This report, Tech as Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium, presents findings from a field scan commissioned in 2019 by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Ford Foundation and the Knight Foundation. The purpose of the scan was to more fully understand how artists are incorporating digital technologies in their creative work and to learn more about the current and prospective sources of support for these artistic practices.
Funders reading the report then can make smarter decisions on how to enhance support for this field. The research is grounded in literature reviews, interviews, and group discussions with artists and practitioners across the United States.
The report shares detailed findings; identifies challenges; and ends with recommendations for different stakeholder groups, including funders, arts practitioners, policymakers, and educators.
There are five main findings:
Code, computation, data, and tool-building are fundamental to technology-centered (“tech- centered”) artistic practice.
Code, computation, and data can facilitate artists’ creative collaborations by enabling artists to create works across artistic forms and contexts.
Tool-building is both an artistic pursuit and a vital practice for this field. It expands access to software and computational thinking, and it supports the creativity of other artists through an open-source ethos.
Because the field is so diverse and dynamic, it has eluded easy labels. As a result, more traditional arts organizations and funders often have trouble finding entry points to engage with it.
Tech-centered artists work fluidly across disciplines and formats, creating genre-defying artworks and spanning discipline-based curatorial and academic specialties. Artists create projects within and between virtual and physical spaces, requiring distinct approaches to presentation, public engagement, accessibility, and archiving.
*I’ll try to summarize those five findings in a somewhat less stilted version of English.
First, yes, it’s true, obviously the tool-building is a major aspect of the tech-art world. If someone is simply using and deploying standard creative-software packages such as Photoshop or a word processor, that’s not the phenomenon of interest. The grain of the material is in the tool-building. There’s even a cultural aesthetic of turning non-art-tools into art tools. It even tends to overwhelm the end product.
Second, if it fits neatly into previous artistic genres like an oil painting, a novel or a ballet, it’s probably best understood and treated as an oil painting, a novel or a ballet, even if there were heaps of computers or electronics involved somehow.
Tech art advances mostly through knowledgeable user-groups. It’s like literature or pop music in this regard, there’s going to be a learning curve and some dues-paying with peers and mentors. If you’re a lone genius and you do something unusual and expressive with a computer, it will be hard to frame that as an artwork. It’s too much the black swan, people won’t get it.
Traditional arts organizations and funders didn’t know tech-art, didn’t want to know, and the artists doing it didn’t much want them to know. That was a relatively stable situation until the pandemic of 2020, when all the traditional arts organizations and funders were cruelly crushed by plague and everyone was using Zoom calls and networks. Now the traumatized art world and maverick tech-art world are much closer, and have much broader commonalities. So we need to get used to that and try to find some benefit in it. That’s how it is now, and the status quo ante of benign neglect and hacker purity cannot come back.
Tech artists make idiosyncratic, almost mad-scientist-looking, one-off creations that are hard to move and exhibit and almost impossible to preserve. Arts professionals need to invent some kind of newfangled vaudeville spaces that will work for the artists and the public.
Such are the issues at hand.
I’m actually happy to see the situation clarified in this way, because I think that our Share Festival Artmaker weblog here needs to directly confront those challenges. We need to make an earnest effort to get the creatives and stakeholders onto the conceptual page of new-normal modernity, and it really is about weird, noncommercial tools that verge on performance-art in and of themselves, made by gangs of zealots trying to advance and deploy them, with some patches of tech-art activity that are relatively stable and popular, with boundaries that are monsters or gimmicks. We need some methods for institutions to acculturate that, and better ways to get it in front of the public, and stop re-inventing the wheel.
No weblog can do that, but we can point at people doing it, and that is our Artmaker demographic. This is not a blog to promote our festival or publicize our events in Turin, Rome and elsewhere; this is a blog about supporting artists who use technology as a creative medium.