Art, Technology and the Human Imperative

By Cheng, Scarlet | Ceramics Art & Perception, March-May 2010 | Go to article overview

Art, Technology and the Human Imperative

Cheng, Scarlet, Ceramics Art & Perception

SOMETIMES WE THINK OF ART AND TECHNOLOGY AS opposed to one another--the former based on intuitive, often serendipitous impulses; the latter on rational and methodical application of observable facts. But throughout the history of civilization, art and technology have developed hand in hand and artists, being the resourceful creatures that they are, have freely borrowed and adapted from and added to technology.


The invention of the printing press and movable type is an early example of technology informing and ultimately becoming an art. Type at first emulated the very stylized calligraphy developed by scribes of medieval manuscripts and later evolved into a rich assortment of shapes and styles. Early broad-sides and posters conveyed meaning and emphasis through an eye-catching array of well-chosen fonts. Big, small, bold, dainty, stately, garish, typography became a tool of creative expression. Today such artists as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer use type (and words, too, of course) as integral elements of their work.

Southern California art of the 1960s and 1970s shows many examples of artists creatively borrowing technology. Peter Alexander discovered resin while repairing his surfboard and redeployed it for sculpture. Billy Al Bengston, who earlier had worked with Peter Voulkos at Otis Art Institute to develop an Abstract Expressionist style in ceramics, utilized automobile lacquer to create slick-surfaced paintings. In 1967 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art initiated its controversial Art and Technology Program, an experiment involving artists using advanced technologies and corporate sponsors. The results of these collaborations were included in the landmark 1971 exhibition Art and Technology.

During the same era, artists on both coasts were experimenting with a new technology developed for recording television programs. Video was picked up by artists to record art events, notably the site-specific 'happenings' that were staged in New York and Los Angeles. Video technology was also employed to make art, Video Art. Today digital technologies are widely used for Conceptual, Digital, and Installation Art, from manipulating images to creating three-dimensional, full-length portraits. Thirty years after Art and Technology, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presented 010101: Art in Technological Times in 2001. The curators were interested in "mapping the ontological shifts, the changes in social relationships, the evolution of transformed aesthetic practices and new narrative forms, the expression of our collective unease and, not least, the ways that our essentially human need for beauty has infiltrated this world of ones and zeros," wrote then-museum director David Ross. (1)


Arm's Length In: Ceramics and the Treachery of Objects in the Digital Age, pairs clay, one of the most ancient arts, with the newest digital media. Phyllis Green, the exhibition curator and a noted ceramist, presented a unique challenge to five artists: to create artwork that incorporated digital technology, along with their familiar medium of clay. Or, as Green says, "to work in the realm of the actual and the virtual". To me, the exciting projects developed by these artists affirm that ceramic objects can be made relevant to the 21st century and that art continues to serve some basic functions--to augment our experience, to express thought and feeling, to help us find meaning.

Each artist expanded the assignment beyond a task, using it as an opportunity to explore new territory. They found collaborators from the world of science, photography and video--and for most of the artists, collaboration was a new venture in itself. Jim Melchert found Francois Conti, a professor in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University. Conti specializes in haptic interface, a simulation technology which enables us to 'touch' objects that we cannot with our bare hands--whether they be too hot, too cold or, in this case, too small. …

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