Are touchscreens, smartphone apps and 3D printers all new means of producing art? In this age when digital technologies form part of the very DNA of generations brought up counting electric sheep, the plastic arts are being infused with digital innovations so that they can look upon the modern world through a digital lens. Is this evolution or revolution? The question touches on just how extensive the transformation that creativity and its practices are undergoing is - a transformation driven by digital technologies.
“My iPhone has become an extension of my gaze” - L. Fitzpatrick
As far as tools are concerned, digital technologies serve first and foremost as an extension of the more traditional techniques. A typical example is photography. "With digital cameras, you can take risks, experiment with different compositions and then start again as many times as you need to until you are satisfied. And then of course you can edit the results – so much more quickly and simply than you could with film", says Liam Fitzpatrick, an enlightened journalist and photographer who gets most of his inspiration from the lights and contrasts of his native Hong Kong. Miniaturization has revolutionised his approach to photography, even more so than its computerisation. "My iPhone has become an extension of my gaze. I "work" in a state of permanent awareness. I can be taking a walk or having a conversation with someone when suddenly a ray of sunlight will caress a wall or a whirlwind of leaves will be whipped up into the air. So I will suddenly drop everything so that I can capture the moment! Something that is only possible with smartphones, which are sufficiently responsive and of good enough quality for my shots". Dance – the art of movement – has also been able to take advantage of new technologies. "Dance does not need digital technologies to exist. But it can gain from them in order to make it richer and to anchor it in the modern era. It has a great deal to learn from digital technologies: they can provide a new insight into the creative processes involved in it", says Armando Menicacci. The Italian-born teacher-researcher and choreographer – who specialises in the relationships between dance and digital technologies – highlights the benefits of isomorphism that digital technologies provide: "With calculations performed on a computer, all of the processes involved in perception can swap their various forms. A gesture can become an image, an image can become a text, etc. The movements of dancers wearing sensors can, for example, be used to generate sound. So the music is what results from the gesture… the gesture is transformed into music", he adds as an example. The complete opposite of the conventional approach and a means of expression that contemporary dance is only just starting to explore, heralding future pieces that will be utterly captivating.
As well as further extending the areas in which pre-existing art forms can express themselves, digital technologies are also paving the way to new disciplines. Augmented reality, 3D imagery and other robotic arts have all been spawned by computer technologies. South African born digital sculptor Murray Kruger emphasises the opportunity for original creativity with which information technology and its related areas provide him. "I'm fascinated by phantasmagoric scenes and their power to evoke reactions from viewers. I'm able to use digital tools to create 3D models that would not be possible using more traditional methods. I can check their composition and the lighting from all angles and play around with them as much as I like until I end up with something that most perfectly matches my vision. The same goes for the colouring stages: I can experiment with textures, rendering and sensations, etc.” His work combines technology and creativity, infusing each of his works with its own special atmosphere and ambience and meeting one of art's foremost aims: getting the observer to ask themselves questions.
Pleasures and frustrations of computerisation
Some artists who experiment with digital media recognize and even regret the limitations of what they do. A stylus and a tablet computer don't feel quite the same in the hand as a hammer and a chisel, or even a real brush. This raises the question "is digital art less enjoyable to create than "traditional" art? Or, simply, is it more frustrating? "Different, yes. Less enjoyable, no. I love the feel of chalk or charcoal in my hand, but the way in which a digital brush gently slides across a tablet is extremely pleasant", counters Jeremy Sutton. This painter who has made California his home – the spiritual son of artists such as David Hockney and Henri Matisse – appreciates the evergrowing potential afforded by new technologies, such as air painting. "I've tried painting using leap motion – a motion recognition system. All you have to do is move your hand through the air and you can see its movements transcribed onto a screen. It's so much more than just a gadget – it's a genuine technique which will completely change the way in which we create art in the future", he enthuses.
Could innovation be a way to compensate for the frustration created by computerisation? Immersive technologies (panoramic 3D displays, force feedback, artificial smells, etc.) should gradually bridge the gap between traditional and digital. “But we shouldn’t forget that it is just a tool. Lets not forget that a paintbrush at one point in history was high technology. What is important is not so much the interfaces used, but the relationship between the creator and their creation", points out Murray Kruger, who appreciates nonetheless the way in which new technologies – such as the 3D printer – are revolutionising art. "Fiction is becoming reality and we can now create models of a level of complexity and aestheticism that are on a par with that of traditional works of art". Above all, digital sculptors are delighted that these technological advances are raising the profile of their work and making it more accessible, even helping it to break free of the confines of what is considered purely art. Their work is already being used in jewellery-making, the food industry, architecture and even medicine. And this is just the beginning.
“Dance has a great deal to learn from digital technologies: they can provide a new insight into the creative processes involved in it.” - A. Menicacci
Art has become more accessible now than ever before thanks to the opportunities afforded by digital technologies and new ways to share it. Nowadays, anybody can share their own art or contemplate that of others on a website, a blog or via social networks. This is a way of sharing that is completely different from traditional channels, which usually require some sort of cultural intermediary or dedicated framework. Jeremy Sutton particularly appreciates "being able to share the creative process and the various stages involved in it, or being able to document them as I work. An educational approach can be considered using physical media, but that is much more complicated to put into practice". But the flipside to art being so accessible is that it can be misappropriated or reworked. Sometimes in a good way: the process involved is genuinely creative; but sometimes it is reworked in a way that is damaging or intrusive. The painter finds himself up against complicated issues to do with intellectual property: "We've opened up a Pandora's box. Anything can be recovered, used, changed, etc. A whole new paradigm that brings with it endless legal complexities. It is still probably best to respect everybody's original work and to strive to create and use one's own source of creativity, rather than using something that someone else has made…"
“There was a time when the brush was the apogee of artistic progress. What is important is not so much the interfaces used, but the relationship between the creator and their creation” - M. Kruger
Fortunately, using somebody else's work is not always tantamount to plagiarism. It can even be an artistic approach in its own right: collaborative art, involving the public in the actual creative process. The interaction between the artist, the work of art and the general public results in something ephemeral which is forever being reinvented. In this regard, dance in particular is a field in which many people are innovating. "Participatory art – the idea of co-authoring a piece with the viewer – is helping to foster the emergence of new realities", says Armando Menicacci. But we should not lose sight of the fact that art must first and foremost raise questions in the minds of viewers – it must not simply lead them into its mechanisms so that they become one of its parts. It's all a question of control and how much freedom is granted to contributors so that their own realities can be taken into account without losing sight of the ultimate artistic aim". An investigation into the ins and outs of participatory art that involves specialists working on computer programmes that can analyse the quality of people's movements and variations in muscular tension so that each person can be identified and the digital response customised (meaning that the result is also customised) so as to reflect their own individual characteristics as closely as possible. Dance of the future?
Multiple screens = multiple limits?
“The human visual system is fundamentally very good at adapting. The eye can adjust and appreciate digital art in the way intended by its creator” - J. Sutton
The opportunities afforded by digital technologies seem limitless. But their very nature raises certain questions – particularly regarding the way in which the art is rendered on the flagship digital medium: the screen – be it a tablet screen, a computer screen, a television screen, etc. It could be that there is a debate to be had about the opposition between scattered light and emitted light. Québec-born François Lapierre is a comic designer and colour artist, well-known for the subtlety of his digital colouring techniques. "The image displayed is often magnificent – because of the colorimetric settings. But the result can vary tremendously from one screen to another and – above all – when it is printed out, a key stage in the comic production process”. This is something that he finds himself pondering on a daily basis. Although the colour proofs help ensure that the actual prints are a faithful representation of what the artist had in mind, the best solution usually involves modulating densities and contrasts and using as much light as possible. That way, the drawing is not overloaded and there is no risk of colour loss during printing. "Another thing that is very useful is a high-quality screen that is perfectly calibrated with a rendering that is the same as that of the printed image", he adds.
As far as variations from screen to screen are concerned, the easiest solution is for everybody to look at the same one. Another option is simply to accept it, bearing in mind that the actual result is never that different to the one that was intended. "The human visual system is fundamentally very good at adapting", says Jeremy Sutton. “The eye can adjust and appreciate digital art in the way intended by its creator – who is generally aware of the way in which colour can be modulated and is not upset by this. Indeed, they incorporate these modulations into the way in which they conceive their own art". Liam Fitzpatrick – who is above all interested in the experience – confirms this. As an aficionado of a more retro style, the photographer even uses smartphone apps to give his shots a more vintage look, accentuating certain aspects, giving them more texture, adding a vignetting effect, etc. "As I get older, I am less and less interested in describing reality: instead, I'm adopting a more impressionist approach. The images that I create are light, almost psychedelic. The variations in colour, saturation and contrast that are possible with digital technologies mean that you can play with emotions more easily and more vividly than you can with traditional photography".
“And most importantly, I do my best to display as little white on screen as possible. That is easily the most harmful colour for your eyes” - F. Lapierre
Digital art, organic fatigue
The question that remains is the one that all ophthalmic optics specialists ask themselves. The question about how to maintain the artist's most important work tool: their eyes. What is clear is that this is not their primary concern. Logically, efforts to keep eye fatigue to a minimum should increase in proportion to the amount of time spent in front of the screen. François Lapierre, who spends an average of eight hours in front of a screen every day (twice that during rush periods), has developed his own strategy. "I take breaks every half hour. I regularly glance out of the window, to admire the landscape and rest my eyes. And most importantly, I do my best to display as little white on screen as possible. That is easily the most harmful colour for your eyes. I use a neutral grey background for my drawings and a dominant colour background for my colouring projects".
All the artists we've talked to take regular breaks and experiment with different focal lengths. They also believe that if they have to work in front of a screen, they should adopt relaxing postures and use ergonomically designed equipment. Although these issues cross their mind, they rarely go so far as to protect their eyes or correct any disorders they may have. Liam Fitzpatrick and Jeremy Sutton both confess to being shortsighted, but say that having the world around them appear blurry is actually useful for their art – automatic impressionism! Sutton even "refuses to use glasses for painting or sketching. I simply squint and concentrate on the broad outlines of what I’m painting, instead of focusing on the details". The precision involved in the task to be carried out seems to be directly correlated to the extent to which the artist takes care of the quality of their vision. François Lapierre always has his contact lenses in and Murray Kruger gets new lenses prescribed every year: "I am shortsighted and I ask my ophthalmologist to work out what lenses I need for carrying out intensive work in front of a screen. But I don't go so far as to find out about filters and other technologies that can reduce the impact that the light emitted by the screen can have on my eyes…"
It's up to eye care professionals to focus on their own "art" and develop more appealing solutions, bolstering the link between vision, posture and digital creation.