Code, Art & Politics

By Carla Rapoport May 22, 2018

We’re lucky at Lumen to have a network in London that includes Camberwell School of Arts and the V&A Digital Futures programme, allowing us to put on evenings such as the one last week, called The Politics of Code.


It was a tremendous night for talks and networking, featuring excellent presentations from Stanza, a 2017 Lumen finalist, Tadej Dolic, who won the first Lumen Meural Student Prize last year, Fabio Dartizio, another 2017 finalist, and Rachel Ara, a 2016 finalist. Grateful thanks to all.


Dr Nick Lambert, head of research at Ravensbourne and chair of the Computer Arts Society,  concluded the evening with a talk entitled “Computer Art: A Postscript”. Here he suggested that this term, which is at least 50 years old, has probably come to the end of its usefulness. For artists who grew up since the 1980s and might be considered “born digital”, computer imagery is ubiquitous and therefore part of a widespread culture.


To utilise computational processes, as Rachel Ara does, he pointed out, is not necessarily to subscribe to a set of shared values. Whereas the pioneer computer artists were strongly influenced by High Modernism and also the first wave of Conceptual Art, the disparate range of influences on modern digital artists is much larger and often drawn from digital culture in the widest sense.


Obviously, he continued, there are artists who work with data and whose aesthetic is based on their source material. Ryoji Ikeda’s ‘Test Pattern’ series is one such example, and its recent staging at the Store X on the Strand in London showed the impact of large-scale digital works on the public. Their responses to being immersed in a room-sized visualisation of data were intriguing to say the least.


“Not so far away from the Strand, the offices of Cambridge Analytica were located until recently in an anonymous office block on New Oxford Street. Here we could see the concrete results of a battle fought by programmers, around the weaponisation of data and its use for ‘gaming’ democratic processes. This real-world fallout from alogorithmic approaches to voting is an important indicator of new potentials in the use of freely-available data for political purposes,” commented Nick.


“At a time when new immersive image systems (such as the quasi-holographic technology developed by the University of Utah) could alter our visual perception of the world, the potential exists to ‘hack’ this as well,” he continued. “At an extreme level, such systems could be used to screen out undesirable visual experiences, edit out people and even create a real-life version of the social media ‘echo chamber’ where one only hears self-reinforcing views from similarly-minded contacts. Also the use of volumetric scanning systems and supposedly ’empathetic’ AR and VR environments could also be abused in various ways to create facsimiles of trusted friends, in ways similar to current internet ‘bots’. Even the development of tiny data-collecting insect drones opens the way to more intrusive data-collection,” he pointed out.


But what does this mean for artists?


Artists, by and large, have been considerably ahead of the curve in terms of awareness of such potentials, even as far back as Gustav Metzger’s early computer works in the 1960s, Nick pointed out. “The activist side of digital and networked art is well represented by Furtherfield, which recently investigated the artistic use of the blockchain as a new method of distribution and engagement. With their propensity to subvert systems, artists are well placed to find new and unlikely uses of the sensory and data-gathering technologies developed by corporate interests.” The audience particularly enjoyed Nick’s slide presenting James Bridle’s “Autonomous Trap 001” of 2017, where the artist used a self-driving car’s sensors to keep it confined within a circle of traffic markings. Unable to process context, the vehicle could not exit the circle.


In conclusion, he observed that all of this is far removed from the initial vision of “computer art” from 50 years ago, but yet it is no less computational. Assigning the term computer art to history is a big step, but Nick concluded with this thought:  “We are looking at the evolution of new kinds of ‘electronic art’, where the computer is but part of the infrastructure of the work.” At Lumen, we call this digital art in the broadest sense.  But I look forward to academics like Nick coming up with newer and better names for what today’s artists do with code. In the meantime, their remit to tackle politics with their coding widens with each news cycle. Those, like me, who believe in the power of art are particularly thankful that artists are eager to embrace these computational tools.



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