Pop quiz: what was the first thing you did this morning? If you’re like 80% of smartphone users, you probably used the most powerful computer in human history to creep what your ex’s new girlfriend’s outfit at some party in Bushwick last night. Okay, fine, more research must be done to confirm that last statistic.
But the point is that we’re standing in the middle of the fastest technological revolution in human history. For thousands of years, fire was literally humanity’s hottest new gadget. These days, just keeping track of new tech is a full-time job. What used to be called magic is now on every self-respecting scientist’s five-year plan: mind reading, designer babies, traveling to Mars. The future is here, my friends.
Elon Musk isn’t the only one with space travel on his mind. For centuries, artists have been dreaming up futuristic scenarios worthy of a sci-fi novel. From Leonardo da Vinci’s crazy inventions to bitcoin art, the art world has a long history of embracing new technologies.
Today, there’s plenty of new tech to choose from. Blockchain, artificial intelligence, VR and driverless cars are just the tip of the techy iceberg. With so many new technologies available, art and tech are colliding harder than you and that pole you smacked into while FaceTiming your gallerist. Contemporary artists are embracing tech as both subject and medium, and museums and galleries use tech, like VR, to bring art to new audiences. There’s even an app that that brings art to your phone in VR—welcome to the future.
Below, meet six contemporary artists blending art and tech in fun and funky new ways.
Nancy Baker Cahill
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For Desert X 2019, Nancy Baker Cahill creates pieces using augmented reality, producing a singular experience for each viewer due to the ever-changing conditions of the desert. To the north of the Coachella Valley, near the windmill farms, Revolutions alluded to the capturing of energy, which we require to remedy a man-made crisis. @nancybakercahill @4thwallapp #desertx #desertx2019 #dx19 #nancybakercahill #revolutions
For Desert X 2019, Nancy Baker Cahill made an augmented reality (AR) drawing that visitors could see using her free app, 4th Wall. Originally working in drawing, Cahill made the jump into AR and VR to literally add a new dimension to her practice. She created 4th Wall to give audiences enhanced access to her work. Public engagement is key to the artist, and the app lets a worldwide public experience her artwork by layering it on top of their own surroundings. In this way, viewers turn the artwork into a collaboration, each viewer becoming an artist in her own right.
I have a feeling Cahill is onto something. These days, we all want to be the girlbosses of our own companies and the architects of our own destinies. We want total control and personalization in every area of our lives, so why not in art, too? By letting viewers have a hand in the creative process, Cahill just might represent the artist of the future.
A vegan activist, an acupuncture aficionado and a doctor walk into a bar. What do you get? A fake tiger penis.
Self-described bio-artist and social designer, Kuang-Yi Ku won the Gijs Bakker Award in 2018 for his “Tiger Penis Project.” A dentist in his past life, the artist knows how to make the old and the new play well together. His practice focuses on giving ancient world traditions a millennial make-over.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, eating a tiger penis helps you get it on. Unfortunately, this DIY Viagra encourages unsustainable hunting of endangered tiger species. Ku has a better idea. The Tiger Penis Project proposes that we use new biotechnologies to create artificial animal parts for traditional Chinese medicine, so we wouldn’t have to hunt and kill the real thing.
In his other work, Ku similarly combines biotech with various age-old traditions to create projects like “Tarot of Pulse,” or “Millennium Ginseng Project – Time Machine Farm.”
Andrés Padilla Domene and Iván Puig Domene
In 2010, Andrés Padilla Domene and Iván Puig Domene took to the Mexican railroads to investigate their country’s social and economic history. They were the first (legal) passengers in 15 years. After the Mexico National Rail Network was privatized in 1995, passenger service was cancelled because it was unprofitable. Around 900 km of rail that used to connect Mexicans in remote communities now sat around collecting dust.
To reclaim the rail, the Domene brothers designed the SEFT-1, a space-age contraption that can travel across both road and rail. Using art and tech that they created, they retraced their nation’s technological history—the promises of modernization and their ultimate failures. “The design has to do with the past idea of the future,” Andrés told Wired; hence the ‘50s NASA vibe.
The Domene brothers are artists who grew up two blocks from a train line in Guadalajara. During their trip, they collected videos, pictures and texts that capture how Mexico’s past influences the people today. The project is currently on view at the ASU Art Museum as part of “Talking to Action: Art, Pedagogy, and Activism in the Americas,” through July 20.
A computer wrote Emilio Chapela’s artist statement, but honestly, it’s much more readable than the average art world jargon-filled statement. Computers: 1; art world PhDs: 0. Still, Chapela’s practice is a tad esoteric, taking art and tech to some very lofty heights. The conceptual artist has an academic background studying math and communication, and both regularly pop up in his work.
Unlike most people you know, Chapela likes to philosophize about big data and its role in our communication. Also unlike most people you know, Chapela published a 45-volume encyclopedia, According to Google, using pictures he found on Google Images. As for the rest of his work, think Big Bang Theory meets Roland Barthes, with a healthy dose of absurdist humor à la Monty Python.
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#HitoSteyerl's "Hell Yeah We Fuck Die" (2016) features compiled audiovisual footage from product testing labs showing humanoid robots being tested for their balance. The robots are often seen crumbling, drooping, or disintegrating as they are repeatedly bombarded with simulated and physical force. The videos are synchronized to an original soundtrack created by Kassem Mosse based on "Hell Yeah We Fuck Die"—the five most frequently-used English words on Billboard magazine's music charts for the past decade. The same words appear as neon letters encased in concrete blocks that divide the space, which is further divided by tubular barricades and corrugated metal structures, creating a parkour-like obstacle course for viewers of the work alike. In capturing the vulnerability of our most sophisticated forms of technology, the work charts the obsessive search for speed and efficiency, ultimately highlighting its eventual fallibility #PAADrill (????: James Ewing)
Speaking of artists who aren’t afraid to get a little philosophical, have you met Hito Steyerl? The German artist, writer and filmmaker has a PhD in philosophy, and she’s not afraid to show it. In many ways, Steyerl is the O.G. art and tech artist. (Well, unless you count da Vinci. But we won’t.) Her subjects range from invisibility to sunshine to guns, but most fit under the broad umbrellas of technology and capitalism. So basically, the entire world we live in.
You can check out Liquidity (2014) on your own time if you have a thing for water and bitcoin. Let’s skip ahead to a couple of Steyerl’s latest projects that zero in on art and tech. Now on view at Park Avenue Armory in New York, Broken Windows (2018-19) and Hell Year We Fuck Die (2016) address artificial intelligence and robots. Name two hotter topics in tech, other than maybe Mars—I’ll wait.
Broken Windows “links an activist artist in New Jersey who paints over broken windows with scientists who smash panes to train artificial intelligence to understand the sound of shattering glass.”
Hell Yeah We Fuck Die sounds a little like Alexa who hasn’t finished her slang training yet. Fitting, considering the installation is about robots. Videos “show a giraffe-like avatar ambling through a vacant digital void”—kind of how I feel after spending too long on IG’s infinity scroll. The work also shows how scientists abuse and attack robots in product-testing labs. If the robots turn against us one day, we’ll know who to blame.
At 32, artist and self-taught programmer Rachel Rossin is already world-renowned for her work in emerging media. Working between traditional media like painting and newfangled stuff like VR and holograms, she invites us to ponder “the slippage between the real and the digital.” And no, that’s not when you slip in a puddle while you’re texting and walking.
Her latest solo exhibit at Zabludowicz Collection in London presents “Stalking the Trace”—and no, it’s not a piece about creeping on an IG crush for days after he liked one of your pics from 49 weeks ago. “Stalking the Trace” combines, you guessed it, art and tech. It’s a new and improved version of Rossin’s 2017 piece The Sky is a Gap, which debuted at Sundance Film Festival.
The multi-user VR experience poses questions of time and space in the digital age, categories that, Rossin thinks, are getting murky. Set to some trancey beats that sound like a techno remix of Enya, the installation feels like an IMAX movie where you can’t quite grasp the plot.
If you didn’t catch “Stalking the Trace” before it closed on July 7, head on over to Hamburg for some “Greasy Light.” The exhibition includes smeary paintings with holograms projected on top, a combination meant to make us question where reality lies. Did it trigger an existential crisis or just leave you confused? DM me because I’d love to know.
Text by Katya Lopatko.
Images via Kuang-Yi Ku, Wired, Abstract in Action, Zabludowicz Collection.