Stephen Wilson (US) Liberating the labs


Art as research

Cultural Importance of Scientific Research & Technology Development

The arts are perplexed about what to do in response to the growing importance of scientific and technological research in shaping cul-ture. One response positions artists as consumers of the new tools, using them to create new images, sounds, and video; another response sees artists emphasizing the critical functions of art to comment on the developments from the distance; a final approach urges artists to enter into the heart of research as core participants.

It is a critical error to conceive of contemporary research as merely a technical enterprise; it has profound practical and philosophical im-plications for the culture. The shaping of research and development agendas could benefit from the involvement of a wider range of participants including artists.

Scientific and technological research is not as “objective” as many of its practitioners would like to believe. While some of its practices strive toward objectivity, the whole enterprise is subject to larger political, economic, and social forces. Historians of science and tech-nology have documented the winds that determine what research ends up getting supported, promoted, and accepted and what products win in the marketplace. Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (University of Chicago Press, 1970) shows how paradigms dominate thought and scientific practice until new paradigms develop. Many possibly significant theories and technolo-gies are ignored.

As research increases in general cultural importance, it becomes more dangerous to accept this triage as inevitable. Valuable lines of in-quiry die from lack of support because they are not within favour of particular scientific disciplines. New technologies with fascinating potential are abandoned because they are judged not marketable. Our culture must develop methods to avoid the premature snuffing of valuable lines of inquiry and development. I believe the arts can fill a critical role as an independent zone of research. Everyday life is increasingly dominated by the objects and cultural forms created by technology research. For example, telephones, computers, entertainment systems, medical equipment, transportation systems, governmental and policing systems, and product distribution technologies shape the ways people in the developed world spend their days, interact with others, and conceptualize the present and the future. The output of technology research is not confined to small technical niches. Theorists such as Baudrillard and Virilio, for example, expose the hidden assumptions, shaping of categories and pervasive conse-quences of technology.

What is an Appropriate Role for the Arts?

Throughout the last centuries (after Leonardo) during which science and technology have been increasing in importance, the arts have failed to develop a viable role. Often they have tried to ignore these developments and treat them as peripheral to the core of culture. Even when artists did attend to these developments, they did so as distant commentators, sniping from the audience, often without deep understanding of the world views and processes of scientific research. I believe there is a much stronger role for the arts in which artists integrate critical commentary with high level knowledge and participation in the science and technology worlds.

The arts can function as an independent zone of research. They could become the place where abandoned, discredited, and un-orthodox inquires could be pursued. They might very well value re-search according to criteria quite different from those of the com-mercial and scientific worlds. The roles of artists could incorporate other roles such as researcher, inventor, hacker, and entrepreneur. Even within research labs artist participation in research teams could add a perspective that could help drive the research process. Several traditions of the arts uniquely equip them for this function:

— Artistic traditions of iconoclasm mean that artists are likely to take up lines of inquiry devalued by others.— The valuing of social commentary means that artists are likely to integrate widely ranging cultural issues in their research.— Artists are more likely to incorporate criteria such as celebration and wonder than commercial enterprizes.— The art’s interest in communication means that artists could bring the scientific and technological possibilities to a wider public better than peers in other fields.— Artistic valuing of creativity and innovation meant that new perspectives might be applied to inquiries.If the culture had to rely only on traditional lines of research, we might have had to wait much longer for the developments that have profoundly shaped the last decades. This story potentially could be repeated many times in many other fields of inquiry if alternative venues for research are developed. The arts could well serve this function if artists are prepared to learn the knowledge, language, work styles, self discipline, and information networks that are instrumental in their fields of interest.

Preparing Artist/ Researchers

What must artists do differently than they always have done to prepare to participate in the world of research? They must broaden their definitions of art materials and contexts. They must become curious about scientific and technological research and acquire the skills and knowledge that will allow them to significantly participate in these worlds. They must expand conventional notions of what constitutes an artistic education. The parameters of the science and technology education required is not yet clear. Can artists find the right mix of objective and subjective processes? Can artists learn enough to engage in research at a non-dilettante level? Scientists and technology researchers who have devoted their entire professional lives to educating themselves about topics being investigated might be sceptical.

At the same time artists must keep alive artistic traditions of icono-clasm, critical perspectives, play, and sensual communication with audiences. They must be willing to undertake art explorations that do not neatly fit in historically validated media and offer their work in new contexts.

What is a Viable Role for Artists in Research Settings?

The viability of this kind of collaboration is so critical to the future of both art and research that it is worth thinking about in more detail. What can researchers contribute to art and what can artists con-tribute to research? Why can high tech companies gain from artists being involved?

Much of the most well known collaborations between artists and scientists/engineers do not provide good models. For example, the EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) in the 60’s and the LA County Museum collaborations in Art & Technology produced some interesting art but did not profoundly address the role of artists in research. Often the engineers functioned as technical assistants to the artists or the artists dabbled with new technologies.

Better models would provide more mutual benefit. Early examples, include Bell Labs involvement of artists in sound research that was instrumental to telephony, electronic sound, and electronic voice research and electronic music. Also, artist Sonia Sheridan’s artist in residency at the 3M research center in the 70’s helped influence the development of color copier technology as well as shaping her development of the Generative Systems program at the Art Institute of Chicago that influenced so many artists. More contemporary examples include the artist-in-residency programs initiated by the Xerox PARC research center and Interval research company. These collaborations experimented with mutual definitions of research agendas.

Skeptics sometimes wonder what possible contribution artists can make to serious research and development. Artists can augment the research process in several ways. They can define new kinds of re-search questions, provide unorthodox interpretations of results, point out missed opportunities for development, explore and articulate wide ranging implications of the research, represent potential user pers-pectives, and help communicate research findings in effective and provocative ways. They can bring centuries of artistic experience to bear on the technological future. They often approach problems in ways quite different than those of scientists and engineers. The critical role of designers and artists in computer human interface re-search over the last years demonstrates this new model of interdisciplinary research.

Computer Art is Not the Future — New Challenges

Below I list some areas of scientific inquiry and technological develop-ment that I believe may have cultural impact and will be fruitful areas for artistic inquiry. This diverse idiosyncratic list is by no means exhaustive and identification of other areas of interest should be considered an important artistic activity of our era: New biology / Extra-sensory phenomena / Animal Consciousness / Brain physi-ology / Medical technology / Touch, Taste, and Smell research / Biosensors / Artificial life / Alternative Energy / Materials science / Cosmology / Non visual astronomy / Space science / Artificial Intelligence / Hypermedia / Robotics / Gesture recognition / Speech recognition & synthesis / Wearable computing / Information visualization / Groupware / Computer-Telephone Integration / Inspectable movies / Virtual Reality / Ubiquitous Computing / Surveillance & remote sensing / Bar codes and auto ID / GPS (geographic locating systems) / Intelligent home / Intelligent hi-way

The Integration of Research and Art

Research is shaping the future in profound ways beyond the utilita-rian confines of the technology produced. Our culture desperately needs wide involvement in the definition of research agendas, the actual investigation processes, and in the exploration of the im-plications of what is discovered. Artists can contribute significantly to this discourse by developing a new kind of artist/researcher role.

I am not claiming that artists should act exactly like researchers. If they did, they would be unlikely to make any unique contribution. Contemporary art often includes elements of commentary, irony and critique missing from “serious”research. Similarly scientists and technologists strive toward objectivity; artists cultivate their idio-syncratic subjectivity as a major feature of what they do. The “re-search” that artists created will most likely look different than that produced by traditional researchers. It would work like art always does — provoking and moving audiences through its communica-tive power and unique perspectives. Still it might simultaneously work as research — using systematic investigative processes to de-velop new technological possibilities or to discover useful new knowledge or perspectives.

Stephen Wilson

Stephen Wilson (US)

Stephen Wilson is a San Francisco author, artist and professor who explores the cultural implications of new technologies. His interactive installations & performances have been shown internationally in galleries and SIGGRAPH, CHI, NCGA, Ars Electronica, BEAP, and V2 art shows. His computer mediated art works probe issues such as World Wide Web & telecommunications; artificial intelligence and robotics; hypermedia and the structure of information; GPS and the sense of place; synthetic voice; and biological & environmental sen-sing. He has written numerous articles on these subjects and pub-lished four books, the most recent of which is “Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science and Technology” published by MIT Press in November, 2002. He won the Prize of Distinction in Ars Electronica’s international competitions for interactive art and several honorary mentions. He is Head of the Conceptual/Information Arts program at San Francisco State University. He was selected as artist in residence at Xerox PARC and NTT Research labs. He has been a developer for Apple, Articulate Systems and other companies and principal investi-gator in National Science Foundation research projects to investigate the relationship of new technologies to education.