Artistic applications of digital technology fundamentally require an understanding of technological capabilities. As documented in many online publications, including Imperica, the world is full of successful examples.
These examples are successful because, in most cases, the artist has understood how to apply chosen technologies to their aims of production. Silicon hardware and digital media become part of the answer to an artistic conundrum. However, that is clearly not always the case, and digital artworks – and art to which technology has played a part – have the danger of becoming less about the theories and thinking which create the work, and more about the technology that has helped with the production of the work. That isn't necessarily the isolated fault of the artist, but symptomatic of a society based on capital and commercial construct: the lure of the new and shiny.
Camille Baker vehemently opposes what, for many, is a default human reaction: to concentrate on the tools for their own means, rather than use them to reinforce and build on one's artistic credentials. Her clarion call is to ask what a question of what's more important to an artist: what's more important, tools or trying to explore the same problem in different ways? She sees artists that understand how and where technology can play a role, as all too rare. A new modality is required, with new modes of practice. They may produce new solutions, or they may not... but they will certainly offer a lot of new questions.
Baker's own work has explored these challenges. She explores artistic conundrums within a more telematic means of performance; mobile phones have become a recent focus. Her mobile workshop at the recent Digital Stages Festival is indicative of an interest in mobile as a multi-purpose tool in performance – across visual, gestural, and non-verbal means of communication.
Once again, it is the questions which need to come first: How can artists circumvent and repurpose mobile devices? How can we use mobiles for non-verbal applications? While interactive offerings such as apps offer potential, Baker is very clear as to where the value of an app ends, and where personal exploration has to start. "I see the value in an iPad, but apps have been made for you, so where is the [potential for exploring your own] creativity? How can you make something interesting? Forget about what they have, focus on what I have."
After the launch of the iPod Touch, Baker curated an event featuring mobile video, offering "micro-performances" to headphone-wearing, one-person audiences. Such work invites participation; the "audience" may have to physically act out a movement on the command of the performer. However, not everything needs to invite participation in this way; generative works, for example, often beautifully blend the digital with the physical, with less active interaction.
Baker sees herself as a new media artist first and foremost, with recent research activity covering the intersection between physical performance and media. What she doesn't see is enough people around her taking a similar approach, and experimenting with media as part of a performance underpinned by creative thought. Baker's work with video in dance is indicative of a growing trend, although the use of video in performance remains a discipline which is full of untapped potential.
Ideally, directors and creators need to be aware of digital technologies, while having a deep appreciation and understanding of artistic performance. Understanding only one of these disciplines is hard enough. Baker is full of appreciation of those that get it right, and use technology as a driver, but remain concerned with how to have a conversation between visual media and the body. Such groups, such as Troika Ranch, have an integrated way of thinking that manifests itself into integrated performance.
Baker is frustrated by the default construct, although it is not exclusive to dance.
"What's happened is that dance, has a technological layer put onto it, or it's added to the mise en scene, without a sense of what's possible. A lot of people are choreographers or part of a troupe, and it's not a core part of what they do. What's needed for such performances to be interesting for the choreographer and for the audience, is for them to be integrated. You need to know the capabilities of the body, and of the technology.
"Historically, if you get a technologist and a choreographer together, they are experts in their own fields. Technicians are often moved away from the artists, and moving technological design away from art is not a productive separation."
This is not as easy as it sounds; putting "different" people in a room achieves familiarity, but doesn't necessarily achieve a better outcome. Baker's refers to project which she is currently part of, using robots to play the Game of Life. The project leader, an engineer-turned-artist, started off exactly as Baker would like – asking creative, playful questions. However, the group's energy, created by developing these shared visions, soon became deflated when technical team members started talking about the intricacies of the project's development, such as the types of sensors to use. It suggests that even when those with artistic and technological leanings are brought together, the mere act of doing so doesn't create a better outcome. It has to be managed, and communications from both parties perhaps have to be about what isn't said, as much as what is said.
"That's what artists should be doing. Thinking of weird problems, and pushing the technology to do it. And, if the technology isn't there, inventing it."
Us and them
It is reasonable to assume that the current wave of students will erase all of these problems, as they should be able to combine a technological appreciation with their artistic endeavour. However, Baker sees current academic practice as being insufficient at changing behaviour. "If you ask students to produce design sketches or storyboards, they go straight to the computer and make something, then go back and make a sketch. They need to focus on the idea; focus on how to make it interesting, and then come up with crazy ideas of the kinds of technology that you might need, use, or invent.
"That's what artists should be doing. Thinking of weird problems, and pushing the technology to do it. And, if the technology isn't there, inventing it." This problem has led her to consider more radical ways of metaphorically kicking students up the arse as far as their thinking is concerned, such as teaching entirely without computers for a year. The hurdle to overcome is less about a "surface interpretation" of the role of technology but deeper and more pervasive views of the world – views which are harder to change. Views which are incapable of delivering what's needed.
"Art schools are stuck in the Bauhaus. The entertainment world is not asking very interesting questions, although it is sophisticated enough to make people forget that there was a question, or to care. If artists want to move ahead, they need to learn from industry but also find ways to infiltrate industry. Art and design should find ways of integration, not to be us-and-them.
"Students need to look at art, and understand how to look at art for inspiration. If you're not understanding the precedents that came before, then you're not understanding the world you're entering.
"Most work that I see in theatre and dance is push-pull. It is not interesting enough. You read the blurb about the work, then you see it and you wonder - what the hell? How does this [blurb] translate into that [work]? It has to sound interesting and be interesting, not just one or the other."
A situation clearly not exclusive to performance is that innovation occurs around the edges, rather than disruptive change happening at the core – at least, for the moment. A problem that dance and performance may have is that the staging is so grounded, based in history and society, that it becomes difficult to change.
Of course, interactivity itself doesn't have to be digital. For Baker, some of the most innovative performances used minimal technologies. She cites an example of a performance given some years ago in an old church in south London, with a thin pool of water installed within it. Audience members were asked to walk on steps across the water, with the possibility that they might fall in – inviting pathos, simultaneous feelings of invincibility and danger. It's a simple example, but one which again suggests that participatory theatre and performance is about inviting new, unique, reactions in the audience.
All about the experience
"We are now in an 'experience modality'." Baker's observation is not only an invitation to technologists, but also to corporations. Her openness is based, to some extent, on the easiest (and cheapest) way to provide mass reach for moving-image art – to use existing platforms which transmits the moving image.
The Wii, and physical activity in gameplay, offers artists access to large-scale interactive participation. Such a physicality has interested digital artists for decades, but not at scale. "How can we explore something which is in all of these people's homes? Artists want to reach people. These devices become artistic access points: to get people to think and to be challenged. If you [as an artist] don't use it, then how will you reach your audience?"
Artistic use of a device such as the Wii retains the thread of Baker's argument. Fundamentally, the Wii is a tool: a piece of silicon and plastic that reproduces creative works. This creates a challenge for artists as to how it could be used for their ends. There are clearly some issues around open access to the device, but a path is sometimes found, as is the case with non-commercial licencing of the Kinect. However, commercialism and art, in Baker's view, have historically enjoyed a tense relationship anyway. Perhaps there's something in this tension that furthers debate, if not critically-important work. "All of us want to make a living. The contempt of commercialism, common amongst artists, is a little disingenuous.
"A lot of products coming out of industry are sophisticated, where some of the more artistic work isn't very compelling. There is beautifully-designed vacuousness on one side, and poorly-designed, conceptually-compelling work on the other. They're not interacting enough."
While Baker is keen to push art, and artists, towards a greater degree of experimentation and playfulness while not surrendering to over-exposure of new tools, there remains a great deal of complexity - theoretical and practical – in moving in these new directions. Great work requires great thinking and great execution, and it's not easy when producing new works, to move outside of an artistically and commercially successful "comfort zone". However, while such moves may not always be successful in the short term, simply creating new work with new media should at least provoke new conversations with audiences and fellow practitioners.
The challenges are there, although it must always remain a duty to ask the most intellectually rigorous questions before coming up with the most convenient answers.
Dr. Camille Baker is Lecturer in Multimedia at Brunel University.