The Tech Touch: Does technology signal the end of art and culture as we know it?

The tech touch: Has tech indelibly left its mark on art and culture? Picture credit: Modulab

Humankind has always had a complicated relationship with new technology.

Many of the things we take for granted were once feared. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionised the way information spread, but it was equated to Satan – taking control of the word of God away from the clergy, and placing it into the hands of the masses.

It was thought the ‘blistering’ 30 mph speed of the first trains might dissolve human bodies, the telephone was dangerous – particularly in a storm – and let’s not even start with the risks of electricity.

Art – in its various forms across time – has also not been immune to controversy and some degree of fear.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel kicked off a major dispute with the Catholic Church and the techniques and colours employed by impressionists were viewed as radical and disruptive.

So what happens when the latest technologies and art combine. Can artificial intelligence (AI) compose music or write masterpieces of literature? Can the creative process be outsourced to digital technology, leaving humans extraneous to it – or is it just another tool?

As devices become more sophisticated and connectivity faster, technology is providing greater access to art and culture for those who might otherwise have found it inaccessible in the past.

Butterfly Effect – An interactive installation that reacts to human touch, by projecting a series of animated visuals, each with their own sound effect. The same setup is found in different locations, the visuals gathering the interactions of people from every location, no matter the physical distance, in real time.

Tech as a disrupter in art

This prompted the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union and Vodafone to host a panel discussion in Brussels – Access to culture: Does technology help or hinder? It showcased cutting edge art installations combing tech, art and culture.

Expert panellists from leading European art-tech initiatives Modulab, the European Time Machine project, and Synthesis shared their experiences.

“Technology and the creation of art have always been closely intertwined,” says Modulab’s Ioana Calen.

“What’s special about technology’s relationship to art today is that these two “species” have never been closer together.”

Polish MEP, Michal Boni, spoke about the unique role museums play as cultural spaces.

“They allow you to observe, experiment, ask questions and look for answers and that this is a process which fosters critical thinking and creativity which in turn helps to open minds”. 

Whether in a museum or walking the streets of a reimagined city centuries ago, the way that art is expressed, created, shared and distributed is changing.

A multi-sensitive water string instrument modulated by the people interacting with it, emitting sound as the streams of water are touched.

Arguably, the true revolution is the interactivity that can be achieved with an installation or immersive work of art as it is brought to life through technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). These experiences can enrich and transform an encounter.

With haptic technology – which recreates the sense of touch by applying force, vibration, or motion to the user for example, we are able to experience a piece of visual artwork like a painting or a sculpture by engaging the senses.

Destroyed artefacts and ancient buildings can be virtually restored – as with Synthesis’s Wadi Al Helo VR installation.

The company has created a digital restoration with virtual tour of a cultural heritage site, Wadi Al Helo, which translates as sweet valley. It’s located in the east of the Emirate of Sharjah, a place few have had the chance to visit.

Advanced AI and historical big data sets are being used by the European Time Machine project to recreate and map Europe’s entire social, cultural and geographical evolution.

The project aims to deliver not only critical cultural insights to influence future planning, but also open access to information for researchers and educators.

The European Time Machine project is using advanced AI and historical ‘Big Data’ sets from the past – together with machine learning in order to recreate and map Europe’s entire social, cultural and geographical evolution. The project aims to deliver critical cultural insights that will influence future planning.

Technology as an equaliser

Technology has become an equaliser for professionals in the cultural space. You can now become an artist with a background in marketing, social media, engineering or computer programming.

Vanja Karas, a former digital brand consultant, Creative Director and web designer, is now a global installation artist and photographer, using VR in her work.

“Technology and its proximity to art can only be a good thing. It opens new horizons. It gives you more tools and different mediums to express an idea,” she says.

“Previously, artists were only those who studied and trained, but now even those who don’t consider themselves artists can use tech to express themselves.

Ms Karas believes technology not only allows anyone to be creative, but has also changed the way we consume art. 

“This can be anywhere.  A mobile phone and VR opens a plethora of possibilities. You don’t have to go to a gallery – with VR you can transport yourself to the Met or the Louvre,” she says.

“As a consultant, it was part of my role to bring tech into the creative industry. It was a completely new visual language, and there was definitely some resistance.”

“But even now, I speak for a certain generation for whom tech is a second language. For the current generation it is like a mother tongue. Currently we can roughly see where it is going – but we really don’t know where it will take off.”

Romanian Modulab’s Mind Game tests concentration and imagination at the Access to culture: does technology help or hinder? event in Brussels.

Is AI or machine generated art – art?

For the panellists, the answer is a resounding no.

 “Art resonates more with the human element”, says Ms Karas.

“If it can be ‘created’ solely with tech – but without human input or collaboration – it is something else.”

For now, even with AI human input is required. Algorithms can only act on and interact with the data input they receive. You may have heard of algorithmic bias – machines are making new discoveries, and may output something new, but it’s within the input they receive.

Art and creativity continues to be relative to the human experience, and relative to our interpretations – it sits in the eye of the beholder. It is, at its very core, what it is to be mortal.

Technology gives us more avenues for expression and access to culture – for the many, rather than the few. Yet art is not art without the human touch.

Co-author Katie LaZelle is a seasoned EU affairs adviser and contributing writer. Based in Brussels for the last 14 years, she has extensive experience in European public affairs, corporate communications and stakeholder engagement including from consultancies and the European Parliament.

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