The Art and Emerging Technology Forum (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) at AsiaTOPA featured a reflective and thoughtful discussion about the intersections and cross-pollination between contemporary art and technology. The panel comprised NITV journalist Rae Johnston, academics Dr. Claire Roberts and Prof. Uwe Aickelin, and artists Becky ‘Sui Zhen’ Freeman and Lu Yang.
Yang, who lives in China, could not attend the forum in person because of travel restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she sent pre-recorded responses to questions and snippets of her work that were played during the panel discussion.
The panel talked about a range of issues covering the links between art and technology, such as: What does artists’ use of technology currently look like and involve? What are the best techniques and tools out there? How does inequitable and differential access to technology influence how art is created? Are video games mainstream art? And, a question that has been asked many times before but nevertheless always provokes interesting responses: Is the vision of the Internet as a technological utopia now well and truly dead?
Yang talked about her use of game-engine software to create 3D animation art. The visual perspectives afforded by gaming technology have been incorporated into contemporary art, and Yang’s work, which playfully explores the boundaries of space, shapes and bodies, demonstrates how transformative this confluence has been. Yang uses motion-capture and facial expression-capture technology in her performance works with the aim of exploring the mind-body continuum (extended onto a screen). In her 3D animation work, Yang draws on archetypes and mythical figures from China and India. Yang said that artists should not think about technology and tools as the be-all and end-all of artistic work; artists should use whatever technology they find useful, and keep in mind that technology eventually becomes dated or even obsolete. For her work, Yang has had to learn about the latest technology and software; many of her works have been done in collaboration with technical experts and programmers. Yang said that while programmers can help with the technical aspects of the work, artists still need some knowledge of the tools being used to facilitate that collaboration.
Artist and musician Becky ‘Sui Zhen’ Freeman talked about how the close links between technology and art pervade all popular media and everyday life. She said that art can emerge from any technology, and that technology evolves all the time. IT academic Uwe Aickelin said that there is a plethora of tools available for artists and others to use; the challenge, for IT educators, is equipping people with the skills to use these tools well. Aickelin said that programming itself is creative work, and that programmers are often creative and artistic in ways that may not be easily appreciated by others.
Art historian Claire Roberts, who studies modern and contemporary Chinese art, said that artists, and Chinese artists in particular, have always used the latest technology to develop art, often at the forefront of their media. She talked about how collaboration has always been an intrinsic part of the Chinese art world – after 1949, a lot of art was produced by collectives, and, today, art is often produced collaboratively in contemporary art ‘labs’.
The panelists all agreed that the Internet, a resource that has been thoroughly commercialised, cannot be conceived of as a utopian space – for artists or anyone else. Freeman called it a ‘complicated space’; Aickelin highlighted ongoing threats to net neutrality (the principle that Internet service providers should treat all web platforms equally) and open-access Internet; and Roberts talked about how the political environment in China has created specific constraints on how netizens use the Internet there.
This was a stimulating talk that was attended by students and artists. The venue, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, was well-organised and a perfect setting for the animation art that was showcased at the event. This event was a part of the ‘Sinofuturists’ theme at the AsiaTOPA festival in Melbourne.