Interactive Art & Electric Ink

A day at the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds

Last month the Digital Transformations team attended a day of artist talks and workshopping at the University of Leeds centred around the theme of interactive art and electric ink. In addition to a hands-on workshop using conductive ink (more about that below!), we heard from artists Fabio Lattanzi Antinori and Eduardo Kac about their own work and research in and on the intersections between art and digital technologies.

Fabio Lattanzi Antinori talks us through the thoughts and process behind his works which involve electric ink, data mining and visualisation and sonification.

First up was Fabio whose work engages with the role of technology and data in contemporary society. He looks at the ways in which art and artists can reinterpret and represent data which comes from such unlikely domains as statistics and economics. He discussed some of his recent projects which use electric ink and screen printing techniques to (re)present vast amounts of financial data. His work Fortune Tellers was exhibited in 2016 at the MoCA Shanghai Pavilion and used data from the Shanghai Stock Exchange which was ‘sung’ by a small choir. When visitors touched the hanging screens they would hear corresponding snippets of song.

The themes of materiality, sound and creative uses of data present in Fabio’s work were ideas we returned to throughout the day. But, for me, one of the most interesting points Fabio raised related to issues of preservation and sustainability. His works are made for physical interaction — videos show people touching, prodding and sweeping their hands over the conductive surfaces, naturally causing wear and tear. Realistically, in order to preserve these works they would have to be deactivated — or at the very least, require restricted access. Fabio then debated whether works such as these were supposed to stop working…? And he asked whether these inevitable traces of human interaction, even if they are destructive, ought to be preserved as part of the work.

The complexities involved in balancing intended usage with necessary preservation is a central issue within book history. We have increasing access to digital versions of manuscripts and early printed material, and the quality and functionality of the digital versions continues to improve. It is perhaps not surprising that libraries and museums are considering whether researchers need to be given access to the original at all. It is the existence of a digital alternative which makes this possible, of course — but in the case of Fabio’s work, there is no digital alternative, no ‘surrogate’ to promote wider access. It is striking that in this instance, it is the digital artefact that seems to be posing more complex questions relating to preservation and conservation.

More information about Fabio’s work and a video of the singing screen in action can be found here.

Having fun with some of the materials from the Bare Conductive starter pack.

Following his talk Fabio led a hands-on workshop using conductive ink. Students and staff from across the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, and the School of Media and Communication had the opportunity to experiment with conductive ink as a material, and to think about its various applications and possibilities. Playfulness and trial and error was the order of day, despite varying levels of technical success!

The afternoon featured a talk by Eduardo Kac discussing the ways in which his various projects and works have engaged with telecommunications, genetics and digital technology. One of Eduardo’s most recent projects involved a collaboration with an astronaut onboard the International Space Station. We were lucky enough to be treated to a sneak preview of the film made on the Space Station in which French astronaut Thomas Pesquet creates an artwork designed by Eduardo. More information about this fascinating project can be found here.

We often find ourselves remarking in the Digital Transformation’s office that issues around sustainability and preservation within Digital Humanities no longer pertain only to digital storage capacity and/or technological obsolescence — increasingly, we are concerned with materials, their use and preservation. The ‘Internet of Things’ movement demonstrates how digital technology quickly moved beyond the computer screen. We now live in a world with internet-connected fridges and thermostats remotely controlled by mobile devices. And both Fabio’s and Eduardo’s work shows how art, object, science and digital technology can be combined to produce innovative and exciting works of art.

Diane Scott