that were created online at the outset, since they are under the threat of soaring obsolescence. Although the software and hardware have been maintained, most of them may not work as they rely on browsers or programming languages that are no longer available today. As Claudia Giannetti puts it, “the digital world is often praised for its knowledge preservation capacity, but paradoxically online technical strategies for the preservation of memory fail”.
It has also changed our relationship with the Internet, which came into being in the 1960s with an aura of freedom as a catalyst for emancipation. It has ended up being controlled by five big companies that have turned it into a space for data consumption, surveillance and control. In the face of this shift, the artist’s stance in relation to technological tools has evolved, from the naive excitement of the beginnings to the subsequent disenchantment of seeing that we are trapped in a vertical dystopia.
What is the role of the artist in the digital age and, in particular, that of the artist who uses technology to open up new possibilities for portraying the world? What is the difference between artists who were beginning to explore new artistic paths in the first stages of the Internet, and those already born in a fully-fledged digital environment? How strong is art in influencing the use we make of technology, validating or questioning it on the basis of ethical or aesthetic assumptions? What follows are the answers put forward by artists, cultural managers, philosophers and scientists.

Retrat de Marcel·lí Antúnez

Marcel·lí Antúnez. Artista digital.

La tecnologia ens ofereix la possibilitat de gestionar la complexitat i incrementar el seu control. A principis dels anys noranta, coincidint amb el naixement d'internet, vaig començar a treballar amb programadors i a explorar les possibilitats de relació entre les màquines i els éssers humans. Durant tota una dècada vaig dedicar esforços a construir eines que ni tan sols existien o a donar noms a coses que encara no s'havien creat.

El problema és que mentre els artistes projectàvem un horitzó utòpic, a Sillicon Valley només pensaven en el negoci. A partir del 2005, amb l'emergència de les xarxes i de YouTube, vaig entendre que ens trobàvem en una distopia de caire vertical en la qual hi havia poc marge d'incidència, i d'aquí el meu desencant amb la tecnologia. En canvi, he redescobert el meu interès per facilitar la participació: oferir als usuaris la possibilitat d'interactuar amb les meves instal·lacions. M'agrada mantenir els lligams amb l'experiència ritual, seguir considerant l'art com una vivència col·lectiva. L'aportació que es pot fer a la tecnologia des de l'àmbit artístic sempre hauria de ser capritxosa, plena d'errors i emotiva, i anar sempre més enllà del que es plantegen els negocis i les universitats.

Retrat de Franc Aleu

Franc Aleu. Audiovisual artist.

I’ve always been eager to learn, and through research you constantly find new ways to do so. You are on a steady journey as regards how you do things. Learning transforms the work. I have always changed discipline.

When creating a project you have to know which technologies are available to you and you have to master them, not let them control you. Someone often successfully experiments with technology and sets a trend. The ease of adopting a technology causes fashions to emerge, the result of being dazzled with something new. Usually the first person to do so really well is the person who puts their stamp on it and then it becomes a point of reference, and everyone who comes after is a copycat.

The temptation to fall into exhibitionism has always existed, because technology is an aspect present in artistic activity. A piano, for example, is cutting-edge technology. And with technology itself you can do wonders or fall into clichés. I don’t think technology will lead us to frivolity or superficiality by default, but there are people out there who, thanks to a command of technology, have carved out a place for themselves with dazzling or seemingly sophisticated content without having the emotional, intellectual or sensory capacity a worthy creation calls for.

Retrat de Lluís Nacenta

Lluís Nacenta. Director of Hangar, centre for visual arts production and research.

We are at a tipping point of transformation because technology is already ubiquitous. It is now clear that the digital tools available to us are not only an opportunity and an extension of our senses, but also a determinant and invasion of our life systems. Consider, for example, what happened to email, which has become something difficult to manage because it is a constant, excessive, unnecessary presence that we need to protect ourselves from. No one doubts that technology is part of our lives, but we need to relate to it in a way that does not alienate us. It is no longer the idea that the artist can do new things thanks to technology, but rather that they have the ability to give us a critical view of how we use it. The artist is no longer a formaliser; they are a setter of senses, a manipulator of signs who investigates how things can create meaning, and this enables them to take a non-submissive perspective on technology.

What can technology bring to us as meaning makers? As Brian Eno puts it, “We just call the things that don’t work yet technology”. Once they work, we no longer call them technology. When art is at its service, we end up doing demos that marvellously illustrate the things that can be done with technology devoid of artistic interest, just for the “technophiles”. If we look at how today’s young people relate to technology, we will see that for them it is more a means of accessing art, than an end in itself.

Retrat de Rosa Sánchez

Rosa Sánchez. Artistic director and co-founder of Kònic Thtr.

At Kònic Thtr we have been endeavouring to connect art and technology for years. Today, technology is both a mediator and a theme in itself. Our society is mediatised by technology, for better and for worse, and art has to raise awareness of this fact. It is from this premise that artists can contribute something, through innovation and the creation of new languages. We do not provide conclusions but we raise questions. The viewer is called on to interact by engaging in dialogue, sharing the space with us on different levels.

It is difficult today for an art initiative to lack a technological element, but we are trying to critically address the fascination with technology. Our creations are not based on technology, but on a conceptual decision. Then the technology tools we will use will depend on what we want to explain or the creative process we want to open. Technology is a mediator, a lynchpin. We advocate intermediate creation, which involves the confluence of different disciplines, languages and formats in a given experience, always coordinating them using technological tools. Intermediate creation, then, is about creating a language from which different disciplines can feed off.

Retrat de Laura Benítez Valero

Laura Benítez Valero. PhD in Philosophy from the UAB [Autonomous University of Barcelona]. Director of the European project Biofriction.

Studying the intersections between art practices and biotechnology, we realise that the generation of cross-cutting knowledge can yield emancipatory views. The generation of hybrid contexts that foster collaboration between artists and scientists has provided a new conceptual and practical framework for artistic research, has enabled paradigm shifts, and highlighted recurring obstacles that jeopardise effective collaboration between these two communities.

An example is the Gynepunk project, which has fostered collaboration between artists residing in Hangar and the Biomedical Research Park. While scientists provided specific knowledge, concerning materials, powers and dangers, artists, using other research methods, provided scientists with different ways of understanding the political, ethical or aesthetic implications of what they were doing. Artists and researchers Paula Pin and Klau Kinki have tackled gynaecology from other perspectives, critically reviewing the historical legacy of standard gynaecological practices that have determined women’s bodies, both socially and institutionally.

Retrat de Ingrid Guardiola

Ingrid Guardiola. Audiovisual programmer, director and essayist. Curator of the project “Soy Cámara”, a laboratory for new audiovisual formats produced by the CCCB [Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona].

The Internet of the 80s and 90s has a libertarian spirit. The network was understood as a space that would help us emancipate ourselves from the major powers. Today, this Internet is gone and we find ourselves in a capitalism of platforms, a privatised space ruled by four or five major companies that operate according to extractivist and predictive rationales, with the aim of generating models that anticipate future markets. So it is not that we use technology, but that we live immersed in it that we delegate the management of the public sphere and even our affections to these technological environments.

The digital public agora has become a vulnerable space because every minute manifestation of life can be translated into data to be analysed. Everything can be tracked in patterns, even your passiveness. The key now is to emancipate oneself, and that’s why many artists work to guess what’s behind these big companies, to focus on the beast’s insides while questioning this seemingly neutral algorithmic world. Algorithms are black boxes and it is often difficult to understand the ethics that governed certain programming and what business decisions designed it.

That we have access to technology does not mean that it has been democratised, since we do not have the information or the capacity for personal management in this illusory participation. Today there are artists working with the big data imaginary and others activists creating parallel platforms with the aim of exploring another model of digital ecosystem. And here digital sovereignty comes into play.

Retrat de David Bueno

David Bueno. Director of the UB-EDU1ST Chair of Neuroeducation at the University of Barcelona.

The art that strikes us is one that surprises us, and surprise is an emotional reaction to something we do not know how to interpret. The mind’s task is to raise doubt and, when surprised, to activate attention. If one of the roles of art is to create doubt, it makes sense that we ask ourselves what effect new technologies have on all this, that they provide us with many new tools to surprise us, since we have many more images and data than allow us to play. You can have an image and make it three-dimensional with some glasses or connect it to a specific piece of music.

Technology is multiplying, and it is very interesting how the brain can be stimulated by playing with many sensory suggestions. By studying how sight interprets a stereoscopic picture by Dalí or the magic of the illusionists, for example, we can understand many things about the brain and how the brain itself manipulates reality. We must be aware of the ethical limits of this manipulation, which in the realm of fake news has already shown the harm it can do, but in art, if it is clear to us that we are part of the game, the humour lies precisely in the manipulation and the capacity to generate beauty.

Retrat de Carles Sora Domenjó

Carles Sora Domenjó. Director of the Image Processing and Multimedia Technology Centre (CITM) at the UPC [Polytechnic University of Catalonia].

We are at a time when art has to play a significant role, it has to shake up technologies and analyse the use we make of them. The city of Barcelona is currently viewed as a hub of digital technology in Southern Europe. Twenty per cent of digital industries across Spain are concentrated in Catalonia, but what about culture? There are world-class fairs and festivals, such as Mobile World Congress and Sónar [arts, design, and electronic and advanced music festival], which afford an international perspective, and we have foreigners thrilled to create or show what is being done in Barcelona, but local assets are lacking. We need spaces committed to laying a strong foundation for the link between culture and technology, and we’re lagging behind. The authorities should consolidate a project that facilitates a local ecosystem for training, the creation of new companies and professions with their own reference point. The videogame Gris, designed by Conrad Roset, is exemplary in this regard.

The Master in Digital Arts at Pompeu Fabra University, which no longer exists, was the first in the whole of Spain and ran for more than twenty years. Artists such as Marcel·lí Antúnez, Antoni Abat and Joana Moll went there, artists who have been able to turn technology around, generating new discourses or using technology in an alternative manner. The role of art is to find the exchange value for technological innovation, using or creating technology to offer a new perspective.

Retrat de Joana Moll

Joana Moll. Artist, teacher and researcher. Co-founder of the Institute for the Advancement of Popular Automatisms.

The potentiality of art is to problematise things that do not seem to be problematic. Problematising means altering standard patterns and making connections between things that are not visible but have very serious political, social, economic and even environmental implications. I am interested in showing the friction created between systems and actors in new communication technologies. One of the roles that art can play is to change the perspective and to reveal different alternatives for how things might work. In short, changing the focus, seeing things through a different lens.

In The Hidden Life of an Amazon User (2019) I set out to show the double exploitation facing a user of Amazon, a company with an obsessive customer focus, in order to personalise its service as much as possible. Activity on Amazon becomes a record of your behaviour, so you unwittingly work for Amazon. What’s more, some of the data consumption is activated on your browser and you pay for it.

I am now researching the environmental impact of Data Analytics on the information and communication technology industry. I'm doing data research and I still don’t know if the data are public or not. It will be interesting to find out which are in the public domain and which are not, and to ask ourselves why there is no clear regulation. Most data that are collected are not used nor is their potential use known, but they are stored pending artificial intelligence (AI) capable of their management, although the environmental impact of this AI can also be enormous.

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