New art vs. old growth

Science fiction author Bruce Sterling is a far better writer than public speaker. But in both media he can capture a compelling tension, conflict, or possibility. In his recent keynote to the transmediale conference, he shares quite a few. Some are particularly resonant to the recent past and possible future of the arts.

New art and old growth

Flickr user Frau Böb

In the talk, he describes the technology artists of the previous era, forced to build their work from high-tech leftovers and scraps, since they couldn’t afford to build them from scratch. Says he:

Technology art has always been about re-purposing technology’s rubbish and noncommercial laboratory debris. It’s all about artwork that fell off the expensive chrome-plated table of high-tech capitalism….We were the artist scavengers of hardware we couldn’t afford. We used and abused advanced devices that we could never create for ourselves for our own purpose. That’s afterglow.

While others would frame this scrappy and resourceful existence as poetic, Sterling suggests it was always a bit sour and sad.

But there was never any ‘glow’ period where creative people ever liked that situation. Making art from things we don’t own or make or control has always been humiliating.

After an entertaining wander through big data and corporate exploitation, he returns to the topic with a charge to a current generation of technology artists (and one could infer, ANY artist):

It’s time to build alternative computational systems which reflect our own ethics and values. We can do that. We’re never going to meet our creative needs with these gigantic big-data empires that are algorithmically optimized to make us into sheep. They didn’t start out that way. That wasn’t their original intent. But now they’re all feverishly busy being colossally intrusive.

And then the kicker, which I adore:

In the tech art world, we have to break with our long habit of living off other people’s crumbs. We’ve got to stop sleeping in the rich guy’s used car. We’ve got the means, motive, and opportunity now to make fresh mistakes. We can build our own means of expression starting now.

The wider art world has also been subject to a similar tension. Expressive artists required hardware and software they couldn’t afford (well appointed, acoustically perfect performance spaces; stone and steel museums and galleries; sophisticated nonprofit corporations to nurture and harvest earned and contributed income). As the missions and markets and technical/production aspirations got larger and larger, so did the hardware. Often with beautiful and breathtaking effect. But equally often with dampened, disconnected, and diffused results.

But now we’re in a moment where expressive artists can build their own machines, their own markets, and their own means of connecting their work to their world. That doesn’t make the hardware obsolete. But it creates an opportunity for many to abandon the rich guy’s used car, or the big-box roadhouse, or the high-cost/high-stakes professional gallery. There are many artists and innovative enterprises exploring that terrain. I’m eager to see what they discover and create.