TEXT BY: PETER BOOTH, ANA ALACOVSKA AND HANNA GRØNNBERG
Photo credits: Workation, 2019, Sofia Caesar © theta.cool
Our work on this area has been mostly concerned with the role of the arts in a context of accelerated societal, cultural and economic changes brought about by the digital transformation. In particular, we have focused on uncovering what it is that artists do when they work with digital technologies or respond to wide-ranging digital transformation in their artistic practice.
From the onset, we have employed a broad interpretation of the category ‘artists’, exploring the work practices of visual artists, community arts organisations, hacker groups, curators and technology-oriented arts festivals, and others. In the first phase of work, we sought to synthesize existing research on the transformative, curative and remedial potential of the arts with regard to addressing societal, cultural and economic problems inflicted by the advent of new digital technologies. We have thus made sense of a steadily growing and diverse, but at times unstructured, body of research on the mechanisms by which the arts can intervene in digital transformation with a view to attenuating technology-induced problems and toxicity such as the loss of privacy, surveillance, opinion polarization, social disconnect or technology addiction.
Mindful that curatorial practice can provide a snapshot of a time-specific ‘state of play’ concerning artistic interventions, strategies and practice at the interface between the arts and technologies, in the second phase of our research, we mapped the art-tech festival field in Europe and conducted a content analysis of each of the transmediale festival’s curatorial statements since its inception.
Largely relying on project partner recommendations on which festivals to include, the mapping exercise sought to identify the range of festival practices rather than offer a comprehensive mapping of all art-tech festivals. Analysing the language and the specific themes mentioned in the transmediale festival’s curatorial statements, we were able to identify distinct ideological periods in the festival’s history which in turn enabled us to elucidate how the role of the arts and the artists as mediators of technological transformations has changed over the last three decades.
In its third phase, our goal was to identify the key actors, concerns and strategies of the various genres of technology-linked arts practices. Artistic practices rarely confine themselves to static boundaries, so part of the challenge of this exercise was to traverse conflicting and fluid terminology.
Uncovering what artists do when they work with or respond to digital technologies would be unimaginable without directly interviewing artists and observing working methods. Another process of our work was therefore to interview artists to hear their view on the digital skillsets and capabilities considered necessary for working at the intersection of digital transformation and the arts. We extracted key themes on this topic from a total of 82 artist interviews. We also performed an autoethnographic account of the lived experiences of the LATRA hosts conducting the RESISTANCE Residency on the Greek island of Lesvos.
In concrete terms, we have published a total of five reports written for general audiences. We have produced a series of recommendations oriented towards arts communities, arts organisations, and arts policy covering themes such as how to enter the discussion on digital transformation, partners, potential pitfalls of art-tech collaborations, reaching out to audiences, funding and skill development. We have also published one high-quality academic paper that positions our findings for readership in the arena of business ethics. Most importantly, we hope our research will provide some useful categorizations, ideas and recommendations for individuals and organizations aiming to work with the arts to affect a more caring and inclusive digital future.
As a part of the Artsformation research that is grounded in mapping processes, we faced challenges of who and what to include in our research, particularly in the context of the diversity of artistic practices, organizations and events in a space that is constantly under change. In trying to make sense of the range of arts’ working methods in relation to technology, we were also at times challenged by where boundaries and demarcations of arts and other collective or creative processes began and ended, and to what extent this mattered. A challenge to the project overall, but nevertheless one we experienced directly, was a reluctance on the part of some artists to participate in interviews and other forms of observation where there was a perception of the arts being instrumentalized for the purpose of achieving non-artistic goals. A further limitation of our process concerns selection bias.
The groups and events we studied often came from recommendations of project partners or the projects board. There is a risk that arts initiatives reaching those most marginalized by digital transformation have not received adequate attention from us because they lack the social or political capital to have the institutional access that might have brought them to our attention.
From an arts policy perspective, it stands to reason that if the arts are to play a greater role in shaping a ‘better’ digital future then more arts funding will be needed.
Our key findings reflect the recommendations we draw from our various reports that are directed to each of arts communities, arts organizations, and arts policy. For arts communities we see value in embracing digital technologies and learning corresponding skills in order to strengthen the artistic voice in shaping an inclusive and democratic digital transformation, including the development of pro-social, environmentally-friendly and accessible digital technologies. The artistic interventions need not be exclusively based on the use of digital technologies as a medium of expression. We have found that analogue responses to technology can be just, if not, more effective. We find that engineers are very interested in working with artists, so the impetus may be on the artist to reach out for collaboration. Organizations in the arts-tech field function as a useful intermediary for such collaboration. We have found that artists organizing for causes such as digital equity have larger impact than individuals in demanding action from policymakers and corporations. Operating both online and offline, organizations and communities of artists facilitate dialogue and knowledge-sharing between practitioners in the field, as are spaces for supporting resistance and resilience against digital toxicity.
Arts communities need to be mindful of some risks in the artstech space. Artists should be careful to avoid attempts at collaborations that have an ‘artwashing’ function, where the work of artists in different capacities are used to legitimize or distract from destructive tech-practices. From a historical perspective, we can see that artists have at times naively embraced narratives of technology.
While we suggest that artists by all means should embrace technology, they should do so without dropping a critical distance. For arts organizations, our findings point to a need to think deeply about ways to broaden audiences, particularly where a project or exhibition is concerned with aspects of society marginalized by technologies. The creation of learning spaces that allow for playful tinkering with technologies has been one successful strategy. From an arts policy perspective, it stands to reason that if the arts are to play a greater role in shaping a ‘better’ digital future then more arts funding will be needed. Another important policy perspective is the need for democratizing math and coding skills through public school systems, which, in combination with art skills, is vital in broadening access to the art-tech-field. We see policy supporting a combination of numeracy and art education as fundamental for engaging digital minorities in a field challenged by a lack of diversity and inclusivity.
Based on our extant work, there are at least three areas that merit further sustained research attention:
- If the arts are especially well-poised to intervene in inclusive and democratic digital transformations, then there is also the risk of the arts’ power to be abused by, for example, using the arts for ‘art-washing’. Art-washing and the risk of instrumentalization of the arts for the achievement of corporate but also political goals in the field of digital technology development and digitalization, has to be systematically researched. We lack a clear understanding of these processes.
- Given the rapid rise of artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies that we witnessed over the course of the project’s duration, a new wave of research has to investigate the impact of such technologies on the redefinition and reinvention of artistic labour and what it means to work as an artist.
- As the tech-art field is a field populated by white, middleclass, urban artists, with critical acclaim and economic success typically accruing to male artists, it is urgent that future research untangles the causes of the lack of diversity and equitable access to the profession.
Artsformation is a collaboration between Fondazione Studio Rizoma, European Alternatives, Norwegian Business School, Copenaghen Business School, Trinity College Dublin, waag, Latra, KEA, transmediale, FACT, La Vallée. Artsformation has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870726. The content of this post represents the views of the author only and is his/her/their sole responsibility.