Re-Engineering: Art and Tech in the Bay Area Part Two

Op-ed

Re-Engineering

Re-Engineering: Art and Tech in the Bay Area Part Two

November 13, 2013

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.


Periodically, we will publish a series of Op-Eds that address art, gentrification and the new tech economy. This is the second installment.

I've been attempting to create dialogue to combat pessimism in the arts in San Francisco for some time, both within and outside of my capacity as director of programs for Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA). It seemed most constructive to have this op-ed be another chapter in that conversation. To that end, I invited my friend, artist Brian Rogers, to have a discussion over Google Docs, organized around six parameters for how to improve the dialogue around art, tech, and gentrification; a dialogue that has certainly fueled its share of pessimism. Outrage is important, but so is sober criticism rooted in the complexities of how things actually are on the ground as opposed to easily dismissible stereotypes. Last week, we discussed points one through three. This installment includes points four through six. Brian and I welcome your feedback, either in the comments below or via Twitter: I'm at @matdryhurst and Brian is at @brian_w_rogers.

–Mat Dryhurst

4. Both art and tech could benefit from a renewed engagement with each other.
 

Mat Dryhurst: GAFFTA, Art Hack Day, and the Exploratorium are making progress in the Bay Area. I also recently started a project with Barry Threw, called Artup (a play on “startup”), that is a direct attempt to incite discourse around these issues through meet-ups and a regular grant to fund art about tech. Creating casual opportunities for people to hash out these issues in public has so far proved incredibly rewarding, as it’s far harder to characterize people as being one-dimensional when you are face to face.

The potential for engagement is very real, as one thing I’ve noticed from the hackathons GAFFTA has put on is that there are often many people that attend who are creatively dissatisfied in their day jobs. They didn’t learn code to be a bit player in a massive organization, and they jump at the chance to do radical things with their skills and experience. Rhizome’s Seven on Seven, which happened in London this past October, is a great example of collaboration between artists and technologists. In many cases, the gestural engagement is more powerful than the work, but it’s a good start.

1990s rave flier, San Francisco. Courtesy of Flickr user sioenroux.

Brian Rogers: The real issue is how those engagements are constructed. There has to be some kind of clarity and rigor in terms of how metaphors are exported and imported.

Artists and tech developers clearly have things to offer one another. On the practical and pedagogical side, there’s the possibility for artists to present tech in a manner that is visually elegant for audiences, be they philosophers or laypeople—using aesthetics to create better models for understanding. However, we recognize that the vogue for data visualization remains quite problematic. Data visualization doesn’t really help you understand anything. We get so fixated on interface.

It would be more fruitful to have tech developers and artists talk to one another about what their discovery processes are like—to understand places where sets of problems may intersect, overlap, or be able to inform each other. Tech developers tend to have a more sophisticated and realistic conception of this than artists, who during their education rarely get to examine the question properly. Either it is just assumed that “artists are creative people,” or the idea of formal creativity is seen as quaint or even irresponsible.

In order to make this kind of dialogue work, there has to be a rare openness and enthusiasm to communicate. You need a special kind of artist and a special kind of developer to produce something more than a mere illustration.

A good example in the United Kingdom is Urbanomic, a publishing and arts platform run by Robin Mackay. Urbanomic has found venues for bringing artists, philosophers, scientists, tech people, etc., into complementarity and antagonism. As far as I can tell, the West Coast is somewhere that projects like this could and should be thriving.

MD: Absolutely. I tend to judge any kind of project on its outcomes and not be loyal to any orthodoxy of practice. The aspects of tech hubris that annoy me the most are when technologists assume the “Rambo approach” and believe that they can tackle the world’s problems alone. However, I often run up against the same hubris in the arts, which absolutely does not have a monopoly on creativity and social responsibility. The hackathon is an incredible, powerful model to explore and reconfigure. The model started at Yahoo! Art Hack Day, which as I mentioned before, is a particularly poignant example as it's at the point now where around a hundred respected people in arts and tech regularly create works in a forty-eight-hour hack period; this hints at ways that both arts and tech infrastructures could productively engage with other fields while hurdling stuffy hyperbole.

I did a concept critique of the hack at an art festival in Stockholm earlier this year, which basically posed the question: “Why not ask people experienced in the field within which you work to identify real problems before you start hacking on them?” The response was surprisingly positive. It is damning that none of the participants had been asked to do that before. Artists and technologists are generally not encouraged to reach outside of their camps to fix things, and that is stifling.

1990s rave flier, San Francisco. Courtesy of Flickr user sioenroux.

5. The common complaint that tech will not invest in art has not been investigated properly.
 

MD: For good reason, there is little precedent for technologists being interested in the pomp and ceremony of the white cube. A passive approach toward art facilitation will do little to challenge the predominant political and cultural bias toward big technology in San Francisco. I really think that art in the Bay Area will continue to struggle unless it acknowledges and tackles this challenge. Institutional attempts to court the tech community by poorly integrating buzz ideas can often come across as demeaning and detached, particularly when many institutions are so reluctant to change the top-down approach that characterizes the worst of the art world, and that is the antithesis of the technological principle of finding new and better ways to do things.

In line with Steven Levy's hacker ethic, a lot of progressive tech respects experimentation, collaboration, inclusivity, and education, all traits that personally resonate with me and are not at odds with progressive arts practices. It’s imperative that we meet each other halfway and not create a stubborn standoff, expecting tech to come around to old ideas of arts infrastructure. Artists are not going to get anywhere through shaming anyone, particularly when the value of traditional arts infrastructure is legitimately under scrutiny from many within it.

BR: The potential lies both in revamping curatorial approaches and in the material, technical infrastructure of how art is conceived and produced, expanding the methods and experiments available to artists. We already see such possibilities being explored, particularly in the field of sound, prompting encouraging questions with regard to the relationships between physical, conceptual, technological, and aesthetic space—art as not only a reflection on the world, but as a means for actively navigating both what we know and how we know.

1990s rave flier, San Francisco. Courtesy of Flickr user sioenroux.

6. The Bay Area is the perfect place to stage a new paradigm of collaboration and antagonism between arts and tech.
 

BR: The stakes are too high to be skittish. We don’t need a new school of Stuckists. What anti-tech humanism fails to understand is that a real commitment to humanism entails using technological exploration to unpack, dismantle, and reorient our image of ourselves. We’ve known for many years now that the heart is a pump. And yet people still manage to write about love.

To quote Reza Negarestani, art should make “extreme hypotheses,” and should use any materials necessary (including and in particular technology) to make them. This isn’t an idea that artists should make inflated claims about aspiring toward, but it’s also a horizon that—as people who are nominally interested in how we work and how we work in the world—artists should recognize and use as a perspective from which to ask difficult but necessary questions.

MD: We need to recognize that this is the best place in the world to make art about tech. Decisions made about technology in the Bay Area will go on to fundamentally reconfigure the lives of people all over the world, and whether we take a supportive or antagonistic stance, Bay Area artists have first option to play a role in that discourse and trajectory—but only if we choose to participate.

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