The intersection of art and technology gets a lot of press these days. In any given headline, it might be the “next frontier.” Or where cultural innovation happens. On some days, it’s spawning new job titles (e.g., curator of digital initiatives). And it always feels bright and shiny and optimistic and most importantly, new, even though artists have been experimenting with new technologies since the dawn of technology itself.
And therein lies the challenge one faces when considering what exactly is happening at this much-publicized intersection. On one hand, the phrase is applied, seemingly broadly, to everything from NFTs and the ever-morphing works of Refik Anadol to the kinds of immersive installations pioneered by Sandro Kereselidze’s Artechouse. On the other, what reportedly exists at the intersection of art and technology seems strangely circumscribed. There’s computer-generated art and art inspired by technology at these crossroads but very little science.
Or to put it another way, it seems there’s a lot more digital art being created at the intersection of the arts and technology than there are radical pairings of art and science. It may come down to people simply being more open to art borrowing from science and engineering than the reverse, even though there are plenty of notable examples of art inspiring scientific discovery. Niels Bohr in his development of the non-intuitive complementarity principle of quantum mechanics, for example, drew inspiration from Jean Metzinger’s cubist works.
Claims that the dividing line between science and art is artificial come off as hyperbolic, but both scientists and artists are dreamers who channel their creative energies into untangling the world’s mysteries and building new things. It’s logical to consider what the intersection of art and technology could look like if the focus was on deep collaboration instead of just tapping into one or the other as a source of inspiration.
Modeling a stronger synergy of art and science
On a Saturday in late January, scientists, engineers, artists and the curious gathered at the New Museum in New York City for the relaunch of Seven on Seven (7×7), an event born out of a 2010 hackathon that paired seven engineers with seven artists to demonstrate what could happen when they worked together. The lineup of past participants is a fascinating who’s who of art and tech: Tumblr founder David Karp, Internet entrepreneur Jonah Peretti and Aza Raskin of the Center for Humane Technology… new media artist Tabita Rezaire, moving image artist Hito Steyerl and performance and installation artist Martine Syms. In 2015, Ai Weiwei collaborated with the hacker Jacob Appelbaum. This year, Boston Dynamics’ Spot took to the stage with dancer Mor Mendel as part of a collaboration between Boston Dynamics Director of Human-Robot Interaction David Robert and artist Miriam Simun with Hannah Rossi.
Scientist–artist collaboration can take many forms: art-based communication can make science more accessible… new technologies become mediums in the hands of artists. What’s less common is what one Eos article calls “ArtScience,” which involves “artists and scientists working together in transdisciplinary ways to ask questions, design experiments and formulate knowledge.” 7×7, which is organized by the born-digital art and culture organization Rhizome, puts ArtScience on display by design. According to Xinran Yuan, this year’s producer and co-curator, it’s as important for the public to see collaboration between artists and scientists in action as it is to see the final output.
That output was fascinating and surprisingly moving—Ginkgo Bioworks Head of Creative Christina Agapakis and artist Xin Liu’s yeast that lactates stood out—though I personally would have liked each duo’s presentations to be longer. Other 2024 7×7 participants included Replika AI CEO and Founder Eugenia Kuyda with artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson; Nym Technologies CEO and Co-Founder Harry Halpin with artist Tomás Saraceno; Runway CEO and Co-Founder Cristóbal Valenzuela with comedian, writer, and actor Ana Fabrega; and engineer and entrepreneur Alan Steremberg with artist Rindon Johnson; and quantum physicist Dr. Stephon Alexander working with comedian, artist and musician Reggie Watts.
The focus of this year’s event was A.I.—specifically, the role it might play in our lives moving forward. It’s a blisteringly hot topic in the art world, given the emergence of tools that many artists argue are, at best, plagiarism machines and, at worst, livelihood killers.
“I’m glad that I’m alive right now at this really precarious time in human history and to be involved with A.I.,” Watts said at the end of an engaging and pleasantly optimistic talk on the potential of artificial intelligence in not only music but also improvisational creation. He was, however, pragmatic about the role artists need to play in the development of the technology. “I think it’s important for artists and technologists, but especially artists, to get ahead of the curve… even if you arrive at ‘this isn’t for me,’ be there at the table to have an opinion so it can be steered in a direction that’s most useful.”
Simun also feels it’s important to consider the question of what our future with A.I. will look like. “A question I asked during my performance is: What would happen if we defined intelligence less on how well someone/something knows, and rather on how well they react to unexpected, ambiguous, and uncertain situations?” she told Observer. “If this was the metric by which we defined intelligence, how might we build our robots and our A.I. differently?”
What scientists gain by working with artists
We’re culturally comfortable with art informed by science but less so by science informed by art—and that means we may be missing out on opportunities for innovation. Matthias C. Rillig, professor of ecology at Freie Universität Berlin, has considered the question in his own lab, which has an established artist-in-residency program, and among the many benefits of art-technology he has identified, idea generation stands out. “In conversations with the artist, unusual terms or connections appear,” he wrote last year. “One recent example of this was the term ‘soundscape stewardship’ that occurred in a conversation with Marcus Maeder,” which led to a paper in Science.
Observer spoke with David Robert shortly after 7×7 about why Boston Dynamics collaborates with artists. “Putting the robot in other contexts, besides what it’s doing for its ‘job’ to earn its keep helps us figure out what’s possible,” he said. Working on projects with artists, he explained, can help engineers understand not only whether people like or don’t like a robot but also what aspects they like or dislike, which can suggest avenues for improvement.
On the other hand, he added, “people project on them all the time and that’s a hard thing to design around.” Boston Dynamics has arguably done a top-notch job of getting people excited about robots, and it this point, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize Spot, which is bright yellow, moves like a happy dog and can be outfitted with what is functionally an arm but makes the robot look something like a friendly apatosaurus. It’s also currently painting with artist Agnieszka Pilat at this year’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Triennial and has danced with BTS, walked the Coperni runway during Paris Fashion Week and given many kids and adults their first view of a real robot in action at Boston’s Museum of Science.
On the other hand, there’s still a ways to go—even with the maximum encutification of robots (see, for example, the University of Manitoba’s Picassnake), people make jokes about killbots and the coming robot apocalypse. “It totally makes sense, given all the narratives that we’ve grown up with,” Robert said. “Most people haven’t had a direct experience with a robot.”
The arts can change that. Simun’s 7×7 piece, as danced to the music of Igor Tkachenko and DJ Dede, offered an alternative to the imaginary robots we grew up with. “I hope the performance I created enabled the audience to gain a new and different perspective on the adoption of robots in our daily lives,” she said. “How are these robots being programmed to behave? To interact with us? To interact with their surroundings? … What kind of relationships with machines do we want, what will we get and what can we dream of?”
In the end, the answer to those questions will be determined by the types of dreamers who took the stage at the New Museum—those for whom art is more than science’s ambassador and technology isn’t just another artist’s tool.