Re-engineering: Venture Culture | Platforms for Art+Tech

Op-ed

Re-Engineering

Re-engineering: Venture Culture | Platforms for Art+Tech

March 19, 2014

The Op-Ed column is a space for readers and contributors to sound off about Art Practical's content and to contribute to the larger conversation about Bay Area art which Art Practical supports.

Re-Engineering is a series of op-ed articles and real-time conversations co-produced by Art Practical and the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts that invites constructive dialogue between the region's art and technology sectors. By bringing together seemingly disparate voices from both communities, these conversations underscore the creative impulses, capacity to take risks, and desire for positive social impact that these groups have in common.


"Re-engineering" is a periodic series of Op-Eds that address art, gentrification and the new tech economy. This is the fourth installment.

—Barry Threw

Artwork using digital technology seems poised to gain greater recognition around the globe. But where is the infrastructure to support it, and where is San Francisco positioned in this burgeoning field?

Over the past decade, I’ve listened as artists living and working in San Francisco have persistently voiced their frustration that a city on the forefront of technology and culture offers little to no support for artists working at this intersection. These conversations usually end on a note of despair, and intentions of moving to New York or Los Angeles, but it is clear that the immense artistic talent in the Bay Area could be foregrounded in the international community. All that is needed is a supportive framework.

Last year I cofounded Artup with collaborator Mat Dryhurst in an attempt to address this impasse head-on. Artup is a community meet-up and fund intended to catalyze tangible interactions between people at the intersection of contemporary art and digital technology.

On March 25, 2014, at Gallery 16, we will hold our next event, “Venture Culture,” in partnership with Art Practical and as part of the Re-Engineering forum. It will be dedicated to exploring one approach to bridging these seemingly disparate worlds: the Cultural Incubator. Julia Kaganskiy, Director of NEW INC, and Jaime Cortez, artist and writer, will consider between themselves and with the audience the challenges and opportunities these types of institutions present.

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However tempting it may be to choose sides, this is a false dichotomy.

It is nearly impossible for anyone currently living in the Bay Area to be unaware of the Kulturkampf ravaging the comment threads of our social forums. Ostensibly a clash between a parasitic technology sector reconfiguring society through face computers and tinted-window buses, and an undefined group of “other people that were here before them,” this struggle presents itself in polarizing terms that mask more complex, underlying issues of public policy and societal balkanization.1

The vast rift apparent between San Francisco’s technology and art worlds is marked by misunderstanding and a lack of communication that threatens to rob the city of its opportunity to be the epicenter of new paradigms of cultural production. However tempting it may be to choose sides, this is a false dichotomy. By seeking ways to mend the fractures between camps and finding common ground, we can leverage the innovative and creative expertise unique to the Bay Area in service of transformative art.

For artists, this moment presents enormous opportunities for critical engagement and aesthetic interrogation, particularly for those of us actively working with technology in our practice. As we are increasingly confronted with the digital permeation of daily life, it is vital to produce and support work that uses such technology as a lens to protest the cultural fissures rent by its proliferation.2

Yet the infrastructure to catalyze creative speculations and cross-disciplinary collaborations in creative engineering is woefully inadequate, a conspicuous omission in this most technological of regions. The tech world, for all its accumulated wealth and proclivity for societal solutions, has been largely uninterested in contributing to the cultural institutions shaping San Francisco’s aesthetic identity.3 Counterintuitively, newly minted collectors seem much more interested in collecting traditional art than in experimental transmedia or internet works. Even worse, the rising real-estate market fueled by seeded startups and internet giants has actively displaced many of the galleries that provide the crucial outposts for artists’ livelihoods.4

On the other side of the coin, the established art world often views technology with skepticism.

When initiatives from Silicon Valley do appear, they are often more focused on building internal company culture than bolstering existing community infrastructure at large. For example, a recent commission opportunity from Google labeled DevArt is a competition for “a new type of art” that is “made with code.” The effort is either ignorant of or willfully rejects preexisting local programs, such as Art Hack Day, the Creative Coders meetup, UC Berkeley’s Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium, SFAI's Design and Technology Salons, BAM/PFA's L@TE series, and Southern Exposure's Extended Play workshops, among many others, which have been already actively engaging the subject for years and often to critical acclaim. Instead, we get a walled-garden effort that seems to be more invested in reinforcing Google’s brand as a global innovator than in boosting the local environment that birthed it. The first city exhibiting the DevArt projects? London.5

On the other side of the coin, the established art world often views technology with skepticism.6 Seldom do museums or galleries have staff with sufficient working knowledge of the tech landscape to adequately program or contextualize new-media work. Contemporary art is a notoriously difficult subject with which to gain a comfort level, and traditional institutions offer little recourse for direct engagement with tech workers interested in tangible interaction and innovation. Even as the tech world has shown little support of the cultural sector, the arts have failed to offer much of an olive branch in the form of outreach that plays to those with interests in software development, electronics, hacking, and play.7

We are left with a seemingly intractable problem of how to create a dialogue between two different worldviews that don’t share a common language.8 It stands to reason that we need to explore new efforts that eschew shibboleths and instead promote the kind of cultural practices that normally fall through the cracks of existing institutional structures. An alternative model and creative workspace gaining traction is the cultural incubator. These new hybrid institutions blur the lines between art and commerce, embracing both new prototypes of cultural production and new modes of resource allocation to accelerate such work. Taking inspiration from tech-startup incubators and co-working spaces, cultural incubators attempt to bridge the gap between the humanities, providing a platform for interdisciplinary work spanning art, design, technology innovation, and entrepreneurship.

The concept has already garnered criticism.

The recently announced NEW INC is the first museum-affiliated space to champion such a model. Conceived by the New Museum, NEW INC consists of “11,000 square feet of dedicated workspace, labs, social areas, kitchen, and event space.”9 Candidates apply to access these facilities with either a full-time membership at $600 per month or a part-time membership at $350 per month.

NEW INC is interested in projects that resist classification as either fine arts or functional innovation. Tapped to lead the project is Julia Kaganskiy, founder of the #ArtsTech meetup and former Global Editor of Intel and VICE’s Creators Project. Says Kaganskiy,

“Because a lot of these hybrid creative practitioners defy traditional categorization, they’re having a hard time finding a home for these ideas, to develop these projects further. Those are some of the people we’re targeting in this phase; people who are in the art and design practice but are working with technology and experimenting with new modes of cultural production.”10

NEW INC will offer lectures and other programming to help facilitate the survival of these misfit projects, providing pragmatic advice from the startup scene to bolster work less focused on the bottom line.

The concept has already garnered criticism. Valid questions are being asked about whether the relationship between startup culture and museums is in the best interest of either party.11 There are valid concerns about whether partnerships of businesses and museums will accept the risks necessary to foment art that really breaks new ground.12 These questions seem to fear that systemic ownership of culture by capital will regiment and supplant art. But what these new institutions hope to provide are environments to provoke organic interactions between art and technology that can suggest answers to these questions. It seems wise to at least allow the experiments to run their course.

The model is not without successful precedents. In 1966, engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman founded the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) program. Ten New York artists worked with thirty engineers and scientists from Bell Labs to create installation and performance works using new technologies. The E.A.T. program culminated in a massive immersive installation at the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, and spawned twenty-eight regional chapters.

You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently relaunched its Art + Technology Lab program. The original Art and Technology program at LACMA, which ran from 1967 to 1971, paired artists with major technology and engineering corporations. The current endeavor “will award grants, in-kind support, and facilities at the museum to help artists take purposeful risks in order to explore new boundaries in both art and science.”13 It has many corporate partners, with support from Accenture, DAQRI, NVIDIA, Google, and SpaceX.

Here in San Francisco, the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts launched its first location in the mid-Market district of San Francisco in 2007 in a vacant 4,000-square-foot building. The facility housed an events space, for-rent artist studios, and co-working space, exploring some of the same notions of collaboration that are reappearing in this new wave of programs. Over the course of the last six years and three locations, Gray Area has partnered with groups such as the MIT SENSEable City Lab, Palomar5, and the Stanford d.School to create possibilities for interdisciplinary art collaborations that seep into civic engagement. Soon, Gray Area will announce a massive new location that builds upon the cultural-incubator concept with workshops, dedicated and immersive performance and theater space, and co-working arrangements.

An oft-quoted remark by R. Buckminster Fuller says, “In order to change an existing paradigm, you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.”14 These words seem appropriate now as we search for adaptive mechanisms to catalyze and nurture work that doesn’t fit preexisting molds. The relationship between technology and art will only become more fluid, requiring novel foundations open to experimentation, ambiguity, and flexibility to recalibrate our notions of what both contemporary art and technology innovation can be. Grappling with different and conflicting perspectives is the only way to move forward. San Francisco has the preexisting conditions necessary to be a global center for art+tech; we hope to hear your opinion at an upcoming Artup so we may forge our path together.

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Barry Threw is an artist working with experiential technology. He is an advisor with the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, director of software at Obscura Digital, and co-founder of Artup.

Notes

  1. For more general background on some of the issues facing Art+Tech, read the previous installments of the Re-Engineering column by Brian Rogers and Mat Dryhurst. “Re-Engineering: Art and Tech in the Bay Area, Part One,” Art Practical, November 5, 2013, http://www.artpractical.com/column/re-engineering-part-one/
  2. The art world seems poised to begin accepting this work more readily. Last year, auction house Phillips had its first exhibition of digital art, Paddles On!, curated by Lindsay Howard in collaboration with Tumblr. The auction hoped to “create a conversation on how the contemporary art world is adapting to and engaging with new technologies.”
  3. For a list of the most and the least generous tech philanthropists, see http://www.insidephilanthropy.com/tech-philanthropy/2014/3/18/meet-the-12-most-generous-tech-leaders-and-6-of-the-least.html.
  4. I would be remiss not to mention Recombinant Media Labs (RML) in the list of vital San Francisco institutions displaced by rising rent. A surround-cinema presentation and production facility, RML was a bastion of experimental sound and video art until it lost its building in 2008. We haven’t been able to find a new space since, and performance art coming through SF has never been the same. Likewise, Gray Area Foundation for the Arts had been searching for a new permanent location for two years, with little success until recently. But much more is being said about the displacement of galleries in San Francisco. See Laura C. Mallonee, “Tech Boom Brings San Francisco Gallery Diaspora,” Hyperallergic, March 6, 2014, http://hyperallergic.com/112374/tech-boom-brings-san-francisco-gallery-diaspora/; and Christian L. Frock,  “Priced Out: New Tech Wealth and San Francisco's Receding Art Scene,” KQED, March 7, 2014, http://www.kqed.org/arts/visualarts/article.jsp?essid=134546.
  5. Read Georgina Voss’ fantastic article in the Guardian for more consideration of the DevArt program: “DevArt: Google's powerful new move to arts patronage,” Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2014/feb/28/devart-googles-powerful-new-move-to-arts-patronage.
  6. Raman Frey presents a view of some of the traits of artists and technologists that stand in the way of collaboration: “Art and Tech in the Bay Area: Bigger Pie Thinking for Mutual Benefit,” Medium, http://medium.com/where-have-you-been-city-neighourhood-and-travel/e503f3f3601e.
  7. Anuradha Vikram offers another perspective on the relationship between artists and technologists: “#Hashtags: Culture, Class, and the New Economy,” Daily Serving, January 27, 2014, http://dailyserving.com/2014/01/hashtags-culture-class-and-the-new-economy/.
  8. Peter Dobey offers insight into some of the communication problems between the art and tech worlds: “Some Considerations Towards an Understanding of the Worlds of Art and Tech,” SFAQ, Issue 15, http://www.sfaqonline.com/2014/02/some-considerations-towards-an-understanding-of-the-worlds-of-art-and-tech/.
  9. NEW INC website, http://newinc.org/.
  10. Alanna Martinez, “In the Air: Julia Kaganskiy on the New Museum Incubator’s New Name and Plans for the Year Ahead,” Artinfo, February 27, 2014, http://blogs.artinfo.com/artintheair/2014/02/27/julia-kaganskiy-on-the-new-museum-incubators-new-name-and-plans-for-the-year-ahead/.
  11. Nicolas O’Brien makes an impassioned plea that suggests supporters of incubators aren’t asking tough-enough questions: “A Plea,” March 4, 2014, http://www.a-plea.info/
  12. Andrew Sempere worries if cultural incubators can take the necessary risks to produce interesting art. “Minimum Viable Artwork,” Feral Research Coalition, December 11, 2013, http://feralresearch.org/2013/12/11/minimum-viable-artwork/
  13. “LACMA Launches Art + Technology Lab | Unframed The LACMA Blog,” http://lacma.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/lacma-launches-art-technology-lab/.
  14. “Buckminster Fuller—Everything I Know— session 01 (entire),” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6yaSLipeWg.

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