Laura Tabakman, Flora

Art + Technology: A Love Story

I remember the first time I was moved by technology.

Aesthetically moved, that is.

Back in 2008 I stood in awe of a six-foot “robot” at the 15 Minutes Gallery, a project of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. But this wasn’t your ordinary robot. It wasn’t shiny and metal and futuristic; it was a virtual Flora of wood, and fabric…a responsive canvas of interactive fiber artistry. I beheld nothing less than an organic tapestry of flowers, plants, mushrooms and leaves that grew, bloomed and reached out to me as I walked past it. With every step, a new plant gently opened to greet me, then receded to inertness as I moved away.

This is how a fabric artist, Laura Tabakman, makes a robot. When I originally challenged eight artists to make art for the BurghBot Project — with an arduino, servo and a gaggle of sensors — I had no idea how amazing and diverse the artwork would be. We had aliens and talking worms, interactive video, musical maps and birdhouses…but what amazed me most was how beautiful so many of these robots were.

My art career began with a degree in oil painting, and my purist sensibilities trained me to be on high alert for anything kitschy or gimmicky — tricks to mask lack of talent, skill or craftsmanship. But, was technology really the enemy? Was it destined to suck the soul and humanity out of our muse? Or was it, after all, just another medium?

With the added element of technology, the aesthetic experience was even more compelling — as I not only felt a response to the beauty, but the beauty responded to me. I had a relationship the creation: I was moved by it, and it was moved by me.

Either way, I longed to be moved by a work of technological art. Call it interactive, 4-D or robotic — it didnt matter. I wanted to know if it was possible to fall in love with this new media the way I fell in love with my first Vuillard or Pre-Raphaelite. I wondered whether it was even possible.

Then, on that opening day in the gallery, fall in love I did. The experience of Flora was one like I never expected. Years later, I still pine for that piece — my first art-and-tech love. I wonder if it is still ”alive.” With the added element of technology, the aesthetic experience was even more compelling — as I not only felt a response to the beauty, but the beauty responded to me. I had a relationship the creation: I was moved by it, and it was moved by me.

Flora (detail)

So, it became clear to me that technology was an opportunity to deepen the experience of art. Like any medium, if it’s not done well, it can be tragic. But, if done with the talent, skill and craftsmanship of a great artist, the possibilities are endless.

Technology and art may be strange bedfellows, but they have some great chemistry. They are in the early stage of their relationship — and so many people still don’t get why they are together. But, thanks to bigwigs like Apple, more of us are starting to “get it.” The fruits of the union of art and tech are moving us in more ways each day.

One thing is for sure: Art and technology are both here to stay. As human beings, we will always have the need to express ourselves, and to transform the world. With those forces united, imagine what we can do.

Article first published in Carnegie Mellon University’s Muse Dialogue, 2013