Innovating the awe and magic of artistic expression is becoming a leading practice by top technology platforms and companies. Companies such as Google, Adobe and Apple are exploring emerging tech via creative collaborations and sponsorships. Apple is taking serious strides to make the immersive arts more accessible and recently launched its (fantastic) [AR]T initiative. The project aims to push the creative potential of augmented reality via exhibiting immersive art in public spaces and creating accessible tools that allow novice creators to make and share virtual art pieces and experiences. Even more established scientific research hubs are pushing in-house tech innovation by bringing art to their labs. The Nokia Bell Labs kicked off specialised programmes and residencies to leverage the fuse between art and tech. Its E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) programme was put in place to explore and develop new ways for humans to emotionally connect. This initiative houses a variety of artists with a focus on new media artists, as well as composers and musicians that capitalise on technology within their artistic practice. With notable collaborations that include interdisciplinary artists such as Lisa Park that explored the importance of the human physical touch as innate to the human condition, or beatboxer and visual artist Harry Yeff (aka Reeps One), on an investigative journey of human communication through in- sights into the voice from a scientific, cultural, technological and artistic perspective.


The Tempest, 2017, Royal Shakespeare Company. Barbican Theatre Photo: Topher McGrillis
Going all the way back to 1875, one might expect that the Royal Shakespeare Company would lean into the traditional performance art form. However, the RSC is not only providing contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare's classics to its one million+ annual visitors, but is also utilising cutting-edge technologies to elevate the theatrical experience. ‘What I think is wonderful about theatre,’ says Sarah Ellis, the RSC's director of digital development, ‘is that it used tools and technology over centuries to architect and tell stories. Theatre designers and production have always innovated and integrated technology, from candlelight to electricity and stage design. Theatre always applied a very strong sense of 'why' – why you're using these technologies to tell the story.’ A great example of the RSC's utilising technology to produce theatrical awe was the 2016 Gregory Doran production of The Tempest, created in collaboration with Intel and in association with The Imaginarium Studios.

This breakthrough production pushed the boundaries of theatre, combining live performance and facial motion capture on stage for the very first time – creating and morphing digital characters and performers in real time. The experience reached people in 124 countries around the world as well as 136,000 audience members in Stratford-upon-Avon and at the Barbican in London. ‘The misconceptions that live performance is not interactive is wrong,’ adds Ellis, ‘there's a level of inter- activity just by being present. However, what we fundamentally go back to is that art form is ephemeral. It is a transcending art form, and once you were immersed in it, it disappears, that unique moment absorbs in you. It's been working in virtual reality for centuries. There's something wonderful about its immediacy and the fact it changed every night, it's perfect.’

Melting Memories , Refik Anadol

The Tokyo-based art collective teamLab (f. 2001) is an international art collective, an interdisciplinary group of various specialists such as artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians and architects whose collaborative practice seeks to navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, design and the natural world. They work with digital tools and technologies to expand art and liberate it from its physical constraints, exploring new relationships between humans and the world. Their work influenced audiences and curators to change the way they view and display art. By allowing visitors to immerse and interact with the pieces, space and themselves, they drew the notion of art and exhibition design outside the dusty glass cabinets of museums.

The collective often focus on transcending the sense of presence and preconceived boundaries, such as those between the self and other, between humans and nature, and between oneself and the world. A great example is their immersive exhibition “teamLab: A Forest Where Gods Live,” showcasing artworks that transform a garden into an immersive digital-art labyrinth that changes as it reacts with the visitors. ‘We allow people to experience the beauty of the world with their hearts and their bodies. In the 20th century, we were taught only to understand the world through our ‘heads’, but it is important to experience things with our hearts and our bodies as well. We do not think you can fully understand the world just through the internet,’ they add. ‘You could say that technology is the core of our works, but technology is not the most important part. It is still just a material or a tool for creating art.'

We Speak Music Image courtesy of Nokia Bell Labs
teamLab,Abstract and Concrete-Forest Entrance, 2018, Interactive Digital Installation, Sound:Hideaki Takahashi© teamLab
The Canadian visual artist, Mandy Stobo, explores questions of identity and vulnerability through the artistic and cultural clash of the digital and physical. She initially started Bad Portraits as a side project to poke fun at the polished selfie culture of social media. Stobo created 'quick and dirty' drawings out of Twitter profile pictures and sent them to the users, quickly gaining traction and ending up drawing more than 20,000 Bad Portraits including commissioned requests to draw celebrities, athletes, politicians and even 30 iconic contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race. For Stobo, ‘It was imperative for me to ex- press flaws through my drawings to promote acceptance in others and myself. I think being able to show 'failure' in my work in a humorous way allowed the viewer to think about themselves in a more vulnerable, empathetic and more hopeful way.’ As soon as Stobo dis- covered the VR Tilt Brush she instinctively knew she needed to start creating within the immersive space. She started exploring her splendidly raw (yet visually stunning) drawing techniques via virtual tools and space. ‘I mix real and virtual paint and combine physical cut-outs with interactive digital mediums to reinvent a new virtual-world quality and depth. Immersive tech enabled me to continue and play with a vulnerable childlike aesthetic in a high-tech landscape,’ says Stobo. Besides creating augmented portraits that can gesture and tell the character's story she devised the stunning titles for the CAMP 2017 festival in Calgary, creating and then digitally scanning physical dioramas and adding 3D animation as a storytelling vehicle. The result, a fascinating play on depth and materiality within a virtual landscape.

Inside the House of Eternal Return by Meow Wolf / Image © Kate Russell

Another notable entity that is innovating in the hybrid art space are Meow Wolf, a creative collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with an eclectic approach to immersive arts and interactivity. Determined to create a space for experimental creative expression, their first project was the ambitious House of Eternal Return – an experiential space where the audience explores the physical and the fantastic.

The 20,000 square-foot space was created in a quasi-anarchistic manner, with some 100 local artists involved. It mixes analogue and digital interactions to create layered environments, aesthetics and narratives, as the collective describes it ‘a unique combination of a children's museum, art gallery, jungle gym, and fantasy novel’. Thanks to that beginning (House of Eternal Return started in 2016 and is a permanent installation that is constantly revised), the growing collective are expected to expand the experience to two new locations within the next couple of years. I spoke to Mirabelle Jones, a hybrid designer / developer at Meow Wolf with specialisation in sensors, soft robotics and computer vision, whose personal work revolves around rethinking the role and concepts of books as a medium and a tool.

Jones describes the unique approach and the experience of creating in the Meow Wolf space: ‘My goal is to create a cohesive experience which must take into consideration both the physical world and the digital layer. Most interactive media artists must consider their work's portability aspect, but Meow Wolf are the opposite of a white wall gallery since it would be (literally) impossible to find a blank white wall in one of our spaces. If you happen to find one, it would likely start crying pink milk upon your touch.’ What excites Jones is the idea of creating new environments and situations where the art and story are driving the experience and technology is only used as a tool to accomplish that. ‘Mixed reality is especially exciting since you can provide either shared or a tailored individual experience.’

Another notable figure exploring this space is Refik Anadol, a media artist and director of Turkish origin, currently residing in Los Angeles. Anadol is intrigued by how the digital age and machine intelligence enable a new aesthetic technique to create enriched immersive environments that offer a dynamic perception of space. He defines his work as ‘post-digital architecture' since he uses data and digital art to explore materiality. ‘I use architecture as my canvas, but I am not an architect – I am not looking for a function in my work, I don't have to worry about gravity. I am a spatial thinker that uses technology as a brush and data and light as a material.’

Foamy Apple instore character by foam studio


There is, however, an undeniable tension be- tween the need to be commercially viable and enabling true creative freedom for experimentation. Since the 90s, Henrik Mauler – founder of the Berlin-based foam and ZEITGUISED studios – started exploring what is a 'true' visual expression via digital tools. His inspiration drew from traditional visual arts such as photography, and he was already exploring virtual reality and 3D printing in 2001. ‘At the time, everything in digital seemed to mimic an old medium. Looking for something new. Al- so, it was quite hard, mainly since both ends of the spectrum (the commercial and creative) were not optimal (to say the least).’

The work got traction, receiving requests from world-leading commercial clients and Mauler quickly realised they needed to create two separate entities. In foam studio, the team focused on commercial work while at ZEITGUISED on experimental work. Mauler explains the reasoning behind this decision: ‘Many companies came to us because of the experimentation, but it was confusing to keep it together. The business logic and time- lines are different, and the separation was both relieving and empowering – it helped our commercial delivery and our creative focus, while leveraging on shared resources, people and infrastructure.' The interesting juxtaposition is also expressed in their pro- cess: foam produces digital imagery and media via the application of meticulous manual craft, while in ZEITGUISED, they utilise an algorithmic approach to form physical out- put. The ZEITGUISED form synthesiser looks at mass customisation by generating shapes based on algorithmic processing that models design decisions on a highly artistic level. The results are rich and mesmerising on both accounts.

Another Bad Portrait. Courtesy of Mandy Stobo

Since art is as much about the exploration process and uncertainties, it is also a great tool to achieve technological advancements within an experimental framework resulting in unpredictable outcomes. Domhnaill Hernon, head of experiments in arts and technology at E.A.T., shares how creative experimentation helped the Bell Labs to advance its learning about haptics (the simulation of touch via vibrations, like the vibrations in your smartphone): ‘Normally people develop haptics via large and cumbersome haptic gloves. Through our artists' collaboration (namely Seth Cluett), we discovered what musical instruments and the connection be- tween the musician and the instrument could teach us about haptic technology.’

Mauler sees accidents not a problem or an in- convenience, but as a goal: ‘We are looking for what might be considered as “undesirable” in a tech environment. We are exploring the un- discovered land of a digital world.’ For Ellis of the RSC, ‘What I love about theatre and live performances is that it deals with time, it deals with space, and it deals with a shared experience, but also has a sense of jeopardy.’

CAMP, 2017. Courtesy of Mandy Stobo/CAMP festival


There is a real need to merge physical and digital creative practices into the tech industry, rooting technology within human needs and desires as well as have both the creative and tech industries thrive and benefit from their similarities and differences. Jones highlights the source of the disconnect between the two, and believes it is rooted in the failure to com- bine the tech and early on: ‘A lot of that has to do with how technology has been introduced in educational institutions and how analogue art forms have been differentiated from STEM coursework.’ The solution would be to have an individualistic approach to skill-building and by combining various knowledge disciplines. Hernon believes the art world can teach the technology about inclusivity, as well as the possible downstream adverse effects that some technology may have on humanity.

teamLab also look at the added value of melding the two to artistic disciplines: ‘One characteristic of interactive art is that the existence and behaviour of the viewer can influence the art, thereby blurring the line between art and viewer.’ For Stobo the tech industry learn about inheriting cultural and social purpose from the arts, as she says, ‘We need to make sure we don't lose our stories and the reason why we are making things.’

Spirit of the Flowers, Borderless Companions

While a disconnect might exist, the similarities might be hiding in plain sight. Ellis identifies the commonalities between the two: ‘I think there is a joint prototyping culture for startups culture and the arts, it hadn't synchronised yet, but there can be a real benefit from sharing the R&D process and building a better relationship. I am proud of what we did with The Tempest, how the partnership mod- el we used to invest in collaborative R&D can also catalyse wider organisational innovation.’ Mauler considers art the original startup culture, for him, ‘It keeps reinventing itself, and it will always find a way to disrupt itself and progress, this adaptation process is ongoing.’

Luckily, we are witnessing an accelerated shift towards having these two incredible disciplines combine and intertwine. Hopefully we would see more creatives, technologist policy-makers and audiences focus their attention and resources to make this bond stronger. After all: ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’ Albert Einstein, contribution to Living Philosophies, Simon & Schuster, 1931. / / / / / / / re / /

This article appeared in DAM74. Order your personal copy.