When art and technology come together, how do you react? Does it inspire, or do you find it controversial? Or maybe you’re surprised, realizing that the combination challenges you as the viewer. Am I part of the art if the light installation reacts when I approach it? Can the stealthy curve of composites into a wing leading edge be aesthetic as well as functional?
Disruptive Tech Innovates Art
Working with new technology is disruptive for both the viewer and the artist. Just as non-traditional materials might be uncomfortable viewing for an audience more familiar with traditional paint and canvas, they also affect an artist’s creative practice.
For example, sculptor and installation artist Johannes Girardoni finds that he needs a more deliberate and critical approach when using new technology to explore the intersection between light and material. Forcing himself to consider the role and function of technology in an art piece avoids seduction by the “newness” of it all. Although the creative idea comes first, technology helps with its execution and allows him to ask new questions.
Working first with beeswax and pigment before moving to resin as a material, Girardoni now incorporates sensors and light-emitting diodes within his work. These sensors pick up data from the surroundings of the installation, from viewer actions such as movement and its effect on light. Algorithms then analyze these data, transforming and re-presenting them back to the viewer as light and sound (spectro-sonic refrequencing). As Girardoni describes it, “The viewer is presented with a rearticulated version of themselves.”
Artists as Innovators
Using new materials to make art is nothing new. Artists have been innovating throughout history to explore perception, and how we view ourselves and the world around us. Whether grinding rocks into pigments or molding sticky mud into shapes, artists are early adopters, constantly exploring the potential for expression and interpretation of the world around them. It is not surprising that they find that plastics, nanomaterials and lasers communicate creatively just as well as (or perhaps better than) traditional media such as paint, clay and stone.
When is a color not a color? Kate Nichols, current artist in residence at the Alivisatos Lab at UC Berkeley, explores nanomaterials to recreate the morpho butterfly’s “absence of color” wing patterns. The brilliant blue in this species’ wings comes not from actual pigments but from how they handle light. Wing scales interact with light waves, absorbing some wavelengths and reflecting back others, using diffraction and interference to boost signal strength back at the viewer. Your eye “sees” blue, but there is no blue pigment present; it’s a trick of the light.
Nichols, who suggests that artists were early materials scientists, notes that new technology in art is often not that new; silver mirroring, stained glass and ceramic lusters are skills from bygone eras that exploit nanomaterial science for aesthetic effect.
Girardoni also notes that questions of perception, on how we view the external environment and ourselves, can often be addressed with established basic technology; however, he also suggests that using new technology in art brings relevance in current context.
In reference to the explosion of data and data-gathering taking place 24/7 in daily life, he points out that “as humans, we are no longer the only ones sensing,” a concept that he explores in his current practice.
In the large-scale immersive sculpture, Metaspace V2, an elliptical aluminum shell mirrors its environment via sensors before presenting it back to the viewer. Seated within its shell, the viewer “senses themselves seeing” — experiencing this personal data collection in real time through changes in light and sound. Furthermore, since the viewer is part of the installation, they also contribute through motion and other responses, influencing the re-presentation. A relationship thus develops between artwork and viewer, establishing a continual feedback loop or dialogue that Girardoni suggests mirrors our current daily life.
We’re constantly bombarded with an influx of data gathered from us and thus constantly influenced by it, affecting our behavior and interactions — “New tech affects everybody all the time — so [the] art is a conceptual reflection of our life.”
Although it’s difficult to pin down an absolute definition and there are many different interpretations available, this one from Merriam Webster neatly encapsulates what art is and explains how new technology might advance it: “something that […] expresses important ideas or feelings.”
Both art and technology innovate and disrupt; in combination as conversation starters, they are rarely dull.
With thanks to Johannes Girardoni and his studio manager, Heidi Girardoni, for contributing to this article.