Nebraska Artists Swap Brushstrokes For Keystrokes
January 17th, 2013
When it comes to contemporary art, forget paintbrushes, blocks of stone or pottery wheels; for some Nebraska artists, itâ€™s all about supercomputers, lines of code and robots. But while they push the boundaries of art, such innovations also present new challenges for museums â€“ and audiences.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/1-17-13.mp3]
Underneath the University of Nebraska-Lincolnâ€™s Memorial Stadium, a network of massive supercomputers churns through terabytes and terabytes of information. But itâ€™s not just processing datasets or running complex mathematical analyses â€“ itâ€™s helping create art.
â€œLast year, we did a project that ended up being called â€˜Every Nokia Tune,â€ said Jeff Thompson, assistant professor of digital arts and new genres at UNL who has a veritable artist-in-residency position at Holland Computing Center. The â€œEvery Nokia Tuneâ€ project centered on the classic Nokia ringtone, â€œthe most ubiquitous piece of music in the world.â€
That 4-second ditty is heard an estimated 20,000 times per second worldwide:
â€œAnd we took that â€“ those 13 notes â€“ and I said, â€˜OK, what happens if we make not a few remixes of that, (but) instead we make every remix?â€™â€
The result is more than 6 billion combinations. But how to display them? You canâ€™t exactly hang 10 terabytes of mp3s on a museum wall. After discarding more interactive options, Thompson decided to display the standalone hard drive containing the songs as a piece of static sculpture.
Presentation is just one of the ongoing debates sparked by the rise of technology in art, said Karin Campbell, Phil Willson Curator of Contemporary Art at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. Itâ€™s one thing to mount a series of photographs, but for art that relies on high-tech projection, for example, the cost of equipment can be prohibitive.
Then thereâ€™s preservation. The shelf-life of new media artwork is a major factor, Campbell said.
â€œWith new media work, especially film- and video-based work – and some with sound art, as well – technology has a tendency to become obsolete,â€ she said.
Just think of VHS or 8-track tapes.
â€œIf theyâ€™re no longer going to be viable in 10, 15 years, do we bring those in?â€ Campbell continued. â€œOr do you make the decision that thatâ€™s not a route youâ€™re going to go, even if new media work might be important for â€¦ completing a narrative of contemporary art history?â€
That narrative includes plenty of instances where contemporary artwork was greeted with raised eyebrows, if not outright disdain, and pieces relying on modern technology are no exception.
Just ask Luke Kelly. The Omahan is the co-creator of a robot that paints, cheekily named the â€œVangobot,â€ pronounced â€œVan Gogh bot.â€ The apparatus fills a room the size of a small bedroom; looking like a shop table with a complex array of wires, tubes and gears, it holds 16 paintbrushes and eight canisters of paint. Itâ€™s run through a desktop computer thatâ€™s coated with a multitude of colored paint splatters.
Paintings by the Vangobot have been sold to hotels, banks and private collectors; itâ€™s even had its own art shows in Lincoln, Neb.
â€œUltimately, the reaction was really split,â€ Kelly said. â€œIt was either a love-it-or-loathe-it type reaction.â€
You can tell the machine exactly what to paint or let the computerâ€™s artificial intelligence programming interpret your suggestions and make its own decisions â€“ like an art teacher giving a student a prompt. The computer then converts the pixels on-screen into brushstrokes on-canvas
â€œI had never been what you would consider a traditional artist,â€ Kelly said, â€œin the sense that, really, everything Iâ€™ve done has come from the computer side of things and been merged with the traditional. And the resulting output is the Vangobot project.â€
Some of the backlash against digital art argues that it removes the creative process â€“ itâ€™s too â€œeasy,â€ too automated (see the sidebar at the top of this article). But for Kelly, thatâ€™s sort of the point â€“ he wants to make art easier. Despite some peopleâ€™s dismissal of paintings created with a robot, the project was conceived specifically for the average art lover.
â€œI think our concept was, â€˜Hey, letâ€™s let people make a painting that could match their couch,â€ he said.
Thompson, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach to his work, much of which only exists as an online visualization or lines of software code.
â€œMy work is almost entirely non-visual at this point,â€ he said. â€œThe pieces are way more conceptual and cerebral, and meant to exist half in your head and half in the world. â€¦ I donâ€™t make objects that I care so much about hanging above someoneâ€™s sofa.â€
While demonstrating how a 3D printer operates in his classroom at UNL, Thompsonâ€™s technical background is obvious: the object heâ€™s printing â€“ a whistle â€“ involves around 40,000 commands, or specific instructions to the computer.
Though they have different approaches, both Thompson and Kelly have strong computer backgrounds, and they bring a kind of open-source ethos to the table. Kelly envisions the day when household-sized Vangobots would allow anyone to create quality, original paintings, while Thompson shares all his work on his website, free to download, including the programming and coding. He said the art market is driven too much by money and profit.
â€œThat whole idea of ownership and copyright and sharing, itâ€™s something that processes â€“ especially cultural processes, like art â€“ that use digital technologies are really well-suited to address,â€ he said.
As for the â€œvalidityâ€ of art made with or connected to technology? When asked about this debate, Campbell just laughed, describing the question of â€œwhat is art?â€ as an endless argument.
â€œWith all artwork â€“ not just new media â€“ itâ€™s finding your own personal point of entry,â€ she said. â€œSo when something like the fact that itâ€™s just new media dominates the conversation, I think that actually does a disservice to the work, because thereâ€™s more than just technology happening in these works.â€
Digital technology is just another tool, Thompson said, no different from a paintbrush or a chisel.
And weâ€™re really just scratching the surface of whatâ€™s possible, he added.
â€œThereâ€™s so much happening. And thereâ€™s so many different things, and theyâ€™re all really exciting,â€ Thompson said. â€œAnd if you open that door and you look down, itâ€™s just this spiraling wormhole of exciting things happening.â€
Who knows what theyâ€™ll come up with next.
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