It sounds like a magic trick: walk through a roomful of rain and emerge bone dry. Indeed, it’s modern magic at the intersection of avant-garde art and technology in an interactive installation from London-based collective Random International.
While the execution is a marvel of robotics, the idea is simple: visitors walk through a deluge of simulated rain (via sprinklers) but remain dry.
The water is very real.
The magic is in the sensors that detect the presence of the visitors and their movements and then sends instructions to move the water away.
Footage and video from the installation capture a stunning eeriness: the room is dark but for spotlights around the visitors, illuminating the “unreality”.
The art piece, which debuted in 2012 in London’s Barbican Centre, has travelled the world, showing in cultural hotbeds from New York to Shanghai before opening a permanent residency in Abu Dhabi as part of the Sharjah Art Foundation.
The interrelationship of Art and Technology has a long history. Today we see new technological developments in communication, computing, digital fabrication and sensing quickly taken up by artists as materials or tools for the creation of new work. However, artists have long used technology to their advantage.
Case in point: October, 1966, New York, and tennis pro Mimi Kanarek went toe-to-toe with radical painter, Frank Stella in an expression of artistic revelry.
1,200 people occupied the bleachers in the drill hall of the 69th Regiment Armory in New York while Kanarek and Stella played a tennis match. Each time the ball was struck, a miniature radio transmitter inside the racket broadcast a loud ‘bong’ sound which triggered one of the overhead lights to switch off.
48 lights later and hundreds of people flooded the room to complete a sequence of motions in total darkness but for the washed light of infrared projectors on giant TV screens. It was a unification of art, sport, and technology that the spectators wouldn’t soon forget.
It was also a massive win for the expressive potential of technology – and it’s a movement that prevails in the modern day as art and technology continues to be deeply intertwined. The ever-increasing prevalence of smartphones, internet connectivity and low-cost sensing and digital fabrication platforms are a playground for artists and technologists alike.
This relationship is emphasised in emerging fields in education, particularly in the University of Limerick’s innovative Masters in Art and Technology. Now in its second year, students are immersed in practical work in an intensive 12-month programme, alongside like-minded peers and faculty.
The student mix is diverse: some are traditional artists, musicians or designers with a degree or a studio of their own. They’re interested in digital tech or coding and are looking to develop a symbiotic relationship that can embrace the potential of visual and sonic arts practices. Others come from engineering or science and want to create art or simply explore the creative potential of the technologoies they have studied, while a final portion of participants are sometimes younger students looking to find their artistic voice. They are drawn to the applied aspect of technology and its expressive potential.
It’s a mode of thinking that’s facilitated from a young age as STEM has been a bedrock in schools for the last decade, and the acronym is now being pushed to become STEAM, to incorporate Art too. Kids in school are learning to code and are participating in boot camps and learning environments – which in and of itself is a response to a prescient need.
Coding and ICT skills are shaping society – and engineering a tech-enabled future. The accessibility of technology has increased: with access to computers and the internet, children are building apps, projects, and websites from their bedrooms.
The programme is designed to facilitate all levels of technological adoption: it begins with an intensive two-week boot camp to introduce the students to the facilities and support available to them and to establish the common technical foundations for the programme. Students then progress to studying core aspects of critical theory, creative coding, physical computing, audio and video. Indeed, it isn’t a case that students on the Art and Technology course need to be proficient coders. A small amount of programming or maths can go far in the pursuit of creation.
The MA/MSc encourages students to engage critically with the political, social, and culture implications of technology too. Creating artworks with digital technology is a particularly prescient framework for enabling students to critique that same technology’s role in society.
History has long seen artists responding to the culture around them – and embedding themselves in digital culture gives them a particular nous to incorporate and respond to that same culture. Immersion in a medium means it’s potent for critique.
For example, 2018 graduate Mavis Brace’s Wandermachine project used machine learning to explore the difference in the human experience of a space versus how a machine may read that same space.
The aim was to highlight the qualitative human experience of being somewhere by exploring the limits of computational models of experience based on sensing, data capture and machine learning. In this way it both stands as a work that demonstrates the use of digital technology in art-making while critiquing the role of that technology in society as we move toward the proported Age of The Algorithm.
While the MA/MSc is built to explore and engage with the possibilities of technologically-sophisticated art and media, many of the graduates will move on to a diverse set of careers. Much as the art world has become more open and diverse, its graduates are moving into a wide array of areas in their professional life.
Many will be artists in traditional studio settings, while others will move into data science and visualisation, or take their skillsets into engineering or science. Others will gravitate towards advertising as the medium itself evolves towards more integrative digital media. Graduates of the MA/MSc are unique in that they understand both the aesthetics and actuality of human experience – they can harness technology both for visualisation and function.
Technology, and its study alongside art, means that the ability to create is more accessible than ever. New art forms are evolving all the time as artists push the boundaries.
Graduates of the course are primed to become scientists, inventors, and developers. They’re also musicians or painters, designers and film-makers. Art and technology are constantly changing and innovating. Students on the course will be the change-makers on the frontlines, right there alongside them.