Art as a Catalyst for Development and Societal Change

2019.5.15

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 “Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.[1]
Since the 18th century, we have been accustomed to deploy an increasing number of technical appliances for the extension of our senses. Sensations – as enhanced neurological stimulations of our sense organs, as well as widely broadcasted causes of excitement – have become the most powerful impulses of modern man and society.
Artists in all ages have been at the forefront when it comes to developing, testing, and deploying new media and tools. This was most definitely the case in the past, because artists[2] were always involved in developing new tools and techniques.[3] Already in antiquity, most of the analog workmanship techniques still in use today were developed primarily by artists. After the Middle Ages artists have busily developed analog reproduction and distribution media. An outstanding example is the development of printing, which set off a media revolution in Europe and became the crucial catalyst for the Renaissance. Moreover, the invention, application, and further development of analog photography in the nineteenth century was mainly driven by artists. And it was ultimately artists interested in algorithmic processes who began as early as in the 1960s and 1970s[4], in parallel with the artistic appropriation of analog electronic image production and transmission (television, video, etc.), to work with digital computer and communications technologies initially used for engineering and military purposes and to develop out of them the multisensory and creative digital applications and new creative instruments that form the basis of today’s communications society.
Just a few examples: From 1969 to 1971, together with Japanese television genius Shuya Abe, Korean media art pioneer Nam June Paik invented the first video synthesizer that allowed editing of up to seven different sources simultaneously—in real time! Their intention was to create a machine which anyone can play like the piano. In his manifesto of 1974, Nam June Paik proclaimed as follows:
This will enable us to shape the TV screen canvas as precisely as Leonardo as freely as Picasso, as colorfully as Renoir, as profoundly as Mondrian, as violently as Pollock, and as lyrically as Jasper Johns.
Since the 1970s, Paiks new video editing technique, based on the artistic use of television has found its way into mainstream broadcasting and formatted the aesthetic perception of a whole generation. Todays unlimited use of video and image processing in the entertainment, gaming and everyday communications industries is definitely based on the voluntary subversion of the more rigid underdeveloped formats of the era before the interventions of Nam June Paik.
During the 1990s, long before the arrival of smartphone technology, the ZKM | Institute for Visual Media[5] under the direction of Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw started to work on 360 degree video recording and display technology. They developed panoramic cameras and panorama projection as well as the software for integrating the images of 25 cameras into only one image. The primary focus in creative research and production at this institute was the artistic research and development of innovative hardware and software installations for artistic projects. Panorama Technology was among these developments – a display system, which consists of the Panorama Screen, and a specially developed software system for recording the environment, the Panorama Display Software. Today, with the worldwide use of mobile communications, panorama technology has become an everyday application in every smartphone worldwide.
As a most fruitful example of a cooperation between artists, scientists and engineers should be recalled the project Centerbeam, a gigantic multi-media art and cult machine, which alongside its 44 Meter steel spine combined newest artistic media such as laser, holography, steam, neon light, video and inflatables, and was shown as early as in 1977 at documenta 6 in Kassel.[6]
A more current example given by Spanish artist Daniel Canogar is the algorithm-based artwork Tendril, which is been permanently installed at the International Airport Tampa in Florida, since 2016. The large three dimensional media sculpture is based on Daniel Canogar’s development of flexible LED tiles, which on a bended and twisted band, floating beneath the ceiling of the entrance hall, allow the artist to cultivate the imagery of a continuously evolving vineyard. Breaking away from the confines of the flat screen will be one of the most promising future technological developments.
Artistic re-use, alienation, appropriation, hacking, and play are the subversive acts from which at all times ascend new developments out of known elements. Before the turn of the millennium, computer and video games were already a significant economic factor. Their enormous and wide distribution today not only evidences the rapid technological progress since then, but also the increased importance of video games and apps of all kind as a general cultural technology.
Only a short-sighted economistic view understands art as a mere product and commodity which can abundantly be produced and reproduced, and sold on the global market place. From ancient times it is known that one can never have culture – in the sense of being in the possession of an object, or as an attribute of a person – one can only do culture. Culture is the creative process, in which humans appropriate and shape their world. And this includes economy.
Culture, therefore, does not stand against economy. On the contrary, in all its forms and formats it is the deepest source and strongest catalyst of all economy. Cultural content as the outcome of the creative process of research, of analysis and confrontation is not a mere product, nor a commercial commodity. As the conscience of society, particularly art – as the noblest expression of culture – is the active process of being involved in gaining a higher awareness of things as they are, and as they should be in a democratic society. Art opens the doors of perception.
Art precisely means invention and intervention, capability and knowledge, awareness and practice, and last not least subversion of given practices out of which new technologies are born. New developments in art have preceded technological as well as social change at all times. Invention and intervention anticipate, initiate, and prepare the thinking, models, forms of action, and even the technical tools that lend themselves to all of the other social domains for and during change. Finally and definitively, we understand that not “war is the father of all things,” but that “art is the mother of all things.”


[1] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964 Cambridge, p. 3.
[2] The term “artist” is not reduced here to the traditional forms of art, but rather is understood in its broadest sense. Achievements in craftsmanship and engineering cannot be separated in their development from those in the arts. Art and “techne” are inseparably interconnected.
[3] The first “cave painter,” although he did not view himself as an artist in the modern sense, captured hunting animals with charcoal and earth pigments on stone walls in a fundamentally creative act, expressing – perhaps for the first time in human history – a decisively new human understanding of nature and thus sending out powerful impulses for the evolution of his society.
[4] see: the New Tendencies Movement in Art
[5] at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany
[6] Following the idea of artist Lowry Burgess this installation has been developped at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) under the direction of Otto Piene.
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