I'm here as the founder of FoAM, a network of laboratories for prototyping possible futures at the edges of art, technology, nature and everyday life. It is a pleasure to be here with you all.
I have been asked to briefly set the scene for today's presentations, and give you a short overview of FoAM's approach to art and technology.
In the background you are seeing images from some of our works developed in collaboration between artists, scientists and technologists at FoAM over the last 15 years.
Some of the images are from a series of responsive playspaces using tangible and wearable media; others are from the groWorld initiative, showing interfaces for human-computer-plant interactions and alternate reality narratives. You will see some of our work with games, social robotics, apps for fieldwork conducted by professional and citizen scientists and workshops at the edges between food, ICT and biotechnology. Most of all though, you will see people – lots of people.
So my short talk today isn't so much about any of our works, but about the people and their engagement with transdisciplinarity – be it art & technology, gardening & gaming, cooking & biology.
As an example I'll mention 'Luminous Green', a series of gatherings for people involved in creating an illuminated, electrified and imaginative future. We found that bringing activists, politicians and business leaders together works very well in what is seen as the 'neutral' territory of the arts. When they are first introduced to each other as people, rather than by profession or political allegiance, conversations flow differently. In the arts we have ways to open up conceptual spaces to see beyond what is probable and into what is 'preferable' – even if it might seem impossible at the time.
A second example highlights some of the things that we find crucial for the development of the elusive 'third culture' – openness, curiosity, respect, humility and anti-fragility – or being able to thrive in uncertain and unpredictable conditions. 'Splinterfields' is a series of masterclasses which combine a traditional craft, a specific science and an emergent technosocial development. We teach them all at the same time, in terms of each other. For example in one workshop we connected textile crafts, mathematics and live coding; in another fermentation, biochemistry and DIY biology. Each of the invited participants is an expert in one field, and a novice in one or two of the others. We developed facilitation methods to guide people to learn from each other and work towards outcomes that they might not have thought of on their own. How to develop a yoghurt to introduce vitamin C-producing-gut-flora to our intestines, or how to construct a self-powered biomimetic kettle inspired by the growth and form of sea-shells.
Our initial art & technology collaborations had outcomes similar to the ones developed in Art& ICT: we made mixed reality environments, interactive installations, connected games and performances. Many things that were once technological challenges are now available off the shelf; social networks, open hardware interfaces, multimodal sensing tools, multilingual software protocols, and so on. Things that didn't exist a decade ago can now be bricolaged from pre-existing components. But the creative challenge is no different – what meaningful things can we do with this technology? How do we move beyond a tech-demo and into a life-changing experience? Why bother connecting science & technology with arts & culture at all?
When we talk about artists and scientists, there are a few commonalities that we can take as a starting point: sharing a curiosity about the world and a certain rigour of practice and experimentation. The primary professional differences, however, are modes of expression and continuity – building an artistic 'ouvre' is not bibliometrics, creating a unique artwork is not like building a nanotube or designing a repeatable experiment to test a theory. The ways that 'success' and 'impact' are measured in these communities can be barriers for fruitful collaborations between them.
So while many of the technological challenges of the early electronic arts have been resolved, the connection between art and technology is still often fraught. Multidisciplinary collaboration tends to focus on one discipline being in the service of another, rather than becoming 'transdisciplinary': going beyond individual disciplines and becoming something new. We could say that multidisciplinary collaboration is like Frankenstein's monster, while a transdisciplinary collaboration strives to be more like a Griffin or a Sphinx. The formation of a Griffin-like third culture is far from realised yet, and to achieve it, we need to move beyond collaborations that are ad-hoc and contingent, beyond work based on individual initiatives. The experiments must continue on a systemic scale, until they evolve into something that isn't art nor science, but something that we at FoAM would call 'speculative culture'. As science fiction writer Bruce Sterling says:
“Maybe there’s something beckoning over the horizon that’s not design and not futurism but just something we might call speculative culture. I think what you’re seeing right here is a mash-up: there are people from very different lines of work put in a temporary situation, seeking to answer the question: can we find a set of principles or a way to grapple this larger set of social possibilities?”
This could be one of the answers to the question why bother trying to connect art and technology – or any other disciplines for that matter. The challenges we're currently faced with – whether climate chaos, economic crises or cultural desertification – are so complex that they can never be tackled from a single perspective. We need each other, and all the hurdles of finding new languages, processes and policies for transdisciplinary collaboration ARE worth it.
They remind us that the connection between art and technology is not only about producing an innovative technological artwork, or developing more creative technologies, but it's a glimpse of a more holistic culture, one that we must create if we are to thrive in the turbulent present and unknowable futures.
I hope that in the coming hours we will see such glimpses, connections pointing us in new and interesting directions. I wish you all a productive day betwixt and between art & ICT.