Look a Little Closer
Five years ago I created the piece “Look a Little Closer.” This colorful and geometric sculpture represented a QR code. At the time, QR codes were becoming a popular marketing tool to connect viewers with online content. Simply scan the code to learn something more about a product, event or promotion. I designed the original QR code to say, “Look a Little Closer.” The sculpture consisted of solid spruce and acrylic paint. I followed the design of the original code, but varied the height of each section of wood and painted the sides bright colours. Once completed, the sculpture could no longer be successfully scanned. Error in the human hand had altered the code to the point where it was now simply a representation of a QR code. This was the original intention. My point was that art is should be experienced with all the senses, and not simply scanned to immediately know what it is about.
Sound Wave Art
Recently, this notion of being able to scan art has come up again. I create abstract art using sound waves from various sources, including music. The design begins on the computer where I create and alter the waveforms into circles. The design is then transferred onto canvas or board using carbon paper. This is the point where human error is introduced. Sometimes I create the sound waves using wood burning, paint or use masking fluid to resist the alcohol ink I apply over the design. Through all of these processes, the original waveform is altered. It maintains the essence of the original, but in the end is simply a representation. People have often asked me if they can scan my art and hear the sound that is represented. I usually explain that art should be appreciated for its beauty, and there doesn’t always have to be “an app for that.”
There’s an App for That
Turns out, there is an app for that. A company called “Skin Motion” is developing an app to scan sound wave tattoos. The idea is that you can design a sound wave tattoo and then download the app to scan the waveform and have the sound played back to you. The technology would only work with waveforms created specifically for the app and not existing ones. I have had a sound wave tattoo now for 3 years. Mine is a “sound circle” created using my voice saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” When I got the tattoo, I never felt that I need an app to remind me what it meant. Every time I look at it, it reminds me of the original message. This idea opens to a wider discussion about what the purpose of art is, and it’s role in our digital age.
The Purpose of Art in a Digital Age
Throughout history art has been made for a variety of purposes. Art was made to record human observations and experiences, represent beliefs and values, express thoughts and feelings, reinforce cultural traditions, affect social change, tell stories, decorate and beautify, make the ordinary extraordinary, and offer new perspectives. I believe that art is still made for these reasons today. Digital technology has changed some of the ways we think about and make art, but the purpose has mainly remained the same.
Technology and Art
There have been many changes in the art world as new technologies have been introduced. In the late 1800s photography was introduced and it had important implications for all forms of artistic media at the time while also presenting a new art form in itself. When acrylic paint was made commercially available in the 1950s it provided new alternatives for painters. In the 1970s the first personal computers swept humanity into a digital age that would change everything about how humans created, communicated, and understood their world. From then on, artists have used computers and the Internet to inspire, create and aid in making innovative art.
Experiencing Art with Tech
Our world is super saturated with digital technology. Most people have their phones on them 24/7. The result of this digital connectedness is often a loss of “real world” connection. Images of art are seen on tiny screens but rarely experienced in “real life.” Galleries are now offering virtual tours of their collections so you don’t have to leave home to “experience” the art. I am a strong defender of seeing art in person. I was moved to tears after seeing my first Jackson Pollok. I have never had this reaction to a picture of art on a screen. Studies have shown that gallery visitors will spend an average of 10 to 17 seconds looking at a piece of art. Galleries now offer apps for engaging with their collection. I have used these apps myself, but with an extensive art history background am able to understand the art on a deeper level without it. I question whether the apps truly engage viewers more with the art or simply shift their focus to the technology instead.
Implications for My Art Practice
My art practice is a balance between using digital technologies and hand made processes. I take pride in the hand made elements of my artwork. However, when people have shown increasing interest in my digital sound wave designs it bothers me. Something about this sends a twang of guilt into my gut. I feel that I need to bring my skilled hand into my artwork for it to be considered valuable or worthwhile. Maybe it is because I feel that with easy access to technology, anyone can reproduce my designs and the only thing separating me from them, is the use of my traditional media skills. I’m torn though because I enjoy learning and employing new media techniques in my art. For now, if someone asks me if there is an “app for that” when referring to my art I will continue to respond that it can be appreciated with the simple magic of the human eye.
I will summarize with a quote that illustrates my points perfectly:
“Technology, like art, is a soaring exercise of the human imagination. Art is the aesthetic ordering of experience to express meanings in symbolic terms, and the reordering of nature--the qualities of space and time--in new perceptual and material form. Art is an end in itself; its values are intrinsic. Technology is the instrumental ordering of human experience within a logic of efficient means, and the direction of nature to use its powers for material gain. But art and technology are not separate realms walled off from each other. Art employs techne, but for its own ends. Techne, too, is a form of art that bridges culture and social structure, and in the process reshapes both.” -Daniel Bell, The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys, 1960-1980