Highlights from “Tech as Art:” 3

Sunday 4th July, 2021 - Bruce Sterling

*Even more of our July 4 celebration of a new American government document about technology art.




Among tech-centered artists, building creative tools is a significant pursuit alongside art making, and artists develop software and hardware for both themselves and other artists. Some artists consulted in this field scan consider tool-building as central to their artistic practices and may self-identify as hackers, circuit benders, software developers, robotics engineers, and audio or visual instrument builders. Others develop custom tools on a case-by-case basis determined by need.

Whether it is to incorporate interactivity in a gallery installation or generate audio-visual effects, artists are actively developing custom-made software and hardware for use within their projects.

The notion of artists developing their own tools to produce work is certainly not new, building on roots established by early pioneers of electronic media art such as Nam Jun Paik. However, the accelerated means of creation in this current digital domain is different, as is the centrality of the process to artistic practice. Hackerspaces, open-source software and hardware, and code repositories have all enabled a flourishing and inventive tool-building movement that hinges upon technologies old and new. Some of these tools, even if built for a particular project, evolve and grow to underpin multiple artistic or even commercial projects.

Reasons for Tool-Building

Artists in the study expressed a number of reasons for building their own software or hardware, such as:

A natural extension of skills in computer science or DIY electronics;
A need for affordable alternatives to expensive commercial options;
A need for customized technical solutions to fulfill an artistic or conceptual vision; or
A curiosity to disassemble, repurpose, or invent new uses for existing consumer technology.

In many cases, an entrepreneurial spirit drives such creation as well—several artists in the study either license or freely distribute their own created tools for others to use. Such distribution often embodies core principles of the free software and open-source movement, also known as FLOSS (Free, Libre, Open-Source Software). While some artists may end up developing or contributing to proprietary tools, creative modification and re-use are pervasive in the ecosystem, in part due to the emergence of less restrictive licensing protocols. These so-called “copyleft” licenses31 give artists more control over the ways their work is distributed and re-used. The ready availability of online instructional materials further encourages artists to build exactly the tools they need rather than accepting what is already available.


*I am fully appreciative of this statement of the primacy of the tool issue, and I would add that curators and critic need to get closer to the means of tech-art production in order to say something useful about what’s going on.   Painting critics understand pigments, architecture critics understand steel beams; you don’t have to build a chair to judge if a chair works, but you need to get it about how chairs come into the world.