Technology has influenced the production of art for centuries, but in recent years tech innovation has had a major impact on the art industry in fascinating and controversial ways. Alessandro Perilli from Red Hat, an open-source IT company that recently sponsored the Tate Exchange programme, explains three key ways in which technology is changing the way we engage with, make and change art.
Technologies that enable and expand access to art
People are already very familiar with the growing number of technologies that are simplifying access to art. Tablets and smartphones are becoming the standard devices for museums to offer interactive guides to visitors, and I’m sure you saw that in the last exhibition you visited. What you may not know is that Tate started experimenting in this direction around 2010, when its iOS app allowed visitors to interact with the artwork How It Is by the Polish artist Miroslaw Balka. In seven years, technology has made huge progress, allowing a company like Google today to digitise a portion of the human artistic output preserved across the museums of the whole world in The Google Art Project. This democratises the access to arts allowing anybody in the world, for free, to experience over 45,000 objects in their current location.
Likewise, technology portals like Artsy are broadening access to art. These websites allow anybody to track a series of favourite artists, virtually collecting their masterpieces, and be informed about new paintings or sculptures or photographs from emerging artists that might match their taste based on their collections.
Access is not just about consuming art. It’s also about understanding art, and technology is helping in that area too. I just visited the David Hockney show at Tate Britain, and in the last room, two imposing artworks dominate the walls. Underneath them is a series of displays, running the animation of the whole artistic process that led to the artworks, from the initial white canvas to the final output on the walls.
What if access to art could be also about participating in art? My company, Red Hat, has been a pioneer of open source software. At the foundation of it there is the concept of open collaboration: thousands of engineers that democratically work together on a project to solve massively complex challenges, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, language or geographic location. This model based on open collaboration has proven so successful that today it’s used by the biggest companies in the world to develop open source software that supports the world economy, in every industry, from aviation to finance, from retail to entertainment. Tate is trying to do something similar with its Tate Exchange programme: fostering the collaboration between the artists and the audience so that the latter gets involved in the conversation, becomes part of the artistic process, and ultimately can also become part of the final artwork itself. That is an unprecedented effort to democratise access to art.
Technologies that enable and augments the art itself
Wasn’t the field easel a technological innovation that impacted art deeply, greatly facilitating impressionists in their efforts to paint “en plein air”? When technology is contributing directly to the creation of an artistic output, amazing and unpredictable things can happen. And in fact, they have been happening in recent years.
Some artists, for example Petros Vrellis, are using technology to unlock new dimensions in existing artworks. Petros hypnotised the world with his animated version of Starry Night by Van Gogh, capturing the imagination of a new generation of art lovers that seem more curious than ever, constantly asking “what happens if we do this?”
Other artists, like Keith Brown, are completely relying on new technologies to create their arts. Keith uses 3D printers to create original sculptures. Sometimes the 3D sculptures are finished, like the ones displayed at the Mesh 3D Printed Sculpture exhibition in the Gallery Oldham near Manchester. Other times, they are printed throughout the length of the whole exhibition. All of this opens the possibility to create art to artists that don’t possess sculpting skills but maybe have 3D design skills.
Technologies that disrupt art
There are some situations where the effect of technology on art is not necessarily benign. The more intertwined these two worlds become the more grey areas we’ll have to explore, and there’s a lot already to trigger controversy.
Think about artificial intelligence, which is getting so sophisticated that it can copy the style of an artist and apply it to new subjects, like the smartphone app Prisma. Or think about 3D printers, again, that can create perfect copies of existing masterpieces. Maybe you remember the famous leak of the 3D scan of the Nefertiti bust displayed at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, and the subsequent release of those files online for free?
What happens to the value of an original artwork when the style of the artist, or the artwork itself can be replicated at very low cost or for free? Can technology industrialise or even commoditise art in the same way we moved from handicraft to mass-production?
If this is not concerning enough, think about what will happen when artificial intelligence can understand enough about human creativity to develop new, original artistic styles on its own.
So I leave you with a couple of final questions: What will happen to human artists once AI can do most of what they do, and better? And how will human creativity find a way to express itself in that world?