What is “Art and Technology?”


By Peter Dobey


This piece is selected from SFAQ Print Issue 16.


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SFAQ 16 focuses on “art and technology,” an indeterminate yet salient phrase that has become the catchphrase du jour for the Bay Area visual art community.


However, similar to the start-up culture that has necessitated these exchanges, the significance or meaning of art and technology remains casual, speculative, and not well known to outsiders. My essay in the previous issue of “SFAQ,” “Some Considerations Towards an Understanding of the Worlds of Art and Tech,” attempted to give an account of the particularities and differences between the two. The phrase “art and technology” carries the implicit suggestion that they should be one word. How the confluence between art and technology emerges in our speech, thought, and discourse should not be taken in vain. After all, words beget worlds.


Neither worlds of art or technology exist in a vacuum—they are part of a still larger entity. The two industries, complete with their communities and specialized jargons, continue to exist as distant planets, ready to collide. As if two distinct humanities existed on each, we risk having superficial relations with each other if we do not investigate, question, and watch where we stand in the looming horizon.


This issue of “SFAQ” is an appeal for the synthesis of these two worlds.


The digital information age is not a period of social re-organization, such as the Industrial Age, nor is it solely a cultural movement, such as the Enlightenment. Its most unique characteristic, it seems, is that the technology that engenders our time has not changed what we do, or even what we think, but how we do and think about the same things we have always done.


By now, it is a truism that the tech industry is the prevailing economic force in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is also the case that the use of information technology seems to be the single most transformative attribute at the dawn of the 21st century. If art takes account of the zeitgeist it inhabits, what we don’t necessarily know is what our zeitgeist is, or how to make use of and live in it.


Let us parse out our moment in time, and its most germane industry, from other prevailing eras’ cultural movements and industries. There are distinct differences that arise with new technologies that are not analogous to prior ones, though not necessarily diametrically opposed, either. The wheel has not been reinvented; it just doesn’t spin in the same direction. It may not spin in any direction. The proliferation of new technologies (and technologists) into our lifestyles, cultures, and communities has left us simultaneously hyper-stimulated and thoroughly unimpressed. In short, we are excited by our time as it unfolds, yet confused about its meaning. We are at a loss for words.


What do we mean when we say “art and technology?”


This question may at first look as if it is merely one of semantics. But the future of art as we know it may rest on how we conceptualize and make sense of these two entities together. What do we mean when we think of our current art world and tech world together as one? What does this new world look like? Can we even put this world to words yet? What we can say for certain is that art and tech have no particular relation between them. Art and tech is an unordered pair.


In order to imagine such a world’s existence, we can create a formula:


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What does the relation {art, technology} mean for our time?


I posed this question to eight individuals from diverse backgrounds that have made attempts to straddle the intersections of the worlds of art and technology, in order to facilitate further engagement and understanding between the two. Both worlds have started to speak to each other, but we at “SFAQ” hope that these two worlds can start speaking the same language.


Sheena Vaidyanathan holds degrees in computer science and a certificate in studio art. She teaches computer science to sixth graders in Los Altos and works in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) program developing computational thinking programs for K-5th graders.


When we can say “art and technology,” I believe what we mean is our ability to imagine these two together, not as two different languages spoken by two different sets of people who do not understand each other. Art and technology are both a part of me, and I see them together. I see the algorithms behind the art, and I also see computer programming as a way to create art. I taught watercolor and clay in K-6 for 3 years and I now teach computer programming. I am teaching the same thing—a way to be creative.


Marcella Faustini works at Steven Wolf Fine Arts and has at times worked as a gallerist, curator, artist, and event organizer.


I think what echoes my perspective best is the concept of “techne,” a term in philosophy that constitutes the etymological root of the word “art” and resembles “episteme” [Ancient Greek for “knowledge”] in that it has implications of the principles of knowledge. Techne differs, however, in that its intent is in making and doing as opposed to knowledge or understanding in and of themselves. So, to me it’s a particular way of making that is not always product oriented and embodies the intersection of both practices.


Dorothy Santos is a freelance writer and new media/digital arts researcher finishing her degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts.


Intersectionality. The idea of art and technology means an in-between space that has yet to even be defined. This sounds incredibly abstract, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind. Starting with the Experiments in Arts and Technology (EAT) collaborative group formed in the 1960s by artists and engineers including Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, the intersection of artistic practices with engineering and technology was in its nascent stages. These individuals were discovering what the other discipline could offer and what skills they could learn from one another. Art and technology also means convergence. Historically, artists and technologists seemed like such separate disciplines. But in contemporary art practices, digital technologies and programming languages are starting to become more common tools for creative expression themselves.


Willa Köerner is an artist, writer, and creative digital strategist. As the former leader of SFMOMA’s social media and digital engagement strategy, she is now working independently to bring art, the Internet, and people together in meaningful ways.


“Art and technology?” I see a natural convergence in the form of a gradient composed of the people, projects, and ideas that incorporate varying levels of the two components. I’m honestly getting tired of negotiating the divide between the two worlds of art and tech, which has become somewhat of a cliché topic here in SF. Artists use digital technologies in their work, critiquing the systems and shining light on the ways that technologies have altered the human condition. Many technologists would argue that the technologies (apps, games, platforms, etc.) they create are imbued with creative, artistic traits. Fundamentally, technologies change our culture because tools help us do new things—and art questions and critiques culture and change. Art and technology work together, and it has always been this way—it’s just easier to see now due to the Internet. The Internet has created a defining environment where everything is more visible and more virile, alerting more people to cultural zeitgeists that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. In effect, the Internet has dramatically steepened the hill down which the art and technology snowball rolls, causing it to pick up momentum and give the effect that it is a dangerous bullet plummeting towards those who might stand in its way. If it rolled more slowly, fewer people would take notice, and it would roll by casually without causing alarm.


Hanna Regev, curator and art consultant with degrees in museum studies and modern European history. She works with cultural organizations in the Bay Area to produce public programs and exhibitions.


I think that art and technology are inseparable entities, but this current new brave world is very complex. My observations on these questions are based on real experiences through a number of programs and exhibitions I have curated. When I see the phrase “art and technology” I think of artists who combine technology, or technologists, software engineers, and scientists who cross over and experiment with the newest tech tools and devices to create artworks that are divorced from art history and theories. They push the limits of the very technology they create or embrace for this very purpose. By and large, it’s process driven for its own sake—they don’t engage in dialogues with art historical figures or certain art movements. Many creators of new media art, net art, and electronic art demonstrate a certain ignorance towards art his- tory and its appreciation; they inhabit the world of pixels and bytes that give us digital art whose essential properties include perfect duplicability, interactivity, networkability, virtuality, multimediality, simulation, and more. The techies who dabble in art on their free time find the art world insular, intimidating to them, the outsiders, the novice. The one who is not schooled in the arts. And frankly, they don’t care. That being said . . . there really is no escape [for artists] from the digital age that we live in.


Ian Aleksander Adams is an information architect at Media Z Software, a San Francisco-based consulting group, and volunteers at the Internet Archive. He has had work in over sixty-five galleries, but does not identify as an artist.


The history of the art canon is parallel with that of technology; a symbiotic relation- ship. As technology advances, the experiences accepted under the word art become broader. Art itself, if you subscribe to the word, may be a technology as a system and method of organizing the world for the purpose of creating perceptual shifts. While many seem to set the two entities at odds, I find them inseparable.


Ben Valentine is a researcher on new means of self-expression, especially online. He works for The Civic Beat, a team of researchers examining social change memes in global contexts.


Technology includes paintbrushes, canvases, film, etc. . . . but this dichotomy seems to be used as shorthand for “art and new technology.” On some level there is a dis- connect—real or conceived—where technologists are seen as asking questions like, what can this do? how does this work? why do I want this? while art rarely focuses on utilitarian questions of that nature. Possibly most importantly, the technology we use is the technology that is financially self-sustaining, which is great, but rarely the most interesting. Still, I see great potential in blurring those constructed differences. Why not ask what art can do? Why not ask what technology means?


DC Spensley, contemporary artist and mythographer, creator of telepresent theatrical productions and social practice projects.


The terms art and technology are vagaries used together today to define the confluence of high-technology tools being employed by the artists of today. Seems everyone wants to date art now. Last year it was science and art, this year technology and art. What exactly art is has always been a circular and unproductive question. The contemporary context means the use of various forms of high technology: computers, biotech, net- work communications, robotics, CNC, and 2D/3D printers are being used to realize artworks. Artists have been using technology since the first tribal engineer invented the paintbrush and the first tribal artist said “gimme that” and showed them what it was for. What’s happening now that is special is that a new wave of technology has become accessible to a large number of people. Not every creative act qualifies as art because the democratization of technology does not necessarily result in the democratization of the vision, insight, and rigor necessary to produce artworks. The consequences are that the contemporary understandings of what art is and what a product is are conflating. Art has long resisted “productization.” Duchamp railed against “professionalization” in the art field for similar reasons, but as our culture is further optimized by technology the baseline distinctions are shifting. The question for me is not so much how art is being changed by contemporary high-technology tools, rather how broader culture is evolving to forget why it is important for some things, like art, to remain distinctly interesting in their non-productness.



Adel Abidin, "Consumption." Courtesy of the Internet.

Adel Abidin, “Consumption.” Courtesy of the Internet.


Ben Valentine Art has always struggled to compete for the public’s attention, and if art, artists, and arts institutions don’t become networked like the rest of our world they will struggle even more. Our attention spans are getting shorter, and multitasking is becoming the norm, while art has historically been about the deep and critical engagement between the viewer and the work. However, I don’t see this as a concern as much as it is an opportunity—figuring out how to grab and hold our attention and demand deep engagement has always been a struggle for artists and it always will be. We are seeing more and more artists making art using new tools; making new media works, interactive works, networked art, and more. This may bring about a new appreciation of art for techies who enjoy art but don’t see the ownership of it being of value in the same manner old-moneyed, more traditional collectors might. Techies are re- placing the pride of personal ownership with open-source, file-sharing, crowd-funding ideologies. These disruptive, egalitarian models are great for many fields but might not be a viable model for things that don’t have obvious economic value—things I believe that make us human, such as creativity, respect, personal relationships. . . .


Hanna Regev From my observations and experiences, many tech artists do not share the worldview of the art world, which is a very structured and hierarchical system, a system that is delivered top-down from elite, self-anointed cultural guardians who hold the power to determine value. Technology has introduced innovations into art and expanded the breath and depth of creativity, but has an ironic side. As the making of art has become more mechanized, the technology sector is reaching out to artists to humanize the output and incorporate artistic sensibilities. The use of the brush, pencil, or paintbrush is now at the mercy of the computer. How much of history of art making is being taken out? Where is art and art history as we know it going? There is also a big question here about collecting and a need for building new and different patrons. How are these new forms of artwork collectible in the first place if they are not object based? I am envisioning a new type of collector who is grounded in technology and supports the art as an intersection with technology. Programs such as CODAME ART+TECH’s “Adopt an Artist” may crack this nut. It is an initiative that calls for establishing artists-in-residency programs with high tech and social media companies to demonstrate value in partnering with host companies.


Willa Köerner I 100% agree that digital art has faced a challenge in its non-object- ness. Technologically created artworks are not easily purchased and hung on a wall or preserved in a museum collection—interestingly, the aspect and word that defines these works, (“digital”) is the same characteristic that keeps them from assimilating into the status quo of the art world. However, I believe that this situation is changing—platforms like Paddle8, Artsy, Tumblr, and Depict are showing us that collectors are interested in buying digital artwork. New systems are being created which offer sensible ways to support artists who create in the digital realm, and this mindset is even transferring over to museums. SFMOMA recently launched The Artist Initiative, a program supported by a $1.75 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which seeks to make the museum a pioneer in art conservation. I think that museums, collectors, and artists alike are beginning to understand that the time has come to work on solving the problems of collecting/preserving digital art. Soon these problems will be obsolete, as our ways of thinking about digital vs. object art will shift to a place where we accept the idea of “collecting” something that you may not be able to physically touch, and we will hopefully design systems that allow us to guarantee that we’ll be able to view the artwork in the future.


Dorothy Santos The primary challenge I see within the arts is the historiography of works created in the digital age. Ubiquitous communication gives us such a wide array of resources, but with the incredible amount of text written on the topic of arts and technology we also have to consider modes of classification and what exactly historicizes a particular artwork. Recently, I gave a talk at the San Francisco Art Institute to a class of students taking a course titled Internet Art. We discussed the differences between types of art produced in the digital age. We also discussed why reading the history and documentation of previous works is an important practice as well. But the most illuminating moment was hearing the students express how they identify themselves. A small percentage of the class identified as artists while the rest of the students had no designation for their practices other than interdisciplinary. While they expressed having practices that run the gamut when it comes to material tools and methods, I sensed their frustration at understanding how they could affect change or add to the discipline of art in a way that is impactful and adds to the existing dialogue.



UBERMORGAN, "CF1013 0039." Courtesy of the Internet.

UBERMORGAN, “CF1013 0039.” Courtesy of the Internet.


Ian Aleksander Adams I produce ephemera haphazardly and I don’t have a problem with it ending up in galleries. Once I put something online I think part of the process is that I lose control over context—I’m ok with someone taking a screenshot of it and posting it on 4chan than it’s also ok for someone to print it out and hang it on a wall. I want to say “ok” to any use someone decides for it. Kind of a copy/paste mentality to the dispersal of ideas.


Sheena Vaidyanathan I teach sixth graders computer programming through art. I want my students to look at code as a medium, just like paint. They learn that they can use code to do something creative. To make a static image, an animation, or today’s new kind of art (for example, a video game). I believe artists today should understand code so they can use it themselves as well as understand digital tools like Instagram. A sculpture like “The Bay Lights” by Leo Villareal would not be possible without the computer program that controls the lights.


Marcella Faustini Personally, I have yet to see art come together in an interesting, thoughtful and relevant way in this area of art and technology. And in fact, the greatest challenge we face in San Francisco is the possible loss of the art community itself. Currently we are experiencing a substantial depletion of San Francisco’s social and economic landscape that is in no small part due to the influx of technologists and the housing shortage. The exodus of members of the art community is not necessarily to the East Bay. Many artists are moving out of the Bay Area altogether, and if the sky-rocketing apartment prices continue the Bay Area will fail to attract artists who have the potential to do interesting things here.


Hanna Regev It is a very depressing situation we find ourselves in San Francisco. Our art scene is being transformed by a powerful political and economic force that equals a tsunami that left everyone in its wake pretty confused, discouraged, and help- less. San Francisco has an art culture that is quite disconnected from the very dynamic waves that are hitting its shores. Few artists here keep up with tech- and performance-driven events, and our main industry is largely uncultured. No wonder we have a hard time naming the leading digital artists.


Why is SF so aloof when it comes to embracing artists (digital and otherwise), and what can be done to make the two worlds work harmoniously? Is it perhaps that we don’t have a museum dedicated to the “art of now?” Apparently, the definition of contemporary art is not satisfying and very confusing, to paraphrase the 2014 Whitney Biennial curators.


Willa Köerner Those with enough money to make an impact on SF’s situation don’t necessarily share the same definition of “artist” that those of us in the art world sub- scribe to. In my mind, the only solution is to abandon our preconceived notions of what being an artist is or isn’t, and come together to work on projects collaboratively. With a few more folks out there devoted to championing the arts in our city of technocrats, I believe we can be successful in developing new ways of working together.


DC Spensley San Francisco is a testing ground for social organization right now. But the city also has a history of coping with boom and bust cycles like the forty-niners, the logging barons, and a variety of recent tech booms (and busts). San Francisco copes, absorbs what it can in terms of capital and talent and goes on with its business of progressive experimentation. What should be considered is the relationship between economic booms and this progressive social experimentation. There are those who think that the recent techno-economic disruption and displacement happening in the Bay Area is a force moving SF towards more conservative baselines (by displacing progressives for libertarian techies). I am not so sure about this. It could easily be that only in boom times we have the confidence and cash to push forward on finding out what is the next better way to organize culture. This time may be a great opportunity to influence social media technology and hack government in good ways as well as selfish ones. What would be good to see is a real engagement of tech capital with contemporary arts in terms of support for work that is emerging outside of the art world.


Ben Valentine Art and much of culture do not have an especially viable model of existence in a hyper-capitalistic setting, which San Francisco is rapidly becoming. These emerging, disruptive models like crowdsourcing, crowd-funding, and open-source soft- ware are making amazing products that are changing the marketplace, while also re- placing unionized, secure, and established jobs with a real uncertainty. Disruption has mostly been a bad experience for the working class and poor. As exciting as this new dynamic is for a wealthy, educated white man in the Bay Area with an expertise in coding, these disruptions are leaving most people behind.


Dorothy Santos The biggest concern related to art and technology discussions would be bridging communities. The same people talking about the same topics is definitely something that has prevented people from understanding how they can help expand and be inclusive. More active engagement with a multitude of individuals from underrepresented populations and including artists working from and through the lens of social practice could certainly be an interesting point of departure. I will be most interested to see if the Bay Area can continue to be a place that is open and welcoming to creatives invested in social, cultural, and historical (radical) change. I have faith that it can be.



Google bus protesters, the Mission District, San Francisco [left]. San Francisco mayor Ed Lee and BFF Ron Conway, Angel Investor [right].

Google bus protesters, the Mission District, San Francisco [left].
San Francisco mayor Ed Lee and BFF Ron Conway, Angel Investor [right].

Previous contributions by Peter Dobey include:

The Art World in Review: George W. Bush

The Art World in Review (3/17/14—3/24/14)

The Art World in Review (12/23—12/29)