The Web and Flow of Art

In a rapidly changing society, artists use technology to remain relevant

Who needs tabloids when there’s Twitter? Posting a shocking 1,382 percent increase in visitors year-over-year since February 2008, Twitter is the latest phenomenon in the recent surge of social interaction applications that have transformed the very idea of communication. A steady stream of constantly updated, readily available information has accompanied the emergence of an increasingly exhibitionist public. Moving beyond the sphere of interpersonal relations, this trend has crept into the artistic realm, raising questions about the status of art and its exhibition in society.

Once predominantly a static creation relegated to the gallery or stage, art increasingly faces the same struggle as print media, grappling with the pressing need to remain relevant in a constantly changing world. Rather than succumb to archaism, or even extinction, innovators have seized upon the opportunities that the art-technology interface provides. In so doing, they have pioneered an approach to art that uses technology to catalyze interactions between individuals and artwork and between individuals through artwork.



GOING DIGITAL

“Digital technology is increasingly the medium that artists are working with today,” says Lauren Cornell, Executive Director of Rhizome, an organization dedicated to the creation, exhibition, and critique of largely web-based artistic enterprises. “When artists are working with the Internet and directly engaging with culture and society as it’s happening, those technologies are reshaping and challenging the world that we live in.”

“This is art that’s at the forefront of culture,” she continues. “Not that painting isn’t, per se, but it’s difficult in general to illuminate and speak intelligently about culture as it is happening. Technology allows artists to really do that forward thinking.”

With information saturation becoming the distinguishing trait of our current era, artists are not the only ones who recognize the need to keep pace with an evolving environment. As technology has innovated the world, the world—especially the sector which houses, supports, and encourages artistic creation—struggles with the question of how to innovate.

“There’s an interesting institutional crisis related to how we’ve gone from an era where information was the main value proposition of most institutions—cultural, educational, industrial,” says Engineering and Applied Sciences Professor David Edwards, “to an era where information is so readily available that innovation becomes what’s valued… And innovation is connected to the ability of ideas to move from one discipline to the next, from the arts to the sciences.”

Edwards, who teaches “Idea Translation: Effecting Change through the Arts and Sciences,” created the course to encourage artists and designers to dream, and subsequently arrive, at the frontier of science.

“You’re not in art or in science but at the border of something we think of as opposites,” says Tarik Umar ’10, one of Edwards’ former students. “But that’s where you can be most innovative and think in a realm most un-thought in.”

“Idea Translation” was the birthplace of MuseTrek, an application developed by Umar and Milo M. Harman ’08. Described by Edwards as a blend between YouTube and a Wikipedia devoted to art, MuseTrek—which has already undergone trial runs at the Fogg and the Louvre Museums—allows visitors to experience artwork through the eyes of another individual. The device uses the iPhone as its platform to store ‘Treks’; visitors can access routes through the museum and retrace their owners’ steps while reading an accompanying narrative. “It’s a social experience around art,” Umar says. “Right now you go to museums, and it’s not a social space. You’re in isolation, and you look at the paintings, read the placards, and you’re supposed to engage with the artwork.”

MuseTrek, Umar explains, is an impetus for interaction. He describes the device as a means for the public to guide itself rather than rely on tour guides, who often fail to engage audiences (especially younger ones). “Stories written by someone your age, of your generation who speaks your language,” Umar says, “are more accessible, compared to a curator who speaks a more academic language.”

“One goal is to have a bottom-up approach to the narrative where the public can create its own journey and share it with others,” Umar continues. “So you can see the museum from the point of view of an 11-year-old or a fashion designer or a tennis player.”



A TEAM EFFORT

As MuseTrek culls the public’s diverse insights about art, individuals elsewhere are exploring how the process of artistic creation is affected by a collective. David L. Rice ’10 is working on a web-based project, The Gloaming, which he hopes will act as a crossroads where distinct individuals’ ideas and thoughts meet. “It’s an experiment to try to do something that’s interactive, but getting outside of the one-person-to-one-person interaction,” says Rice, who is a special concentrator in Esoteric Studies: Mysticism and Modernism in Western Thought.



The Gloaming—what he describes as an “evolving online novel”—includes narration, illustration, and soundscapes that portray the experience of a disembodied brain in cyberspace.

As visitors travel through The Gloaming, they experience the product of other people’s contributions to the site, even as they create an identity for themselves. After repeated visits, users can eventually access a forum where their additions, corrections, and deletions to the narrative appear as original components of the site. “This is a project where reading and writing are not so separate; the division between being in front of the words and behind them is not so clear,” Rice says.

Rice refers to the project as an example of the way in which the Internet has challenged traditional notions of novel writing. Not only has the divide between artist and observer gradually deteriorated—as people from various fields of expertise connect in order to create the site and its story—but the creation of art itself has the potential to shift from a personal, private act to a public, open-ended experience.

According to Helen Thorington, Co-Director of New Radio and Performing Arts (NRPA), the idea of art and the word “artist” have changed throughout history. With the Internet, these concepts are once again transforming. NRPA and its online forum, Turbulence.org, is a Boston-based organization that shares Rhizome’s mission of commissioning net art, among other emerging artistic forms. “The people who call themselves artists [who work with technology] are incorporating many disciplines that were formally excluded from the so-called artistic sphere,” she explains. And as a result, Thorington says, the boundaries of identity and expertise are becoming increasingly permeable.



YOU SAY STALKING, I SAY ART

For another organization, the art-technology phenomenon has inspired a line of research about how society and identity function in a world dominated by technology. The Sociable Media Group, whose focus on technologically-mediated communication often manifests itself through installation and design, has opened “Connections,” its most current exhibition at MIT’s Mark Epstein Innovation Gallery. “Metropath(ologies),” one installation of the exhibit, reveals the way in which individuals increasingly interact with technology—either deliberately or unwillingly, and sometimes even unwittingly.

“‘Metropath(ologies)’ is interactive, but it gets away from the kind of interactive art that is more like a puppet piece—the ones where you see it and you wave your arm and something moves on a screen,” says Judith Donath, Director of the Sociable Media Group and a Faculty Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “People look at ‘Metropath(ologies)’ more as an artwork than as an object that you try to figure out how to do something with it, how to manipulate it.”

The installation is a multi-elemental piece that engages sight, sound, mind, and physical being. Computer and video screens flank a cluster of white, rectangular bars staggered by random height. Sounds sweep through the open space as the installation loops through three movements.

The first sets a neutral and abstract tone; the second—which projects text from New York Times headlines onto the bars as processed voices recite news feeds into the space—emphasizes the fact that we live under a constant barrage of information; the final explores the ramifications of surveillance. Photographs of people who have walked through the exhibition appear on the white bars, as the system not only plays back the voices of previous visitors, but also reads aloud a list of phone numbers and addresses compiled from a database of their names. As a result, though the third movement is an artistic representation of surveillance, its existence and continuous innovation rely on the presence of the visitors themselves.

“Technology allows people to interact with artifacts,” Donath says. “Technology creates art forms where people are a part of them… The object itself makes the audience part of it, and that is part of our statement about our increasingly collectivized society.”

Similar to “Connections,” MuseTrek, Umar says, should induce a sense of unity between visitor and museum. “You feel like you own a little bit of the museum when you walk away,” he says. “Your presence lives on in the museum—it’s a cultural ownership.”



“ART IS WEIRD”

As innovative as technologies like MuseTrek have been in compelling interaction with artwork, doubts remain about the seamless integration of art and technology.

“It’s important to not see art as driven as technology,” Cornell says. “Artists are turning technology into art, but… it’s less a celebration [of technology] and more about they employ it in their vision.”

Thorington agrees, citing her work from the 1980s as an example of the way in which art, on some level, may remain independent of technology despite the possible and frequent unification of the two. “I used science as subject matter within the discipline of radio production,” she explains, “rather than allow that science to create the work.”

In addition, artists may worry that a constant influx of other people’s opinions will inundate personal reactions to artwork, thereby indulging pretense. “Some artists may have a problem with it [MuseTrek],” Umar says.

“They might believe it’s a personal thing, to look at the art and see your own life—that that’s something you should work towards and learn, learn how to look at art and enjoy art. Whereas MuseTrek makes it easier to do all of that.”

“Technology and art are working together to create new experiences though,” Umar says, “and in doing so the combination is creating new art. People’s treks are new art.”

Ultimately, the novelty of technology may be its defining characteristic—one which contributes to its ability to inspire interactive and creative production, and one which explains why individuals who consider themselves artists are still hesitant to completely accept the art-technology chimera.

“Technology is appealing in an uncomfortable way,” says Rice. “But art is weird, and if something’s good it has to make you uncomfortable in some sort of way. There has to be something off about it in a controlled and intentional way.”

“It can’t just reinforce the world,” he continues. “It has to draw out nuances of the world. So having a weird feeling about the medium you’re going into is good, if you’re able to make your art what you feel about it.”

—Staff writer Denise J. Xu can be reached at dxu@fas.harvard.edu.