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Words. Tom Uglow

150 years ago, the colour photographic process was being invented. At the same time, the Impressionists began to re-imagine the world through painted interpretations of light, something that is now so normal as to appear saccharine or twee. It would be another 100 years before the technology of the photograph would be commonly framed, or presented, as art. Fast forward 150 years and we are now immersed in a digital world of data; how close are we to the generation of artists who will transform our world through their interpretations of data? When might “digital art” become just “art”?

Our data-marked world is often represented as benignly utilitarian—a functional, benefits-led, data-driven existence of smart cities and networked objects, flipped classrooms and crowdsourced solutions. Yet in this world there are relatively few artists or data sculptors; very few wired poets for our new reality.

What challenges will these new wired poets take on? New art for our new age will not be painted, or static, or televised, or found in a gallery. It must be digital, and digital means dynamic, constantly changing. Digital means algorithmic, generative, collaborative, crowdsourced - the output is unique to the user, to the time, to the place. It must seek to reflect the state of contemporary reality using contemporary platforms. What might it look like? Will it game our behaviours and our environment into new ways of understanding?

We are told the world is going mobile, and it seems hard to argue. We prefer to swipe, push and prod rather than sit and click. Small screens are getting larger. We check the news in line at Starbucks. Share photos on the loo. Setting up a direct debit on the train seems normal, as is shopping on the bus. What used to be a “click” is now a swipe, a scan, spoken, shaken, or touched, or better still, “it just knows”. Our phones and tablets have become remote controls for an alternative reality that hovers around us like a scene from Keiichi Matsuda’s prescient Augmented City.

These mediums raise many challenges, such as how to move you, dear viewer, between the real world and the digital one. How will this “art” begin? Let’s imagine you’re standing in the street, in the middle of an exhibit, completely unaware. Or everyone else in the building is immersed in a location-based performance work, but you are not. How do you enter this world? What do you click? Where is your ticket? Is it an app or just a url, and either way, how do you get it?

“Digital” art is not just a question of clicks, but of context. What used to be conceptual is now contextual. How will artists tell your device to initiate an action? What triggers the art when you remove the need for it to exist on a screen, or at a certain time, or even in a certain place? How will we respond to artists’ use of ambient measures like temperature, location, frequency, velocity, orientation, sounds, volume, weight, speed, humidity, density, face recognition, emotion recognition, touch, keywords, time, or any combination of these? Especially when these can all become the equivalent of a “click” - as easy as pressing a button, or opening a door into one of those old white cubed galleries. Potentially it is chaos, or beauty.

We’re already comfortable with digital art immersions, literally. There have been consistent two-hour-long queues for Random International’s Rain Room at the Barbican—an exhibit which uses location-aware software to follow the “viewer” around the room and moves the “rain” around them. Maybe we’ll push this further in future, making viewers contribute to the work in order to experience the cumulative piece. Perhaps we’ll create extravagant interactive experiences, or augmented reality, or maybe it will be as simple as trees that whisper secrets to you (if there is no one else around).

And you may even have to subscribe to authenticate yourself. When we can create a conventional market for work with that potential for intimacy, magic and scarcity, then we will have a whole new art. The Tate can sell tickets to an exhibition that occurs where you are, and that exists around you.

A new international commission from Bristol’s Watershed might push us further in this direction. The commission provides £30,000 for artists using creative technologies to explore the theme of the ‘Playable City’ in and around the streets of Bristol, turning the hard purposefulness of the data-driven ‘smart city’ into a context-driven chaos, a cacophonous, playful, playable city—or perhaps one that reflects the darkness and the absurdity of our device-driven sensibilities.

We are raised and educated to understand the world visually, and this is why we understand today’s non-digital art. It might be hoped that the next generation of artists will be raised to understand the world digitally, and so understand data as art, and they will illuminate our endless volumes of self-generated data and make them beautiful. Digital art will not be about touch-screens or clicking things, but about removing the constraints of the past thousand years and using data and hardware to generate extraordinary transformative experiences, just as photography did. The first step towards this is funding artists properly to make this work, rather than relying on galleries, schools or brands to stimulate and subsidize. From the urban spaces of Bristol, Playable City will hopefully be the first of many commissions for contextual art that transcends technology and shows us new ways to see the world.

Tom UglowCreative Director
Google and YouTube’s Creative Lab

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