IOT and the Arts: An Unlikely Pair
For time immemorial, technology has raised Art to new heights, providing not just pioneering platforms for artistic minds to break ground on, but also new avenues to connect and collaborate.
Now, however, as data usage dominates the public zeitgeist and visual art begins to fall further away from the access of the everyday individual, both partners in this modern love story find solutions to their industry’s problems in the other.
Art & Tech: A Tale of Two Halves
In 1985 Commodore commissioned Andy Warhol to paint a digital portrait of Debbie Harry on a Commodore Amiga 1000 as part of a promotional event for the computer’s release.
As Warhol plays around with the computer, the expert tries to interview him, only to get the typical affectless Andy responses of “Uh, yes” or “Uh, no.” Asked how often he’s worked on a computer, Warhol answers that this is his first time, which is not surprising given Warhol’s age at the time (56; he would die just 2 years later) and the fact that personal computing was still in its infancy in 1985.
“He was always on the cutting edge or using emerging technologies,” explained Andrea Manderscheid, Art Critic, who cited Warhol’s early use of the Polaroid and the Apple 1 as prime examples. “He was given these technologies, and people came to him wanting to know how he would use them.”
The truth is that technology has been providing creatives with original ways of expression since its beginning. The major shifts, like the transition from the analogue to the digitally created expression, or to even go back further in time, the birth of Impressionism, the famous silkscreen prints of Andy Warhol, or the disturbing performance works by Stelarc would not be possible if technology and science, parallel to the creative’s road, did not push for original production and new frontiers.
Regardless of opinion concerning the relationship between science and art is, it’s a genuine fact that technology offers something that aspiring artists always desired – untouched grounds to explore, to discover something completely their own and sever ties with whatever is considered to be traditional, giving an opportunity to push the established boundaries. This has been true ever since the first modern steps of technology – for example, how the invention of lantern influenced luminism, or how color tubes allowed painters to paint Plein air and later led them to impressionism, or, skipping forward to the 2019, how Naho Matsudo uses powerful data streams from sensors around Manchester’s Smart City setup measuring things like weather, traffic and travel to create poetry which is displayed across the city.
Technology has always been there, ready to provide the next glass ceiling for our artistic minds to break through, and now, as the UK Art Gallery population is dropping at an alarming rate and the systematical removal of the ‘Arts’ in schools begins, Art needs Technology more than ever.
Widening the Reach of Classical Fine Art
You don’t have to look hard to find an example of how technology has delivered new and innovative forms of expression to the masses. Indeed, a quick Google will expose you to the innovative work of Charles Csuri and, more recently, Forensic Architecture.
You will, however, have a much harder time trying to find examples of how technology has delivered the masterpieces of fine visual art to a wider audience.
And that, for the most part, is down to the nature of the beast. Ownership and curatorship are essential to the continued protection of masterpieces but they do nothing for the continued growth and reach of the medium into nascent audiences.
With something as precious as fine classical art, modern technology, datasets and the Internet of Things has stepped up to the plate to provide the accessibility needed to deliver the work of the old masters to the new.
“Visual art was still very much left behind in comparison to other big forms of media, in terms of reach. It’s still waiting for the democratisation moment film, literature and TV have already experienced” Says Vladimir Vukicevic, Co-Founder and CEO at Meural, a company using IOT technology to deliver classic fine art into the homes of the masses through a digital frame.
“There’s no middle market for visual art. TV and Film had Netflix and Amazon Prime. Literature has Audible.”
Amazon’s bought five independent films so far, including the well-received Manchester by the Sea for a reported $10 million. Netflix, meanwhile, has picked up streaming rights for three films, including Tallulah starring Ellen Page, and announced it will produce a slate of indie features.
As both tech companies amassed their inventories of self-produced content, they also started acquiring independent films, ranging from the big Sundance acquisitions this year to smaller buys that end up on their services through distributors. “The idea that the streaming services can be our new arthouse circuit is just nothing short of lifesaving for these artistic storytellers,” Says Tom Nunan, a founder and partner of Bull’s Eye Entertainment and a lecturer at UCLA’s school of theater, film, and television.
Classic fine Art on the other hand, is suffering. In the UK, visits to DCMS-sponsored museums has been on steady decline since 2014. Furthermore, A BBC analysis found two years ago that both the National Gallery and Tate lost 20% of their British audience in a five-year period up to 2014; this latest DCMS data proves that British people really are getting less likely to wake up on a Saturday morning and say: “Let’s go to that Kandinsky exhibition.”
The problem, for Vladimir, lies in the accessibility of the art. Until it’s part of people’s everyday lives, it’ll struggle to grow.
“The only way to make Art a part of people’s daily lives was to have a piece of connected hardware that feels like a painting but had the technological backing to allow for that dynamic, personalised experience that we’ve all become accustomed to.”
The Meural frame, which resembles the screen of a modern smartphone, can be switched from portrait to landscape with ease and even comes with options to create bespoke ‘playlists’ of art similar to Spotify playlists or Netflix’s watch list.
Vladimir and the Meural Canvas is by no means a silver bullet. The cost of the frame and monthly plan (if you want to have access to the 30,000+ revolving collection of artworks, ranging from classic to contemporary.) is perhaps too steep a proposition for the ‘middle market’ it desperately wants to connect with.
But at the very least it’s move towards more access to the world’s masterpieces.
Creating the Exhibition of Tomorrow, Today.
Rather than bringing the classics into the home, the synergy between technology and art is finding success at the frontier of artistic endeavour: the gallery.
Galleries and museums that have a reliable IoT network can draw more progressive artists, giving them a platform to truly transform an exhibition space. While some artists may be able to provide their own IoT connections for Bluetooth-linked exhibits, museums that can offer exhibitors SIM cards, robust Wi-Fi connectivity, or a low power wide area (LPWA) network are more likely to draw in large-scale, cutting edge, IoT-mediated exhibits.
For the large part, IOT is deployed as a means to bring objects to life, modify appearance based on human interaction, and challenge what it means to experience art.
Take for example, Matt Roberts , who uses the technology to create a sound experience within the museum space by sampling oceanic currents to provide data that modulates the sounds. The data is transmitted to his exhibit from nearby buoys using IoT-linked weather monitors.
Systems, Staff and Shakespeare
“Alongside the fantastic talent coming from our world-leading universities, we have revamped the computer science curriculum, announced new funding to support thousands of AI and data science training courses, are rolling out a new National Retraining Scheme, and are investing £84 million in a new centre for computing education led by tech experts.”
- Jeremy Wright, UK Digital Secretary
Tech isn’t down in the basement with the boys anymore, it’s smart, sexy and carving up the lion’s share of talent – but it’s that distribution of talent that is holding back industries like the Arts.
“There is an understanding that we are very focused on the output: the Art.”
George Tunnicliffe, Head of IT Operations at National Theatre, is an expert in change management and, with years worth of experience in both IT and the Arts, he is uniquely positioned on the very crest of the Art/Tech innovation wave in National Theatre, a space he admits is isn’t as attractive as some of the biggest Tech employers in the UK.
“It’s (Tech in the Arts) more exploratory and not fully integrated.”
Of course, when we think about the theatre we think paper tickets, pamphlets and popcorn. But the backend, the systems that George and his team are responsible for, are driving change across the industry.
“The assets (Stage performances) are seen as individual and the Art process, which is naturally a very collaborative process, isn’t carrying over that collaborative mentality into it’s use of tech.”
The way forward, for George, requires a two-fold approach. Systems and staff.
For systems, it’s the latest wave of SAAS products that come with a level of out-of-the-box flexibility that can keep up with the ever changing world of Theatre.
“What excites me most is the flexibility of platforms. There are so many different SAAS products that work for us, in the arts, who are in a constant state of change – always moving to different cities, always putting on different shows.”
And, for staff, it’s about finding talent who enjoy their systems with a bit of a show.
“Reinventing a legacy industry, from the ground up. This is a massive opportunity that tech professionals won’t want to pass up”
Interrogating the New
On a busy street in London’s Soho, a pop-up shop has shoppers stopping in their tracks. The bleach white walls and stark, artificial lighting give an orwellian vibe that shoppers approach with cautious intrigue. Rather than selling products, the faux technology store – which looks disturbingly similar to an Apple retail shop – showcases more than 50 interactive artworks exploring the erosion of Internet privacy.
Produced by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation and curated by Berlin-based Tactical Technology Collective, The Glass Room ‘invites visitors to take a look behind the screens into the hidden world of what happens to their data’.
The ‘Glass Room’ is one example of how new Artistic Minds are assimilating and interrogating the big data zeitgeist that has dominated the digital landscape in recent years.
Traditionally, art has always offered a means to interrogate commonly held beliefs and new advances, Michaelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgement’ which covers the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, almost ruptured the Catholic church with disputes over nudity in such a holy place.
Art has always shined a light below the surface to bring shape and context to things otherwise unseen. To expose the truth.
It only seems natural that Art would become increasingly important to the accessibility of technology when tech makes a permanent home for itself in our day to day lives.
Increasingly, the Internet of Things (IoT) operates at the heart of the diverse systems which connect, monitor and control our data, data which mirrors and describes almost all human activity.
Art isn’t just a way to dress technology in a distracting outfit, to smooth the sharp edges of a complicated piece of technology to make it palatable. Art offers us a means to humanise the debate through public participation and collaborative co-creation, necessarily bringing moral, civic and ethical questions to the table.
An example of this comes from an exhibition that found its origins in our hometown of Manchester, UK.
“and it is colder than yesterday”
Smart cities have run into all kinds of controversy. From being labelled as ‘Surveillance capitalism.’ to simply ‘Wrong’ and ‘Orwellian’.
These objections to the smart cities are entirely subjective but what can’t be denied is that to deliver a fully integrated city, a large amount of data is required – human data.
This isn’t necessarily a question of right or wrong, more a questions of where the boundaries lie and how we, as the people who will both give to and gain from the Smart City, can examine it.
Because art’s value is in it’s subjective nature. It’s the frame that we can wrap around controversial or difficult topics and work towards our own conclusions.
Every Thing Ever Time, a piece of experiential art, interrogates the Smart City, opening up discussions on the applications of our data through applied poetry. A meditation on the data that passes through the fabric of the city each day, ‘every thing every time’ questions not only the role data has in our lives, but the use and value it has as it is collected.
This is just a small example of how Art can help frame the moral issues that increased tech reliance will inevitably raise and one that landed with critical acclaim.
Tech’s Magnum Opus
Tech and Art, both as flawed as they are necessary, are forming an unlikely partnership destined for the future. While tech widens the appeal of a struggling industry vying for the popular appeal it deserves, Art is helping to smooth the edges of tech’s moral conundrums.