The intersection of art and tech - Charlotte Webb

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

In this provocation, Charlotte discussed the role of artistic practices in revealing inequalities in techno-social systems. She started by asking four questions:

  • Who should address ethical issues relating to tech?

  • What kind of impact can art have in the tech ethics space?

  • Should we think of it in terms of impact anyway?

  • Should we think of art as an 'ethical' practice?

Then she asked: what do these considerations imply for art for art's sake? These questions suggest that art has utility beyond just making it.

If we look back, we will see that the relationship between art and technology has a long history. Tech has evolved artistic practice in many ways. Think about advancements in ink and paper, or glass, or cameras, or even computers themselves — all of these tools have enabled new ways of making art.


But it also works the other way around: art practice evolves technology, because artists push the boundaries of imagination to new limits, and this contributes to new directions in technological advancement.


She noted a paper she recently came across from the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), titled The Historical Relationship Between Artistic Activities and Technological Development. It explores the historical relationship between art and tech in depth, from cave paintings to the invention of the camera. Something that stood out from this paper was the idea that there is an urgency to use art practices as drivers for technology, and generators of knowledge. So in this sense, the EU has foregrounded art as a key driver for innovation.


Charlotte's interest in art and tech is grounded in a more recent history; mostly in how the internet can be a medium, and a location for practice. Charlotte identified four key qualities of internet art, and some pieces that illustrate these qualities.


Let's look at these qualities individually:


Knowledge production


The notion that art could contribute to research emerged in the 1970s and was introduced by Elliot Eisner. These ideas have moved art education on from just learning techniques, to being able to do things like PhD in Art Practice (which is exactly what Charlotte did). Or, to work with the understanding that by simply making things you can learn about the world in a distinct way.


One example of this is ImageNet Roulette, a piece by Tevor Paglen and Kate Crawford, which explored the problematic image labelling provided by ImageNet, which is the largest database of AI-classified images today. ImageNet Roulette allowed you to upload any photo, and see how ImageNet's AI would label it. When a Guardian journalist tested this on a photo of herself, it spat out a racist slur.


So, work like this does a great job of exposing things that happen behind the scenes, and forces us to interact with those things. By placing information outside of its usual location, the artist managed to produce knowledge about a real-world system. In this case, a widely-used dataset containing bias. ImageNet removed 600k images after the Guardian article came out. This may have been coincidental, but if not, it indicates that this one piece of art made a significant impression.


ImageNet Roulette was accompanied by a detailed essay on the subject, indicating that art is not just about creating artefacts — it's also an intellectual and communicative activity. This all contributes to the 'total signifying activity’ of the artist.


Critical distance


Art has an amazing capacity for providing us with critical distance. It reveals injustices by exposing them in new ways. During Documenta 11 in 2002, artists Charles Lim Li Yong & Woon Tien Wei travelled 600km on foot, as part of their piece entitled Alpha 3.4. The walk was from Kassel — where the exhibition was held — to Kiel, where the server for the Documenta 11 website was located. In doing this, they wanted to draw attention to the materiality of the network; that the virtual world also exists in the physical world.


Then there's Probably Chelsea, by Heather Dewey-Hagborg, where thirty portraits of Chelsea Manning were produced from her DNA. The artist was sent cheek swabs from Manning while she was still in prison, and used the genomic data to create a collection of 'possible' portraits. This illustrated how readings of DNA are entirely subjective; a striking, visceral piece, which gives an interesting critique of scientific objectivity.


Community building and activism


A piece that has truly blurred the lines between activism and art is #PAYBLACKTIME. The creator of this work, RaFia Santana, described it as "white-money transference system that provides free meals via Seamless/GrubHub to Black + Brown folx across the North Americas." Santana was the sole facilitator of these money transfers: white people would send money to her, and she would use it to order food for non-white people. This work forces us to think about art in a different way: should it always be useless?


Provided by the artist via Net Art Anthology



De-familiarisation


This term is used a lot by Kate Crawford and Luke Stark in their paper The Work Of Art In The Age of AI. De-familiarisation is the act of using art practice to make the every-day feel unfamiliar or uncanny. A great example of this is Street Ghosts by Paolo Cirio. In this piece, Cirio took images of people from Google Street View, printed them in life-size, and pasted them in the exact location the image was taken.


Crawford & Stark discuss this work in their paper, and make the point that Cirio did not ask for permission to use these images in this way, which raises ethical questions about the work. They write: "This project revealed aesthetic, biopolitical, economic, and legal issues concerning privacy, copyright, and visual perception". When Cirio was asked about seeking permission from the subjects of the images, he said that he would take them down should they request it — but Charlotte had no idea how potential subjects would even track him down.


Charlotte's interest in art and tech is grounded in a more recent history; mostly in how the internet can be a medium, and a location for practice.

Charlotte ended the provocation by outlining some challenges to these fairly new approaches in art and tech. From the art world side, there is a lack of technical knowledge. Quoting James Bridle from the Crawford & Stark paper mentioned above: "most people who are versed in art criticism are not versed in technology." So, artistic critique on art and tech is limited, until critics gain more technical understanding.


Then, from the tech side of things, there is a lack of understanding about how artistic approaches can make ethical dilemmas more concrete. Charlotte noted that if you don't really care about ethics in the first place, you'll struggle to care about the art practices which help shine a light on ethics.


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Ultimately, this is due to a lack of interdisciplinary education. Computer science courses seem to lack any focus on ethics at all, and in arts, there could be more attention on the ethics of computational practices which are at the intersection of creativity and society.


We are seeing shifts in practice that allow us to move past these challenges. When you make artefacts, it's a crystallisation of your engagement with the world. But, as mentioned, art is so much more than this. For instance, as our identities are slowly commodified by social media, we find ourselves relying more and more on the artists themselves to talk about their practices — rather than waiting for critics to relay this information for us. Nowadays, you have artists whose work is to create distorted Instagram personas — and the critique happens in the comments.


@otheragent www.feministinternet.com


 

If you’re thinking about getting funding to produce art that relies on technology, here are some funding opportunities suggested by participants in this meet up:

 

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