The New Art Mediums
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the old paint palette and easel might soon be chucked in the trash.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
The materials and design aren’t radical — a 7-foot-high pyramid of plywood and sheet metal decked out with infinity mirrors, sensors and blue-purple LEDs — but the payoff of this art installation–slash–rogue science experiment by Los Angeles–based artist Leo Madrid promises to be a mind-blowing, flow-like state of consciousness. Sign me up!
I take a seat in the AZoth Pyramid in a dingy warehouse at San Francisco’s Pier 70, slap on a bulky headset embedded with EEG sensors and wait for my “quantum chamber” to whisk me off to another dimension of space and time. The interactive sculpture whirs to life, and soon pink, blue, green, red and yellow LEDs are flashing in a sequence designed to induce brain-wave patterns that create sensations of euphoria. “You’re fully programmed now,” says Madrid, half-joking.
Art depends upon surpassing itself — the idea of the new, and actively working to defy prior expectations.
—David Harris Smith, art professor, McMaster University
Think about art. What comes to mind? Maybe Van Gogh, Dali, Monet. Today, eye-popping technology is redefining this oldest of human endeavors in strange, new ways. Artistic works are created by people weaving through laser beams or from data gathered on air pollution. Rachel Rossin, the first-ever virtual reality fellow of the New Museum in New York City, creates paintings in virtual reality and then projects her work onto museum walls. In the case of Madrid’s interactive artwork, participants respond to the pyramid’s light patterns, and the pyramid responds to the participants’ responses in a biofeedback loop.
Some of the most avant-garde and multimedium pieces can be found in the rapidly evolving field of kinetic sculpture. You can climb aboard the Cosmic Carousel of Pittsburgh artist Michael Walsh, a 23-foot-long interactive sculpture that looks more like science fiction and beats your neighborhood carousel out of the park. Walsh used steel and polished aluminum to sculpt his 6,000-pound psychedelic ride, which is currently docked at Moxy, a community arts center in Oakland, prior to going on tour later this spring. Or you can fly out of the quotidian with Wings, an interactive sculpture created by San Francisco–based artist Josh Zubkoff. The massive installation is hand-carved with curved plywood, steel connectors, motion sensors and LEDs. Icarus combines a moving sculpture and roaming art gallery in one massive vehicle, while The King Mahtusahn is a futuristic cat car that’s finely tuned with multiple robotic engines and long lines of code, crafted by a band of artists turned welder-programmers. “I went into building this machine not knowing how to even change a tire,” says King Mahtusahn’s maker, Angelo Taylor, who looks like an extra from Mad Max barreling toward Valhalla in his pilot goggles and green Army jacket.
Parsons School of Art is just one of the growing number of educational institutions that offer programs like “Art, Media and Technology” to train young artists on different platforms so they can keep pace with the future of art. Even online courses like Codeacademy, Coursera, Udacity, code.org and Khan Academy have added coding boot camp courses that cater specifically to rising artists. According to David Harris Smith, an art professor and new media scholar at McMaster University in Canada, art is becoming “less and less static,” taking on many new and different shapes, from printing digitally created sculptures in 3D to drawing in virtual reality. “Art depends upon surpassing itself — the idea of the new, and actively working to defy prior expectations,” Smith says. All artists want full control over their creations, he adds, and by putting down the paintbrush and picking up these new skills, they no longer have to rely on specialists.
Art and technology also have started intersecting in new ways. Look no further than the emergence of virtual-reality art, LED pixel art, as well as massive Burning Man art installations that require engineering feats and technical know-how. “The most important thing that will change is the way we will experience art,” says Daniel Doubrovkine, the chief technology officer of Artsy. “We will relearn how to see art.”
Of course, throughout the course of history, technology has been part and parcel of an artist’s toolkit. After all, pop artist Andy Warhol would be nobody without the invention of silkscreen printing. Meanwhile, landscape photographer Ansel Adams wouldn’t be Ansel Adams without his cutting-edge digital camera. These days, technology and art are melding more than ever, two disparate worlds now inextricably linked as the pace of technology quickens. With technology continually enabling new realms of experiences, from the internet to biotech and virtual reality, artistry is propelled forward, rife with opportunity to explore the human side of going high-tech through what Doubrovkine calls “curated human experiences.”
The main concern, though, is that the artist may lose the fundamentals — line, texture, color, shape, form —in the rush to embrace all these flashy new tools. What about the basics of art making? Sounds a bit like a problem that Ralph Waldo Emerson hinted at more than 150 years ago: “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun.” Yet no matter: “Technology is an extension of human beings,” says Smith.
Next up? Robot da Vinci at your service.