When Art and Technology Collide

The symbiotic relationship between artists and technologists has enhanced the creation, and consumption, of art.

Written by Dawn Kawamoto
Published on Feb. 09, 2022
When Art and Technology Collide

Domhnaill Hernon trained as an engineer and rose up the ranks at Bell Labs, the renowned research and development arm of Nokia, to ultimately become its vice president of research and innovation. But in fall 2016, while attending the 50th anniversary of the performance art series, 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, his analytical, logical left brain took a backseat to the more creative and imaginative right side.

“My perspective as a technologist completely changed. Every single conversation I had with the artists blew my mind. They were talking about the intersection of technology and humanity and the role that technology should play in furthering society in a way that I’d never been exposed to in all my work experience or education,” Hernon told Built In. 

Those conversations with artists inspired him to develop new ways of thinking about researching, developing, and putting products out into the world and launch Nokia Experiments in Arts and Technology, an artist in residence program, said Hernon, who now works as director of innovation and creativity and global lead of cognitive human enterprise at professional services firm EY.

The collaboration between art and technology isn’t new. Think, for example, of Leonardo Da Vinci, a polymath that dabbled in engineering, science, painting, architecture and sculpture. In more recent times, this relationship has evolved from focusing on the artists’ work to influencing how technology is developed. And it’s resulted in new forms of art and inspired more inclusive tech.


An Artist and Engineering Collective

Prior to the mid-1960s, collaborations between artists, engineers and scientists did happen but it wasn’t widespread, Julie Martin, director of Experiments in Arts and Technology (E.A.T.), told Built In.

One example in 1966, Bell Labs engineer Billy Kluver and artist Robert Rauschenberg led a 10-month project between 10 artists and performers and more than 30 engineers and scientists. Together they produced a performance art series 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York.

The following year, Kluver and fellow Bell Labs engineer Fred Waldhauer, and artists Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman founded E.A.T., a non-profit that fostered collaborations between artists, engineers, and scientists. 

“The early artists that worked with E.A.T. didn’t know technology but what’s interesting is they were pushing it in new ways because they had visions about what they wanted their art to do,” Martin said. “That elicited new solutions.”

She noted the arts not only shaped technology but technology also shaped the arts. For example, inexpensive recording techniques using video and personal computers allowed artists to create and edit their own work led to an important shift in the arts.

“The early artists that worked with E.A.T. didn’t know technology but what’s interesting is they were pushing it in new ways because they had visions about what they wanted their art to do ... That elicited new solutions.”

“I think the democratization of tools that artists could use was one of the things where advances in technology had an influence in the arts,” Martin said.

The 1960s and 1970s were a particularly important era for collaborations and interchanges between artists and humanists with scientists and technologists, David Brock, director of curatorial affairs for the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, told Built In. These exchanges took place within companies and universities, he noted. 

“The intensity of these developments was likely due to a culture of experimentation and avant-gardism that was taking hold within the international art world, and to reactions by technical communities and organizations to the political and cultural changes and critiques of the era,” Brock said.

And while there are examples of this kind of collaboration and exchanges before the 1960s and 1970s and these efforts have continued to the present, Brock notes they now have a commercial, even transactional character that was less prominent before. 

“This may reflect the greater force of commerce within the art world, and a narrowing of conceptions of corporate responsibility, eschewing, for the most part, the common good of the nation and the culture,” said Brock.

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Artists in Tech

A greater focus on human emotions, behavior and traits are some of the people-focused thinking that artists bring to the table in their collaborations with engineers and scientists, tech executives said. 

For example, the attention of engineers at Bell Labs was caught by artist and professor Jeffery Thompson when he made an offhand comment on excessive smartphone usage stealing time away from loved ones, said Hernon.

“We worked with him on expanding that thought and what that means in respect to the future of communication devices,” Hernon said. “We started to deeply question him and other artists what designs should be avoided 10 years from now so smartphones can be more human-centric and don’t involve our heads down all the time looking at the screen.”

The answer? Wearables, Hernon said. 

“Out of these artistic interactions, we built these wearable devices that gave you all the functionality you needed in a smartphone but kept you more present in the world around you and connected with the people you love in a much more human way,” Hernon said.

Another Bell Labs artist-in-residence Sougwen Chung made an eye-opening observation to Bell Labs engineers on the algorithms they were designing for smart city applications, which focused on traffic patterns at congested intersections in big cities, recalled Hernon.

“She opened our eyes to a whole new research direction.”

The engineers were capturing only a fraction of the information because they were focused solely on the vehicles, rather than taking into account all the things that were happening with the drivers, pedestrians and others milling around the intersection.

“She pointed out we were missing this aspect of motion and how traffic patterns were affecting how people were moving around. She said the way we were developing our algorithms was very much limited,” said Hernon. “She opened our eyes to a whole new research direction where having humans at the center was really important.”

Only Human: Sougwen Chung (2018) | Video: NEW INC

Adobe has also benefited from its Creative Residency Program. Its Adobe Fresco and Adobe Lightroom teams have gained new insights by working with artists, said Heidi Voltmer, director of Adobe Creative Cloud, who also oversees its Creative Residency Program, told Built In.

Adobe’s Fresco team wanted to give users the sensation of pressing down on paper with pastels or other drawing instruments when using a stylus or other touch devices and an iPad and digital illustrator and Adobe artist-in-residence Syd Weiler provided valuable feedback, Voltmer told Built In. 

Artist Aundre Larrow worked with the Adobe Lightroom team under the company’s Creative Residency Program. His request to have better editing tools to enhance the different tones of people of color in photographs and video led to changes in Adobe’s Lightroom preset lighting feature. 

“After I read an article about how the lighting design team for Issa Rae’s ‘Insecure’ lit scenes to make sure the Black and brown stars of the show looked their best. My curiosity was piqued as I started to notice implicit things I was doing to compensate for light meters, bad presets, and to bring out undertones,” Larrow told Built In. 

He brought the issue up to the Lightroom team and they listened, Larrow said. He added he also had an opportunity to present his work, a series of vignettes of America and its psyche called Stories From Here, directly to Adobe product managers, as well as add new educational materials into the app, and, more importantly, new presets Adobe developed with artists like Larrow.  

Aundre Larrow, former Adobe Creative Resident, video “Float” | Video: Aundre

Collaborations between Adobe’s product teams and artists have yielded enhancements to existing products and pushed their boundaries, Voltmer said. 

During the interview process of potential Adobe Creative Residency artists, members of the various Adobe product teams participate in the interview. As a result, the artists and product teams are somewhat familiar with each other’s work before the artists’ residency begins.

“We don’t ask artists to relocate, so it’s not like they’ll be bumping into each other in the hall and spontaneously talking. It’s been a little bit more deliberate. Maybe someone on the product team will specifically say, ‘hey, we’re working on this and want your feedback and insights,” Voltmer said.

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How Technology Influences Art Now

The fusion of art and technology has spawned a number of new art forms, as well as democratized art by making it available for nearly everyone to enjoy by making it available online and more affordable for artists to create with the tech tools that are now available. It has also created a new form of artist, a tech-centered artist, as noted by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

New art forms from NFTs to media art, which includes film, photography, video and audio, as well as new media art that spans from computer-digital art, memes and interactive media, are furthering the growing relationship between art and technology.

Photo and video editing technologies you can use on your phone have had a great impact on the art world, said Larrow. Many people can pick up an inexpensive used smartphone and start taking photos, or watch a YouTube video on how to use oil paints, he noted.  

“Photography is unbelievably expensive … to photograph most things you need at least $300 dollars worth of equipment and who has that lying around?” said Larrow, a former Adobe Creative Resident. “But by adding a camera to a phone and then giving folks a way to easily share it, we made having taste, having an eye for light, a key part of society in a short period of time.” 

Technology has allowed for the possibility of interactive art and changed the relationship between art and viewer. For example, teamLab, a collective of artists, engineers, animators and architects, create interactive art that changes as people touch the digital images or if the digital images bump into the viewer as they walk through the room or rooms displaying the art.

“One characteristic of interactive art is that the existence and behavior of the viewer can influence the art, blurring the line between art and viewer. In other words, the artistic work is made up of both the art and the viewer,” a teamLab member told DeMagSign in a 2020 interview.  

teamLab: Continuity. | Video: teamLab

3D printing is also bringing new tools to artists involved in pottery and sculptures. It allows artists to bring highly complex design and detail to their work and offers the advantage of saving time to create the work and make cost-effective replicas, 3D natives writes

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies, like Google’s Tilt Brush that allows artists to paint in 3D space, are becoming a popular medium for artists to explore. VR and AR art are gaining enough momentum to even warrant their own special galleries to showcase the work in such galleries as the Synthesis Gallery in Berlin and Miruku.org’s Mini Museum of Art, according to a report in Cultural Daily.

Technology’s influence on the arts is attracting the attention of art collectors.  

A private collection of media art, the Kramlich Collection, has more than 300 works of art and got its start in 1987. It began when San Francisco art collector Pamela Kramlich and her husband tech venture capitalist Dick Kramlich, co-founder of New Enterprise Associates (NEA) and Green Bay Ventures, acquired video artwork “The Way Things Go” by Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

“I had already begun developing an interest in video work because it was this new paintbox inspired by the technology coming from Silicon Valley,” said Kramlich, who wanted to collect art related to tech. “Early on, I knew I was collecting something different because so very few people were.”  

The Kramlichs and the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Silicon Valley are exploring potential opportunities to show some of the works from the Kramlich Collection at the museum, said Kramlich and Dan’l Lewin, president and CEO of CHM.

Other tech museums, like the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco, feature exhibitions on the relationship between art and science to some degree, but CHM focuses on computing’s past, its digital present and future impact, Lewin said.

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Future of Technology and Arts Collaboration

Engineers and scientists had more freedom in collaborating with artists in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, Hernon said. As a result, collaborations were largely focused on helping the artist with their creations. But now, companies are focused mostly on profit, Hernon said.

Some companies also assume putting an artist in a room of engineers and scientists will lead to something magical and good. However, it takes a lot of planning, communication and understanding to connect and create, Hernon said

“If you don’t bring the artistic perspective deep into your business, your tech or product teams, what’s the point of developing products unless it’s for humanity?”

“The business world has gotten into this horrible mode of expecting big returns with almost no upfront investment. And if there aren’t returns in say six months, they’ll point and say it was a waste of time and that they’ll never do it again. It may take 10 years before that negativity works its way out of the system before they try again,” Hernon said.

But that isn’t the case everywhere, of course. Hernon sees students in younger generations today as more socially conscious and aware of their impact on the environment and society. “These people may become the future leaders of organizations,” Hernon said. And that shines an optimistic light on the direction of business, tech and art. Hopefully, leaders in these industries recognize the value in arts and humanities, he said.

“If you don’t bring the artistic perspective deep into your business, your tech or product teams, what’s the point of developing products unless it’s for humanity?” Hernon asked.

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