Whenever I start talking about art and technology in the same sentence, I can usually hear a sigh of exasperation. I understand why. On the West Coast especially, a conversation about art and technology perennially attempts to graft one industry onto another, aligning the two sectors through “artistic technology” or “technological art.” Meanwhile another perpetual conversation regurgitates the belief that art and technology can never mix or compare, that tech is the oil that makes the world go and art is the water that brings life.
These conversations are polarizing. They point to a perceived divide between art and tech while ignoring their inherent overlaps as interconnected cultural assets. In the U.S., our interests are compartmentalized—mathematics are over here, music is over here, the tech industry is over there, and the arts are out of reach for anyone except an elite upper economic class.
I’m not buying it. The arts and sciences are deeply interconnected, and technology itself is the bridge between them.
Art and science are both driven by inquiry, research and experimentation. Their investigative processes begin with a set of queries: What is it, what does it do, who is it for, why, why not? The pursuit in the lab or the studio is in answering these questions. More philosophically, the pursuit may simply be in identifying questions to further acquire and share knowledge.
And yet so many of us hesitate to recognize these analogous processes—perhaps because we understand their products in such wildly different terms. Whereas science and tech are considered quantifiable, art is unquantifiable, divorced from its function as a commodity. Likewise, science and tech are about attaining a kind of certainty, whereas art is about exploring uncertainty. Really each of them is rooted in the act of seeking.
In the arts, concerns about commodification center not around a user, but around the pitfalls of the market itself, its potential to corrupt, whether it requires the artist to relinquish control, whether it’s necessary to sustain the arts as viable industries. And yet, the arts do produce artifacts for sale and purchase and it would be foolish to discredit the participation of an arts “user”; the completion of any creative work ends with its audience.
Tech is as subjective as any painting and it still manages to succeed as a product and user-driven industry. Tech focuses on a product—a commodity—for people to use. Even more interesting, it capitalizes on the user’s subjective experiences as benefits rather than drawbacks.
Think of the artist who criticizes the art market but wishes to earn a living from a profession to which they have dedicated years of formal (or informal) education, studio hours, apprenticeships and practice. The artist wants to uphold their integrity by not compromising the purity of an idea to make more money. He or she wants to maintain creative freedom rather than bend to the demands of consumers. Any bending on the part of the artist is perceived as a compromise of that authenticity and freedom. Why?
The act of creation is fundamentally human and intimate. It takes blood, sweat and tears to make something of aesthetic and conceptual value. So it makes sense that people might believe anything that endangers the virtuous nature of the arts is suspect. But the tech industry—which relies on automation and mass-manufacture to execute a creative project and maximize profit— doesn’t question its creative integrity the way the arts do. Why the difference? Because people regard the arts as a purpose and they regard tech as a tool.
Tech supports and assists the creative process as much as it uses it. Legions of researchers, data analysts, social scientists, concept artists and UX designers work together to create tools that we all use every day—from smart phones to highly specialized hardware. All of these tools expand, inform and illuminate our existence. They help us define and describe our world—and they also help us make things.
The West Coast feels like it’s at war. Huge volumes of people employed in the tech industry are pouring into our cities because that’s where the jobs are. This presents a real problem for the affordability and character of our cities, and it’s easy to assign blame to newcomers for a quickly changing landscape. But if we look at tech as an ally of the arts, then it ceases to look like a threat.
Tech and art are not opposing forces, but supporting ones. Each industry offers value to the other.
An alliance between art and tech is already being forged by artists and technologists who are crossing over. They signal the beginning of a massive cultural shift. Less literal interpretations of “tech-based art” are giving way to an inspired spectrum of projects with more nebulous boundaries that incorporate mathematics, linguistics, sciences, philosophy, visual arts and technology all at once. These creators and their patrons are the intrepid early adopters who believe it is possible to pioneer these systems together, to co-exist and co-create.
It begins by walking across the bridge.