Our fu­ture cul­tural well­be­ing de­pends on us em­brac­ing the brave new world of tech­nol­ogy now, writes Tom Uglow

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay - Tom Uglow is cre­ative direc­tor at Google Cre­ative Lab. He will speak at Remix, Syd­ney, on June 2.

Art re­veals to us truths about our­selves; it trans­forms ideas into re­al­ity, even when those ideas are newer than the art­work. A 2000year-old poem still will move us to tears; a 500-year-old play can make us laugh even though we know all the words and how it ends. A love song still can make our stom­ach skip 20 years af­ter the hon­ey­moon ended.

But to­day the arts are ig­nor­ing the truth of the dig­i­tal age. Ev­ery­where we look are film, tele­vi­sion and lit­er­ary plots in which peo­ple’s mo­bile phone is forgotten or con­ve­niently breaks or, worse, doesn’t seem to ex­ist at all. That’s cheat­ing. Phones, tablets, de­vices ex­ist — we can’t go back­wards. The job of the artist is to cre­ate work for the world in which we live.

The broader con­tem­po­rary art world, there­fore, is fac­ing a co­nun­drum. How do we use the new po­ten­tial of the dig­i­tal realm that sur­rounds us to con­vey the power of artists, at the peak of their abil­ity, to move us? Be­cause, al­most worse than the prospect of a world with­out art, is a world of stag­nat­ing cul­ture; a world that seeks only to pre­serve and pro­tect the cul­ture of the past and has no space for dig­i­tal theatre, loca­tive opera or non-lin­ear, hy­per-di­men­sional po­etry.

When was the last time cul­ture ter­ri­fied us or made us want to riot, or ban it, or burn it? Each of th­ese phe­nom­ena oc­curred on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions dur­ing the 20th cen­tury and al­most al­ways the cul­ture at the cen­tre of the dis­tur­bance turned out to be, well, rather good art.

But we are now 20 years into the age of in­ter­net, and while we may be ter­ri­fied by the speed of th­ese sweep­ing trans­for­ma­tions — some may want to riot, ban it, burn it — the cul­tural world seems re­luc­tant to cel­e­brate new work by the dig­i­tal avant-garde, or equally to re­ject it, in any medium. It re­mains the art in the lobby. Or, quite fre­quently, it ap­pears with an #oc­cupy tag on so­cial me­dia, as in “We AR at MOMA”.

Then there is the ex­am­ple of Bel­gian group Hack the Art World, which dis­rupted the Google-pro­duced DevArt ex­hibit with a “ge­ofenced” protest show. What does a protest show look like in the dig­i­tal art world? It was an al­ter­na­tive on­line show that could be ac­cessed on a phone only if you were phys­i­cally stand­ing in the Bar­bican Cen­tre in Lon­don.

As with many as­pects of our “scary” new age, there are cer­tain in­fra­struc­ture is­sues that are not at­tuned to the chal­lenges of fu­ture cul­ture. We could be build­ing our public spa­ces to be more dig­i­tally ver­sa­tile, yet the speed of tech­no­log­i­cal change makes it too com­plex to spec­ify what that may mean in five or 10 years.

And while ques­tions lurk around whether we’re cre­at­ing the in­fra­struc­ture fu­ture artists may use, to­day’s artists need to make a living, de­spite any ro­man­tic no­tions to the con­trary. While mu­sic and film, in some in­stances, can be learned and cre­ated in the teenage bed­room, other art forms re­quire in­vest­ment, of time and money, to cre­ate. A painter is still only in hock to the ma­te­rial costs of their raw ma­te­ri­als. An au­thor may need only a lap­top, but that is why the book has largely re­mained in the same for­mat it has for the past 500 years, de­spite the in­ter­net hav­ing the po­ten­tial to free lit­er­a­ture from its bind­ings into myr­iad new forms of nar­ra­tive text.

The dig­i­tal cul­tural com­mu­nity is a rich, di­verse and flour­ish­ing field. In­ter­na­tion­ally there are big names start­ing to ap­pear, con­tem­po­rary artists such as John Ger­rard or Rafael LozanoHem­mer, me­dia artists such as Cory Ar­can­gel or Ry­oji Ikeda, Aaron Koblin or Ryan Tre­cartin. There is a new canon of vir­tual-re­al­ity sto­ry­tellers led by Chris Milk and Vin­cent Moris­set whose vir­tual worlds will soon be vis­it­ing you on your so­fas. There are im­mer­sive writ­ers such as Eli Horowitz and chore­og­ra­phers such as Gideon Obarzanek.

Most of th­ese artists have work show­ing around Australia this year. Or one could visit New York, where gal­leries such as Lau­ren Cor­nell’s New Mu­seum are ded­i­cated solely to emerg­ing forms of con­tem­po­rary art and cul­ture.

The broader fu­ture of the arts, in a con­tem­po­rary sense, re­lies on to­mor­row’s great artists, writ­ers and com­posers be­ing given ac­cess to the skills re­quired to un­lock the pos­si­bil­i­ties of this new era of cul­ture at an ever younger age, at the class­room level. The onus is on schools, arts or­gan­i­sa­tions and fund­ing bod­ies to grant that ac­cess, lest they be chan­nelled solely into the ex­ist­ing cul­ture: gal­leries with walls to fill, the­atres with seats to fill, pub­lish­ers with books to sell. There are so many grander pos­si­bil­i­ties.

The fu­ture of dig­i­tal art should not be re­liant on a few ac­ci­den­tal coders or on en­gi­neers build­ing “art tools”; nor should it be held back by a gen­er­a­tion that grew up with­out YouTube. To cre­ate great new art that is im­bued with in­fi­nite ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion, but still with the phys­i­cal pres­ence and power to en­chant and awe, and to ask ques­tions of its au­di­ence, will re­quire more than time: the art we love will need help from those who are look­ing af­ter it.

We need braver cu­ra­tion from our glob­ally recog­nised in­sti­tu­tions and bi­en­nales, and more crit­i­cal dis­course to dis­tin­guish what is art from beloved light shows. We need lead­er­ship.

There are green shoots. The Australia Coun­cil has mul­ti­ple dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives across all sec­tors of cul­ture, while in Paris the emerg­ing Le Lab in Google’s Cul­tural In­sti­tute is prob­ing deeper into the space. Le Lab has a ded­i­cated team build­ing tech­nol­ogy rel­e­vant to the arts in­dus­try and hosts res­i­dent artists and au­thors, in­clud­ing young Aus­tralian artist Ni­cholas Mau­rer. Le Lab will be­come a place where the worlds of tech­nol­ogy and cul­ture meet and col­lab­o­rate on new in­no­va­tions in the cul­tural arena, with seminars and res­i­den­cies for both com­mu­ni­ties to share ideas and equip­ment such as 3-D scan­ners and gigapixel cam­eras to en­able joint tech­nol­ogy ini­tia­tives.

The best art, theatre and dance of to­day, of course, will be seen from the fu­ture. The com­plex­i­ties of to­day’s so­ci­ety will be shown back to our­selves by artists, and it will be multi-lin­ear, time-ag­nos­tic, frag­mented and dis­cor­dant. Oth­er­wise it will be a pas­tiche. Be­cause all art is seen by au­di­ences who are living in the fu­ture, not in the past. They will judge it, not us.

Ul­ti­mately it is not a mat­ter of what is “bet­ter”: paint or pix­els, data or Dos­toyevsky. It is about find­ing a way to sup­port and cre­ate ac­cess to the best new work, how­ever it is made. That means work­ing harder to cre­ate dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives and en­able artists to cre­ate work that look for­ward into a world we don’t yet un­der­stand.


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