Art and Technology: an artist’s journey

Welcome to a short series on the research and development of British artists embarking on a technological adventure

Puppet prototyping, Jo Lawrence, January 2017

Technology and art have been bedfellows for forty thousand years, give or take: dating back at least to the prehistoric artists who first used a blow pipe and ground red ochre to cast silhouettes of their hands onto a cave wall. That early airbrush was a technological development, and it led to a new form of art — just as everything from woodblock printing to the camera obscura, from portable tubes of oil paint to photographic film, and from silkscreens to personal computers have led to new forms of art since.

So on one level it feels entirely natural, on a morning in early 2017, in a town like Cambridge, UK, to find two artists experimenting with new technology — and wondering what kind of impact this technology will have on their work and what they might be able to make with it.

Henry Driver experiencing virtual reality using the HTC Vive

The artists are Jo Lawrence and Henry Driver, who are both working with Collusion, a national not-for profit organisation which helps artists to work with technology in challenging new ways. Today, the tech in question is an array of virtual reality and image-capture equipment, which has been installed in a small upstairs room in the Cambridge Junction arts centre by Collusion’s unflappable technology lead, Rich Hall.

I’m there to record the process, and to ask the kind of questions that sometimes get passed over when creative people are hard at work.

Jo, an animator, watches with interest as Rich fires up a 360° camera, which captures a floor-to-ceiling panoramic image of the room. She is working on an idea for an animated opera, which explores the strange, unseen ways in which computer code has become part of everyday life — and sees the camera as a new way of creating alternative backdrops for the action.

Jo Lawrence and Collusion’s Rich Hall explore the Microsoft HoloLens
“I’m interested in mixing real world objects with 2D and 3D materials and photography,” she tells me, “and this is just such an exciting development — as it allows me to play with scale and perspective in new ways.”

Crucially, 360° imaging can produce scenes and backdrops that are spherical, rather than flat; which, Jo explains, could — quite literally — bring a new dimension to her work.

After the demo, she and Rich begin to discuss ways in which they can incorporate the 360° images into her piece. There are technical challenges here that would be beyond even a computer-literate artist like Jo — code will have to be written, stop motion animation and 360° footage will have to be composited, fixes for various fiddly tech problems will have to be found — but it’s clear that if she can visualise it, Rich can help her get it made (and is indeed currently working on a series of written how-to guides for some of the problems he’s already solved — which will appear on this feed in the coming weeks).

Seeing them work together reminds me of watching a record producer and a musician collaborate: there’s the same productive mixture of engineering know-how and creative energy. And the exchange has clearly left Jo feeling upbeat:

“It’s a really amazing time to be an artist,” she says, “so much is possible — especially if you get the technical support!”

The other new tool available to the artists today is the Microsoft HoloLens, a ‘mixed-reality’ headset which allows the wearer to see — and to interact with — holographic images that are overlaid onto the real world. Collusion recently acquired one of the first-generation HoloLens developer kits in the UK and Henry, an emerging digital artist who frequently incorporates elements of computer game design into his work, spends much of the morning experimenting with it.

Henry Driver enjoying augmented reality during the session

This is the first time he’s worn a mixed reality headset, and it’s obvious that the experience has been a thought-provoking and creatively energising one for him.

“I’ve long been interested in the boundaries between reality and simulation,” he explains, “for example: the way in which the pictures in fashion magazines have been manipulated so much that they no longer represent what’s real or true. So the idea of being able to play with and supplement what a person can actually see around them, as you can with the HoloLens, feels like a real step-change.”

Henry’s thinking isn’t blindly pro-technology; he talks about imagining a future world in which mixed reality headsets are a norm, and where people routinely use them to mask ugly landscapes, or to make other people’s bodies look less attractive than their own. And he believes that artists have an important imaginative role to play here, as people who explore the possibilities and the implications of new technology, and then communicate their findings back to their audience.

Early explorative R&D work, Henry Driver, March 2017

Simon Poulter, co-founder of Collusion, agrees heartily with this:

“artists bring an oppositional mode of thinking to technology and often eschew the techo-deterministic language that crops up elsewhere,” he argues, adding, “they approach things differently, don’t get bogged down in the status quo and that can be a really valuable thing when it comes to examining new technology — and thinking about how it might reshape our world.”

Having spent a day with Jo and Henry — and seen firsthand the inquisitive, creative and unusual ways in which they engaged with this new technology — I’m minded to agree.

If you’re curious to see how their projects take shape over the coming months — and to get some sharp-shooting tech advice from Rich — follow us here, where we’ll be posting regular updates.

And if you’re interested in getting involved in Collusion, get in touch here — or come to one of our Meetups in the Greater Cambridgeshire and Greater Peterborough area.

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About us
Collusion is a non-profit organisation which supports creative people and businesses across the Greater Cambridgeshire and Greater Peterborough area.

Our aim, in a nutshell, is to foster collaborations between the technology and the arts worlds, and increase the amount of exciting new work that gets made. We’re pursuing this in a variety of different ways, from staging free events and workshops across the area, through to running a series of specialist labs, which provide intensive, week-long development opportunities for professional artists; and on to our commissions scheme, which will give production and fees to many other artists like Jo and Henry.

If you’re working in a creative industry, or if you have a talent for working with technology — or both — check out the website for regular updates.

This series has been written for Collusion by Pete Naughton, a Cambridge-based journalist and audio producer, who has spent the last ten years writing about radio, podcasts, technology and music for the Telegraph newspaper.

Collusion is colluding with a lot of Creative Associates, just like Pete.

Check out past commissions and current activity at collusion.org.uk