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Photo from TUNDRA from National Dance Company Wales credit Rhys Cozens

New for new's sake?

With the boom - and hype around new technologies (VR, AR, Mixed reality, haptics and the like), to what extent do these advances represent opportunities for artists rather than simply gimmicks, and how should practitioners decide which is which?

Art has both influenced and been influenced by technology throughout history. As technology becomes ever more sophisticated, and central to our daily lives, this relationship continues to evolve.

As new technologies develop, the artist's palette expands, offering new possibilities for both how artists create and how we experience art. That said, my connection with a work of art has never been driven by the technology used to create it - instead, the impact is felt through the content of a work or works.

When I first started working in this field, my mantra was that technology should never be the starting point for artistic projects. Whilst I still believe this is partially true, some of the most interesting artistic works I have seen that use new technologies began through simple experimentation - with artists exploring a technology’s utility, boundaries and potential. Technology can be more than an enabler; it can provide the germination point for an entirely new creative idea, taking an artist in unexpected and unprecedented directions.

Beyond the wow of the tech

At the Google Arts and Culture Lab, we bring together artists and engineers to experiment at the intersection of art and technology. We recently collaborated with Jonathan Yeo, a British artist curious about new technology and open to experimentation. Yeo worked with Google engineers and the virtual reality painting tool, Tilt Brush, to create his first sculpture – a painted self-portrait – and I think surprised even himself with how the work evolved.

Through his experimentation and collaboration with Google engineers, Yeo pushed both the capabilities of the technology and his own creative process, applying a series of processes that had never been brought together before: combining new innovations such as 3D scanning (his own head), virtual reality (painting in Tilt Brush) and 3D printing (direct from Tilt Brush for the first time) with traditional sculpting and casting techniques which brought the virtual process into the physical world. The final work was exhibited as part of the Royal Academy’s From Life exhibition - you can find out more about the process in a 360 film short ‘From Virtual to Reality’.

Artist Jonathan Yeo in his Chelsea studio using Google Tilt Brush to create a self-portrait sculpture in virtual reality from a 3D scan of himselfJonathan Yeo in his Chelsea studio using Google Tilt Brush to create a VR self-portrait sculpture from a 3D scan.

This is just one example of the artistic opportunities presented by new technologies, which the team at the Google Arts and Culture Lab are helping to facilitate.  At the Lab we ask 'what's next'? What are the next tools for artists, and how can technology help us connect with culture in new ways? However, an equally important question that we ask is ‘why’? Why should this film be in 360? Why is Augmented Reality better for this experience than another reality? It is a truism of sorts that the increasing pace of technological development can mean that platforms can often find themselves in search of a reason to exist, whilst they wait for the mainstream to catch up (a position Augmented Reality has seemingly found itself in for a decade, perhaps to be rescued by recent advents in built-in technology on Android and iOS).

Jason Farago of the New York Times has said of virtual reality that the ‘challenge is to put [it] in the service of something more complex, for it would be a pity if wonder was all we got’. This captures why it is important to consider the value that technology adds. If the technology provides a value to what the artist wants to express then the risk of gimmick is unlikely. However, it is important that practitioners continue to ask these questions, and with the rapid advancement of some technologies, a growing challenge will be how to master the tool and go beyond the ‘wow’ of the tech.  

A tool or a collaborator? Creative process or outcome?

In Jonathan Yeo’s process, the technology became a tool that was critical to his creative process. However, it was Yeo, rather than the technology, that defined the outcome. When we worked with set-designer Es Devlin and the Serpentine Galleries, Devlin collaborated with Machine Learning to realise her idea, asking: can an algorithm bring together a disparate set of words to form a growing cumulative poem? The answer was yes; Devlin’s interactive installation, Poem Portraits, worked with an algorithm created by creative technologist Ross Goodwin. The algorithm was trained on millions of words from 19th Century poetry, and generated a personalised poem for each participant, which illuminated their face based on a word they had shared. Devlin’s concept came first, the technology then enabled her vision to be realised.

As technology develops in the years ahead, from machine learning - a defining technology for years to come – to storytelling tools and platforms such as virtual and augmented reality, we may see the emergence of new art forms, just as we saw with the invention of photography. For some practitioners, tools such as virtual reality and machine learning may only be a part of the creative process. For others these tools may be more central to the outcome of the work. The artist will drive if and how they use such tools, just as they have done throughout history. Cross sector collaboration is as important as ever - if arts and tech communities communicate, new avenues of artistic expression can flourish.

Programme Manager at Google Cultural Lab, Freya Murray was writing for The Space's collection of essays 'Self publishing and the arts'.