Art + tech

19.20, Tuesday 13 Oct 2015

There’s something about art + tech which is niggling at me. The process I’m interested in is when a technology organisation commissions or supports art as a way to understand itself.

I don’t quite understand this itch or why I’ve got it, so I’ve spent a day looking at examples.

Art as design

The 1951 Festival of Britain… a celebration of science, culture, and manufacturing. This public information film introduces it:

Something Britain devised … a milestone between past and future, to enrich and enliven the present. A diverse place, of serious fun, and light-hearted solemnity … That’s us. Or some of us. For we’re more than that… We are the Lion and the Unicorn. The Lion is our strength; the Unicorn our imagination.


As part of this: 28 of Britain’s leading manufacturers came together to form the Festival Pattern Group – a collaboration between designers and scientists pioneering the then-new method of x-ray crystallography.

All catalogued in the Wellcome Trust’s exhibition, From Atoms to Patterns. Included were table surfaces, lace, plates, carpets, wallpaper, glass, fabrics, and even ashtrays based on the atomic structures of complex molecules like insulin and haemoglobin.

Another collaboration between design and science:

Mark Champkins who is Inventor in Residence at London’s Science Museum. His work is sold in the museum shop and includes

Also this bouquet of flowers for the Queen, made out of computer punch cards.

Art as the cutting edge

Chrome Experiments is a showcase of web experiments written by the creative coding community.

I’m not sure that Google would call this art, but there are over a thousand purposeless-but-beautiful explorations of what code can do in the browser, and you can bet the Chrome browser team is inspired and stretched by what’s contributed.

One such experiment: Ocean Wave Simulation.

Poetic applications of technology…

These Air Penguins from 2009. Majestic, silver helium-filled robots that swim through the air like penguins through water. Makes me wonder when we’re going to see gentle acrobatic robots over Trafalgar Square, or in stadiums. Soon I hope.

The penguins are by Festo, a German industrial automation company. Festo’s YouTube channel. I’m sure the techniques developed (they create these animal-inspired robots every year) will fold back into the day-to-day.

Art as revelation

The Bell Labs artist in residence programme in the sixties:

VanDerBeek would show up describing phantasmagoric ideas that he wanted the computers to realize and that then Knowlton [the engineer] would patiently explain what the program was actually capable of. Between these poles of reality they produced some of the first computer animation ever.

I look at some of the early films by Lilian Schwartz and I don’t think I’m seeing art as “something to work towards” or even (although it is this too) a kind of buttressing of human meaning to technical work… but as a way of discovering possibility? “Discovering” is too passive a word, the process is two way. The artist reveals and shapes the technology simultaneously.

Schwartz: PIXILLATION occurred at a time when the computer system was linear in time and space; Programs did not yet control pixels as moving, malleable palettes – Pixillation was made in 1970.

Bell Labs in the 1990s, Listening Post:

viewers are immersed in a sonification and visualization of thousands of simultaneous conversations happening on the internet at that moment in real-time. An arched wall of hundreds of small screens display ever-changing text in a cool glowing blue. Electronically-generated voices in both a pitched-monotone and natural-inflection sing out the text from every corner of the room singly, overlapping, or in strange harmonies.

Rachel Duckhouse making visible the hidden social connections between her fellow artists at Banff. Legends.

The Xerox PARC artist in residence programme is described here. I’m entranced by the work of Judy Malloy who in 1993 created a smart kitchen (an Internet of Things kitchen, a cybernetic kitchen, a ubiquitous computing kitchen…) as a multi-player text adventure. Her description:

the devices were a mobile, audio equipped robot, (Ralph Will Clean Up After You) a database food dispensing table, (GoodFood), a pre-narrative video device, (Barbie-Q) and two electronic books. (Sarah’s Diary and the narranoter) The social nature of LambdaMoo was also incorporated into Brown House Kitchen. Players could sit at the table, order meals, and as is usual in LambdaMOO, talk with other players.

And there are extracts from Brown House Kitchen here:

look ralph

Ralph is an aging Will Clean Up After You Unit, manufactured in 2003 by Orlando Kitchen Thingmans. His straight white hair is combed back from his pink, wrinkled simulated skin. When you talk to him, it becomes apparent that his gossip player is stuck in some previous month.

What strikes me about this vision of the future is that, unlike other future kitchens, it feels fully realised. This is a world we might live in.

But the point of Malloy’s work isn’t to be a vision of the future: It’s (in her words) narrative performance art which is a harder to grasp and much more interesting place to be.

There are other residencies:

NPR discusses the programmes at Autodesk and Facebook. The residency run by Amtrak is intriguing: It was about looking outward, but from what I hear from other Amtrak writers, many used it as an opportunity to look inward.

Art as irritant

John Chamberlain’s residency at the RAND Corporation (published in 1971).

Chamberlain distributed a cryptic memo to all consultants at RAND … ‘I’m searching for ANSWERS. Not questions! If you have any, will you please filll in below, and send them to me in Room 1138.’

Some responses:

Quit Wasting RAND Paper and Time.


An artist in residence is a waste of money.

Art as marketing

I’ve run across lots of instances of artists being commissioned for marketing – to get the word out but in a classy way. And of sponsorship of galleries and art prizes.

You know, Andy Warhol drawing Debbie Harry as part of the launch of the Amiga 1000. You can’t get any more art.

But it’s not the itch I’m feeling.

When the art is outward-facing, as marketing, as communication that runs at the launch of a product and includes no feedback loop into the product’s invention… when this happens, the tech company isn’t using the art to talk to itself, to understand itself.

That said, you do get instances where it all comes together, technology and art and adverting and reflection: Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962 by Megan Prelinger.

Prelinger documents how the tech companies involved in the space race would use science fiction artists to create their adverts, briefing them on their top secret research to make nod-and-wink messages to other companies, and also - because the artists would feed ideas to sci-fi authors - subtly influencing the emerging consensus cosmogony.

More here.

Art as adjacency

I find it hard to figure out the relationship between Rackspace (a hosting company) and gapingvoid, an artist and now a consultancy. Is it patronage and a kind of “corporate social responsibility,” or access to a fresh well of ideas, or an association – a kind of cultural osmosis that Rackspace believes it needs?

Art as decoration

Graffiti artist David Choe accepted equity instead of cash to paint Facebook’s offices in 2005. Choe’s stock is now worth $200 million.

Art as curation

Sometimes art is about curation, an intervention that creates maybe a binding gravity, or maybe a sense of history or manifest destiny, or maybe a landscape that produces a new language from the spaces opened up between things.

My examples here aren’t always from technology companies, but I find them all inspirational none-the-less.

A Computer Perspective (1971) by the Eames Office for IBM… important milestones in the development of the electronic computer.

Talk to Me (2011) curated by Paola Antonelli at the New York MoMA, which opened up the territory of computers and humans, talking and augmenting one another. A step away from “interface” into something, well, whatever we’re in now.

The New Aesthetic (2011) by James Bridle. Vanity Fair: the visible artifacts of the network, the identifiable places and moments where the digital erupts into the physical. He posted dresses patterned in pixels, camouflage that evades facial recognition, and a map of the places most densely covered by Wikipedia entries.

Cybernetic Serendipity (1968) curated by Jasia Reichardt at the ICA:

the links between the random systems employed by artists, composers and poets, and those involved with the making and the use of cybernetic devices. Cybernetic Serendipity dealt with possibilities rather than achievements, especially since in 1968 computers had not yet revolutionised music, art, or poetry, in the same way that they had revolutionised science.

Here’s an unofficial archive and a short video of Reichardt opening the exhibition.

And of course: Modern art was a CIA weapon, funded and nurtured to battle in the cultural front of the Cold War.

Art as content

EO1 by Electric Objects – a screen that leans against your wall and displays art.

Only… this is a TV that sits on its side emitting light. It doesn’t make sense to reproduce oil paintings on it. That’s not art, that’s a screen saver.

What I like is that EO1 launched with an artist programme:

Artworks can take the form of still images, animated gifs, video, generative and web-based works …

Selected artists will be featured and promoted in Art Club, Electric Objects’s collection of new and original art for EO1, and receive an EO1 prototype plus a $500 commission fee.

Art as a way to explore the form. In a way, like when Medium acquired Matter – long-form content presentation tool acquires long-form journalism organisation.

Art as reflection

Six Monkeys by Brendan Dawes with newsletter-sending-technology-company Mailchimp. From the intro:

Email is often thought of with negative connotations; overflowing inboxes, strategies on how to get to inbox zero … There is however another side. Email is a ubiquitous, easy to understand system, working across any platform that can deliver not just the unwanted and the unloved but often the exact opposite; messages from friends, exciting opportunities, memories of trips taken and a million other things.

What is it?

Six Monkeys is a series of six connected objects that look at how we might change our relationship to email by changing the surrounding context of how we interact with it. By placing email within our everyday physical spaces it may get us to look at the familiarity of email in a new light; we may even learn to love it again.

Is this marketing? Well Mailchimp got press in the right places. But I think the key is in the phrase, email in a new light. My feeling is that Six Monkeys speaks best and loudest to Mailchimp and its community of users, keeping them alive to what email really is, not just what it is today.

Also this: Each object is named after a famous Chimpanzee used in linguistic research.

Another stand-out:

The Open Data Institute (co-founded by Tim Berners-Lee, led by Gavin Starks) trains companies and lobbies for open data. But since it formed in 2012, it has also commissioned and exhibited art.

The ODI’s Data as Culture programme:

Artworks have included a knitted data discrepancy, a larger-than-life sized electronic sculpture, a semi-sentient vending machine, data collection performances, kinetic objects, and pneumatic machines.

Explore some of the collection here but I know there’s more – I’m seeing if I can lay my hands on the catalogues, or find out whether there’s an online gallery.

Final thoughts

So I’m not super drawn to art-as-marketing, or even technology-as-artistic-tool – what’s grabbing me is when art is used in some kind of process by a company or organisation to think about itself. Either by commissioning, or via a residency programme, or as some kind of poetic effort or exploration. But not as design, really, or simple patronage. Something else.

And while is brilliant and exciting - a number of artists fizzing as they explore and define a medium - and also art as outsider critique (2005), what’s intriguing to me is the deliberate use of art, by the tech organisation itself, for… something. Whatever it is. If it even knows.

An instinctive urge for interpretation?


Here’s a report on sound artist Bill Fortana at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider:

Fontana recorded the sounds. The popping, tapping dance beat of the protons’ regular release is underlaid with the hiss of cooling water and the heavy clang of the magnets charging and discharging. …

[Fontana] listened to the proton source for a moment, and then handed his headphones to Detlef Kuchler, the physicist who prepares the protons and launches them on their journey. …

“The picture on Detlef’s face was astounding,” [Koek] says. “This was his baby – and it looked as if he had just heard it crying for the first time.”


The reason I’m looking into this is a short (and visual) report I’m writing – I lend a hand at a Large Technology Company You’ve Probably Heard Of, and my hunch is there’s some important stuff here. I’d like to understand it better and to bring to their attention.

While I’m not writing up my conclusions here, I’ve posted the research because most of these projects were shared with me on Twitter and in follow-up emails by a ton of people. Thanks hugely to: @rogre, @paulpod, @hannah_redler, @amcewen, @bull, @uah, @stuartcurran, @iamdanw, @pdcawley, @inthecompanyof, @tomwhitwell, @anabjain, @designscold, @chrisboden, and @monkchips. Special thanks to @gsvoss. Not all of your contributions made it into this list, but each one has been valuable and massively appreciated. Thank you!

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