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Work / Digital

“Coding is an extraordinary form of creativity, but…” – Google Creative Lab’s Tea Uglow

Tea Uglow may have the most important job in the creative industries: to discover the tools of the future designer. “I play with technology not to create new forms of creativity but to augment and influence traditional forms of creativity,” explains Tea, creative director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney. “Often I’m not looking to create beauty in itself, but I’m more interested in exploring the potential of forms so other people who are artists might be able to see that and go, We could use that.” Tea partners with cultural institutions to experiment with collaborations between technology and the arts in efforts to expand the possibilities of creative practice in the digital age. Her projects at Google Creative Labs have spanned from a digital production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company to a series of truly digital books to an interactive exhibit at the British Museum. Expanding boundaries is something of a personal calling for Tea, who has become a champion for the intersection of unconventional creativity, technology, gender and identity. By pioneering new technological tools of design, Tea hopes to pave a road for future creators so “it will be easier for real artists to follow in those footsteps."

Tea has recently joined the University of the Underground, an institution dedicated to reimagining the rules of countercultures for the 21st century. Tea is a guest tutor for the university which is starting this autumn. Here she speaks to Ted Gioia on the challenges of creativity in the digital age, inventing the design tools of the future, and pushing the outer limits of the imagination.

What do you think is important to teach design students about technology that’s being missed in standard arts education?
What matters the most is that there is a structural failing to address the digital. One of the great problems is that the raw digital medium is a very complex tool to manipulate, and the actual tools themselves are being generated and built by people who are not artists. The tools we are given are not helpful to the mindset of creatively inclined people because they are built by a different kind of creativity. Coding is an extraordinary form of creativity, but it’s a logical form of creativity as opposed to an illogical form of creativity. The main problem, at the moment, is that the tools themselves are structured toward a pragmatic, industrialised worldview—as I’m sure the camera was when it was first developed. I think it took about a hundred years for us to begin to consider photography an art form. But I just don’t think we need to take a hundred years to consider the influence of all these forms of technology on our traditional arts.

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Tea Uglow: Editions at Play

In your work at Google Creative Labs what are the most compelling ways you’ve used digital technology to redesign traditional creative forms?
There is some very interesting work coming out around artificial intelligence where we are in this very delicate line between automating creativity and augmenting creativity. In other words, when we are unable to create tools that replace certain characteristics of creativity and when where we are in a position where we are creating digital design tools that augment creativity.

In my work, the projects I’m most fond of are the Editions at Play, which is about understanding that the book itself is a technological medium. The idea of a printed press and a binding, those are two constraints that are not constraints on the art of storytelling. You can tell a story without a press or a binding. So that’s a perfect metaphor for what technology is doing for creativity at the moment. When you do use a press and bind a story, then you have to use your words in a certain way: you have to use them in a linear way, you have to understand that everyone is going to see the same words—that people will develop conventions such as starting on page one and finishing on the last page. These are all things that we value so much now—not actually about literature—but we think they are precious traditions that must be preserved. But these are manmade technical conventions.

With the art of storytelling, you don’t have to go back terribly far—to Herodotus and Homer—before you realize that storytelling is the art of listening to stories and then reflecting them back to other audiences. And when you reflect them back to other audiences you may use multiple voices, you may change the order, you may structure it completely differently. One story that may take twenty minutes might take half an hour or three hours. Stories will vary depending on the weather, depending on the country you’re in, depending on what had happened that day. There’s nothing fixed about narrative.

Funnily enough the Internet is the place you begin to see that potential to unfix narrative storytelling in long-form writing. So the work we’ve been doing with Editions at Play is very much about pointing out those possibilities. It’s about what happens when we try and get storytellers or “writers” away from the conformities of printed matter.

What major misconceptions about the future of digital technology would you like to dispel? How should we talk about the future of digital culture in a more productive way?
One issue is that cultural institutions approach “technology” from a defensive mindset rather than a growth mindset. It would be really nice if we could change that, but most often you see the opposite. As it is not a commercial imperative for museums, for galleries, or publishers it is very easy for them to take a defensive view toward technology: a long-term view where you say, “We will still be here. We will still be selling books.” It’s almost tragic. It’s like OK. You’re still selling books—I’m not sure how interested people are going to be in books—but you’ll still be selling them because there is no innovation.

The e-reader arrived with a flourished a decade ago, and then was left absolutely untouched for years. It was just abandoned as a kind of finished technology, when it’s so clearly not a piece of finished technology – it has so much further to go. I still pine for that lost potential and lost momentum. In the tech industry, we’re still grappling with the security issues around allowing eBook formats to use Javascript or front-end libraries to display the richness of html5. And the new ePub3 format is a form that should allow for an incredibly dynamic, almost revolutionary approach to how we write and describe in digital form. But it is hard to see a commercial case being made for it, and it is too complex for writers to engage with.

While there’s a great move toward an Internet of Things, what they tend to mean by that are traditional objects controlled by digital tools. Whereas what I’d love to see are traditional objects which are infused with digital potential. More Harry Potter than Her.

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Tea Uglow: Midsummer Night’s Dreaming

At Google Creative Labs you collaborate with established cultural institutions to experiment with using digital technology to reimagine and redesign traditional art forms. How have you explored using digital technology to redesign conventional cultural forms?
The most recent one we’ve done is a wonderful collaboration with the British Museum which is on now in London.

I have an issue with seeing people take their phones to museums and use them as cameras or use them to read information on the screen. In other words, you take your phone out to remove yourself from the situation you took yourself into, away from the person you’re bored of talking to, or at a museum—at the very best—is used as a way of trying to capture that using a camera. So the point was how do we get them to use the phone less as a distraction, and more as a tool to interact with the object they’re looking at. It becomes the process, rather than a barrier, to interaction.

So In Room 3 of the British Museum we have an artifact from a 2,000-year-old Indian shrine from Amaravati, and what we did was allow everyone to connect their own phones to a local Wifi network which made their phones become like little laser pointers. They can point at the walls around the room to play videos, where we’ve got full-size characters of pilgrims from 2,000 years ago, who will stand up and move forward and explain their role in the growth of the shrine. Then we’ve got a dynamic version of the actual relic itself, which is super high and has hot points so you can use your phone to point at the relic.

Now the information itself, you could probably put on screens on walls, and you could have buttons. But for me, the really important part of the exhibit is that it takes an object which is normally used as a way of removing yourself from the situation. But it turns the phone into an object that makes you engage, literally engage with the artifact: you have to point it in order to get to the information. It turns the phone into a toy, a wand, a torch, or whatever you want to call it.

So that’s my favorite example of how we’ve taken what’s a very traditional exhibition—at the end of the day, if you want to look at it in black-and-white terms, it’s a 2,000-year-old bit of a shrine in the middle of a dark room with some videos on the wall. That’s pretty old-school museum, right? Yet we’re getting these amazing sponsors, and people are spending loads of time in there because they feel they have some energy, some action—some agency in the actual process of uncovering the information and it takes away from the one tool they have to remove themselves from that experience.

The University of the Underground is a new interdisciplinary creative postgraduate university hosted in subterranean spaces across the globe that’s dedicated to the design of experiences which support power shift in institutions. To learn more about the University of the Underground, click here.

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Tea Uglow: Midsummer Night’s Dreaming

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Tea Uglow: Midsummer Night’s Dreaming

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Tea Uglow: Editions at Play sketch

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Tea Uglow: Editions at Play

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Tea Uglow

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