This first appeared in a slightly different form in Oyster Magazine 3/11/2016
Tea Uglow is Creative Director for Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney. She works with cultural and creative organisations around the world exploring the space between technology and the arts and what can happen where they intersect.
Why do you do what you do?
Does anyone know? I mean, except that someone asked or paid you to do this, like talk to you. That is a perfectly good reason I suppose. Or, because we believe in what we are doing, i.e. for love. I spend a lot of time talking about what we do at the Creative Lab, and that aspect can get a bit confusing. All of the above answers are correct.
But which is the most correct?
We generally spend our time exploring things that you can do with the web or your phone, with artists, writers, producers, choreographers, museums and galleries around the world, from the British Museum to a wonderful local women’s circus in Brisbane called Vulcana. We spend our time asking, “What am I doing?” when what we mean is, “Why am I here?” For instance, right now I am sitting on a plane over the Pacific, hunched over a glowing screen trying to explain why it really matters that Google has made a series of books that only exist on mobile phones.
The project is called Editions at Play, a partnership with Visual Editions in London - a groundbreaking boutique publisher and long-term collaborator of ours. The motivation for these projects is not commercial; they rarely change public policy, they don’t make any money (sadly), but the reason this one matters is that without these digital books we cannot move the conversation forward. We simply can’t talk any more about whether books can or should be made as digital without, well, some digital books — new digital literature that is dynamic, data-based, fluid and interactive. These books of ours are incredibly fragile; they will certainly only last a few years. They will not be experienced by future librarians on the right kind of phone over the right network with the right operating system using the right Auth. It is simply impossible. The internet we use is more ephemeral than any other art form.
Doesn't the stuff we type on the internet live forever?
Not really. Society worries about how data is eternal and that we need the ‘right to be forgotten’, but it is also so delicate — both the code and the products. When you ‘buy’ content you ‘buy’ a license, not an object. Some forms of content, like ours, are more like strange performances that will eventually end, often when there is no audience, no one to applaud. The wind changes, fashions shift, hardware is upgraded, systems get patched and suddenly the data is dead, the code kaput. Looking back to the 90s, the best of that first wave of the internet is mainly the stuff that got printed out and turned into coffee table books. Those books, or clumsy screenshots, are future historians’ primary sources. This problem is more acute as we move from that static model to a fluid age of invisible information. To ‘record’ the experiences of the dynamic web is like taking photos of morning dew: fragmentary and one-dimensional, unsatisfactory. The future internet, consisting of machine intelligence communicating with speech rather than all these helpful words on ‘pages’, is even tougher to pin down. Every single web experience is literally performative — a machine pirouetting through a dance of information that is unique to you in that moment and then lost forever.
So how does that fragility inform what we do?
Not only will it challenge how we should write (in our clumsy linear fashion) but it goes to the heart of why a writer writes at all. And all of that is how we have ended up with a virtual bookshop full of non-linear, dynamic, multi-narrator, geo-spatial literature. We are playing in the fleeting shard of sunlight that lets us do this, right now, because in a moment this time will be gone. With digital — whether phones, laptops or cardboard robots — you can only really do what you can do right now, then the performance will end. Our next performance consists of two new digital books: the non-linear Seed, by Joanna Walsh, that takes the reader to a strange, difficult world parsed out of a teenage diary; and a more collaborative as-yet-untitled book [A Universe Explodes] that might end up with nearly 13,000 authors but also, by its conclusion, be only 20 words long. This book also explores the idea of ‘ownership’ by making 100 unique versions of the book that are ‘owned’ and exchanged using blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin. On the flip side to all the excitement, I get a front row seat to view the impact of technology on the cultural sector. I live with the anxiety of what happens next as we watch the development of Artificial Intelligence that can output millions of variations of commercial work, whether that is editing, writing, drawing, composing, photographing.
Will that spur us on to greater forms of art or will we simply stop doing anything?
Exactly. How do we get to the highest rungs of our cultural practice with no lower rungs to practice on? Equally, as everyone should, I get distracted by the lure of virtual reality (VR), and yet I still find real reality somehow better. So I find I prefer IA to AI; R to AR over VR, funnily I find I dislike computers, as I always have. So the team tries to stick to finding ways to get all the information we love so much into our cultural outputs augmenting the world that our artists inhabit, just without screens, without code, rather than through screens. Sacrilegiously, I don’t even believe that our digital books are an improvement on ‘real’ books. The real, physical world will always be more real. But that’s not the point. I have a badge that says ‘Books Are Best’, and I think it means hardbacks, but maybe it means better than screens. Or maybe better than television. Or YouTube. Or VR. Or knitting.
So what is that pin lobbying for? What is it that you believe in?
The collaborations that my team and I seek out are about traditional cultural forms, yet also about the future. They go boldly and a little haphazardly where few artistic directors have gone or should ever go again. We conjure the spirit of creativity in projects across multiple cultural spaces that can easily be dismissed as indulgent or trivial or — worst of all — marketing. Oftentimes we fail. That isn’t indulgent, that is learning. But it is still real. Because the greatest danger is not to learn — to look backwards rather than forwards, to ignore the frontiers, to discourage the explorers. That is that path that gave us today’s future and tomorrow’s world of AI and VR. It is the world envisaged by science-fiction writers and computer scientists and enabled by internet entrepreneurs. It is why the highbrow cultural visionaries that defined post-war culture have, well, lost the future. And that annoys me, because I preferred their world. Maybe that’s why we do what we do — to show other futures.
It is simply ironic that we couldn’t do it without tech firms who create the spaces for fruitful collaborations with the cultural sector. We do what we do because we should never be certain that there isn’t another way, so we create space for doubt and uncertain outcomes, seeking new ways of seeing, experiencing and understanding the digital world — possibilities described by art and intellect rather than commerce and science.