Technology, Artists, Money — and You

Technology Liberal Arts
Where technology and liberal arts intersect.

I was in Providence recently to attend the first annual Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces (CRCI), where I was lucky to meet with young artists who were discussing their practice and relevant issues in the most optimistic and excited tones. Organized by CFR columnist Sydney Skybetter, who is a Public Humanities Fellow at Brown University, with underwriting from the Brown University Creative Arts Council, this fascinating meeting explored the intersection between technology and choreography — loosely defined in this case as anything involving gesture in the service of artistic communication.

The participants — practitioners with a deep interest and engagement in technology and movement — were mostly young, smart, vocal and articulate.

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The two-day event was a terrific introduction to many of the evolving and complex issues that inhabit this intersection, though I would have liked more discussion on the aesthetic issues. As makes sense in our age, marked by the increasing presence of pervasive technology, most conversations touched on how technology impacts and limits (or can limit) movement. Some of the topics explored at the conference were:

  • ownership of data created using such technology, particularly when it reveals personal information;
  • the tension between surveillance and ambivalence in the face of technology;
  • increasingly accessible motion-capture technology and its uses;
  • augmented reality and virtual reality — the history and development;
  • robotics and movement;
  • interactive performance and the use of sensors in real-time;
  • interaction between avatar performers and real audience members; and
  • the preservation and archiving of cultural gestures.

As if we need any more evidence, the main takeaway from the conference is that technology continues to advance and insinuate itself pervasively into our daily lives, including in artistic practice. In addition, there are all sorts of new and unresolved legal and social issues arising; depending on one’s viewpoint, these either provide great opportunities or strike deep-seated fears. It is probably banal to comment that the majority of those speaking and participating in the conference have grown up in, or on the cusp of, a truly digital world in which there has always been a computer in their lives; we can’t underestimate what that means. Thinking back on my interactions at the conference, I had the sense that these young practitioners view the world differently in at least three ways from those of my generation, born in the mid-20th century, and it is interesting to consider whether, with such a small sampling, there is anything representative to be learned about general trends from this group.

One shift that is noted and discussed at length elsewhere is that ours is a “gig” economy, in which mobility and transience will be hallmarks of one’s career. What was striking, however, is how comfortable the participants in the conference seemed to be with this shift.

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In my encounters with young technologists, both at the conference and elsewhere, I find people working simultaneously in multiple areas, seemingly transitioning back and forth fluidly and seamlessly, piecing together a living. The ease with which they shift extends beyond how they support themselves financially; it seems they have found ways to feed multiple parts of themselves and their needs, almost as if they have adopted multitasking as a basis for the structure of their lives.

The apparent result of such fluidity is that these young professionals work in technology, do research, and make art, seemingly moving from one to the other without any angst or difficulty. Contrast this with my generation of practitioners, who merely struggled with how to make a living as an artist. As I have noted elsewhere, it seems that young artists just get on with things and do what they need to do. This might be explained by them not knowing anything different — after all, it is often easier to build a new building with the latest technology than to renovate an old building with its pre-existing infrastructure. What I sense most, though, is that young practitioners lack any sense of entitlement that arises out of their being artists, which stands in contradiction to the classic romanticized notion of the artist-practitioner.

Along with this fluidity, or perhaps related to it, this group does not carry the negative assumptions about money and its connection to artistic practice that often pervades the traditional nonprofit world. These young artists feel strongly about their work and the “purity” of it, but have no antipathy to the involvement of money in their practice.

Perhaps these artists are engaging in a sector that, like film or architecture, is really an industrial manufacturing process — one untroubled by reliance on capital and marketplace; they accept such forces at work, and in their work, very naturally. It’s a major difference from practitioners who were trained to believe in, and aspire to, the romantic notion of the “artist,” where all value derives from personal creation, not from market motivations. Such artists long believed that doing their work free of any connection to market pressures was noble and potentially validating.

To be clear, I am not proposing that there is anything less aesthetic about art forms that are or include industrial processes. I am suggesting, though, that the environment in which an artist practices might have a large bearing on his or her feelings about, and relationship to, the market and its rules and laws.

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[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The goal is self-expression.[/pullquote]While it is true that all artists are always engaging in some kind of research in their work, for some in this group of young practitioners, research seemed to be the sine qua non — the very essence of what they were doing — rather than a vehicle to explore areas of interest. Typically, artists pose problems for themselves (consciously or not) in order to explore how to best achieve their vision; the goal is self-expression. In a marked shift, a number of the conference practitioners indicated that the research itself was the only point to what they were doing. Put another way, their own curiosity was the “audience” for the work, not the outside viewer. In this sense, the work of these practitioners was akin to high-level mathematics or academic research, where posing and answering questions is the totality of the experience. At the same time, despite such a personal approach to artistic practice, the conferees exhibited a very high level of sharing and interacting with each other’s exploration — also not unlike what we expect from scientists or academic researchers.

While the conferees were, to repeat, not a large sample by any means, it is interesting to note the dramatically different sensibilities they exhibited as they build their practice, career and life-path. It is difficult to truly compare the practice of these artists and technologists to those reared in another time and environment, but there is no doubt that the world continues to evolve around us and that we are each subject to the experience of the world we are born into. None of us can predict where the future will lead, but conversations like those at CRCI can help us navigate the radical change our world is going through — and hopefully build a better future for us all.

Looking ahead to next year’s conference, I know the organizers are already considering focusing more on the aesthetic and perhaps even the intellectual property issues raised in this year’s conference. While in Providence, I coincidentally picked up the Winter 2016 issue of Dædalus, which has articles on many of the topics discussed, thus emphasizing the timeliness of this event. Coupled together, the conference and the articles raise critical issues to consider as technology advances in our daily, and artistic, lives.