DIgital Art: the move from concept to context

[This is a piece I wrote for Bristol Watershed's Playable Cities commission.
A version of this appeared in WIRED UK in Dec 2012.]

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. We are now immersed in a digital world; so how close are we to the generation of artists that 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 -- filled with smart cities and networked objects -- a functional, benefit-led data-driven place, flipping classrooms and crowdsourcing solutions. Yet in this world there are relatively few artists or data sculptors such as Aaron Koblin, the wired poets of the new reality.

This new art 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 stands to reason that digital art should be all of this and seek to reflect the state of contemporary reality using contemporary platforms. What might that look like? Art that might game our behaviours and our environment into new ways of understanding.

We are told the world is going mobile; 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 fromKeiichi Matsuda's prescient Augmented City.

And this raises many challenges, such as how to move you, dear viewer, between the real world and the digital one? How will this "art" start? Let's imagine you are standing in the street, in the middle of an exhibit, but you wouldn't know. Or everyone else in the building is immersed in a location based performance work, but you are not. You are out of the game. How do you enter this world, what do you click, where is your ticket, is that an app or just a url, and either way how do you get it?

It is a question not of clicks but of context. What used to be conceptual is now contextual. How do we 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? The artists can use 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. And these can all become the equivalent of a "click", like pressing a button, or opening a door into one of those old white cubed galleries. Potentially it is chaos, or beauty.

We are 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 the new form means viewers have to contribute to the work in order to experience the cumulative piece. Perhaps it could be an extravagant interactive experience, or augmented reality, or just as simple as trees that whisper secrets to you (if there is no one else around).

And you may even have to subscribe -- art that requires you 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 shine light on this. 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 reflecting 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 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. Playable City seems to be just the very start of that. Digital art is not about touch-screens or clicking things -- but it is 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 show us new ways to see the world.

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