November 3, 2016
In Seattle today, we tend to think of tech and art as opposing forces. Recent years — and rising rents — have shown that there often isn’t room for both. New tech start-ups seem to pop up every week, bringing with them new faces, incomes, and interests. And as the techies keep rolling in, the artists roll out, searching for more affordable digs and like-minded folk.
Still, technology, in many ways, has opened up a world of possibilities for artists. Look no further than “Tangerine,” the 2015 film made on an iPhone. The lack of boundaries can be overwhelming, but also has the potential to be freeing, raising the question: What do you create when you can create anything?
Five local artists have their own unique answers to this question. At the latest Crosscut arts salon, “Tech and the Democratization of Art,” Tivon Rice, Ginny Ruffner, Iskra Johnson, Aaron Lichtner, and Brent Watanabe explored how their work intersects with tech.
The salon was held at Pioneer Square’s Galvanize. By day, Galvanize is home to an array of workspaces for tech start-ups. On this night, its historic brick walls were the backdrop for local art, its Esher-esque staircase the entryway for local artists and art enthusiasts alike.
While the individual artists’ ways of interacting with technology are as varied as the world of tech itself, they ultimately use tech as a means of connecting with and experiencing the physical world — not, as our mothers fear, replacing it.
Artist Tivon Rice looked at the rapidly changing landscape of his city, with many buildings of old Seattle poised to disappear, and wanted to capture the city in flux.
First, Rice used a drone, funded by 4Culture’s 2015 Tech Specific grant, to capture aerial photos of local buildings and landscapes. Using a process called photogrammetry, he then created new composit images from these photos. The process, which creates 3-D models by analyzing hundreds of two-dimensional photos, has been around for over a century, but the rise of digital photography has increased its popularity.
The images Rice created are of intact façades giving way to a hollow space, disintegrating or being torn away from their environment. They’re reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum, in appearance as well as mood — decaying, haunting, and strangely timeless.
Next, Rice set out to bridge the physical world (Seattle’s rapidly changing landscape) and what’s below the surface (the city’s shifting economic situation).
Spelunking in the website of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, Rice was able to scour and download some 250,000 files. The files focused on two treasure troves of data: the work of city planners and the wealth of public comments that citizens have made in response to proposed developments.
Technology made accessing these files possible — in previous generations, data like this would have been locked away in file cabinets or could only be accessed during limited library hours — and it also opened a world of possibilities in terms of what he could do with the information.
What did he do? “I trained two computers to speak, “ said Rice, “one in the voice of Seattle City planners and the other in the voice of public comments and protests to current developments.”
Working in collaboration with Google AMI (Artist and Machine Intelligence), he then asked these two models to describe what they saw in his pictures. They automatically generated captions and short stories about each photo, using vocabulary they’d gleaned from the documents.
The resulting conversation between the two computers is a kind of poetry, illuminating an exchange in which neither the public nor the planner is actually conversing.
However, looking at the pieces, it was impossible not to want to talk about them. And this was the case with the work of everyone at the salon — technology, the same thing that can make us feel so closed off, enabled new avenues of physical connection.
Longtime Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner combines art and tech in a different way — and lets the general public take part in the process.
With her most recent project, “Poetic Hybrids,” Ruffner wanted to give people the opportunity to interact with her art in the moment. Participants in the project, which launched at SAM in September, chose two words from a list, almost like magnetic poetry, then drew an interpretation of them.
The illustrations were passed off to graphic designers who, on-screen, created 3-D models in the moment, and then handed them back to participants to color on an iPad.
“There was so much human interaction at SAM, participants helping each other — it was very rewarding to see,” Ruffner told me over email. (She was unable to attend the art salon, but a colleague, Grant Kirkpatrick presented her work.)
This exchange — an artist’s idea, handed over to participants, given to graphic designers, and ultimately returning in a new form to the participant — is one that is only possible with tech. It’s giving the viewer an opportunity to be creative, and it’s changing the entire museum experience of passively viewing.
“The curiosity level was high,” Ruffner said. “Exactly what I wanted.”
She will be presenting the project in February at the Cornish College of the Arts and in May at the Institute for Systems Biology.
For artist and designer Iskra Johnson, Instagram has become an exciting means of learning, and created a community that didn’t even exist a decade ago.
“I’m so inspired,” she said. “I am now communicating, in my daily life, with [creative geniuses] all over the world.” The result has been some remarkable moments of serendipity.
About five years ago, Johnson did a series of paintings of a Northern flicker, a distinguished member of the woodpecker family, that decided “it wanted [her] house.” She posted the paintings on her blog under the title “My House is Not a Tree” and then carried on painting and designing typeface as she has for decades.
Three years later, a woman in eastern Washington who happened to also be playing host to a persistent flicker, stumbled upon Johnson’s paintings online, and bought them. “Now that is a very elaborate way to get someone to buy your paintings,” laughed Johnson.
However, like many artists, Johnson does not see the role of social media as flatly positive. Platforms like Pinterest allow people to look at work and “pin it,” while doing little to tell you about the artist, or even lead you to find more of their work.
“One of my hopes for a place like Seattle, since we’ve got all these people who are experts in technology, is for a platform [that] truly helps an artist continue to make a living,” she said.
This is where Aaron Lichtner’s recent project comes in. A data scientist with a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering, Lichtner’s brain and passion for art combined to create a program called Artorithmia that can recommend artwork that suits your personal taste.
For the project, Lichtner teamed up with Driz.co, a local company that touts itself as “a better way to find art.” Drizl’s website lets you upload a picture of a room in your home, and then try out pieces of art from its collection.
Lichtner wanted to take this personalization one step further. He catalogued the over 700 pieces currently in Drizl’s collection and set up a system in which viewers can “like” pieces, as you would on Facebook or Instagram.
Then this data is collected for your benefit and use. As you respond to the pieces, the software collects data on what appeals to you, the viewer, across five categories: saturation, composition, technique, price and content.
Lichtner describes it as Pandora for art lovers. In the same way Pandora knows you’ll love the new Pixies album, this program can offer art recommendations based on what you’ve revealed about your visual taste.
“I really enjoyed this project, and love the combination of art and technology,” concluded Lichtner at the salon, whose passion and efforts were apparent. His presentation ended with inviting attendees to come up and try Artorithmia for themselves.
(After only a few minutes on Artorithmia, my aesthetic, which I like to think is so unique and indefinable, had been pinned down. As predictable as grandmas love a delicate doily, Lichtner’s program saw through to my core, where there was a penchant for nature scenes, defined by heavy, pregnant skies. Unfortunately, my taste — oil paintings — ran a bit more expensive than the prized doilies scattered throughout my grandmother’s living room.)
Artist Brent Watanabe’s latest project, the “San Andreas Deer Cam,” was born out of frustration. “I hit that wall where I was frustrated that just a handful of people in Seattle would see it,” said Watanabe, whose audience for his previous projects, ranging from animation to programmed, moving paper animals, had been limited by the venue’s location, hours and price.
So, what does someone do when they can do anything? He mods, or programs, a deer into the video game “Grand Theft Auto V,” and then puts the deer cam up as an animal cam on Twitch.tv. It is currently offline, but the recorded footage on Vimeo has been viewed over 133,000 times.
“At certain times, [on Twitch.tv] there were over 2,000 people watching at a time, and they’d just be chatting [alongside the video] like crazy,” Watanabe said. “My wife and I would just sit there and watch and see what people were saying. They were philosophizing over what was going on or making bad deer jokes.”
And for him, it was a totally different experience from his previous installations. “I’d never experienced that with any of my other art before — having people interact in that way and feel so open.”
Tech has transcended boundaries, not only giving artists new tools to create, but providing viewers with newfound accessibility to art. This openness, to connection and new ways of experiencing the world, was unmistakable throughout the salon.
At Galvanize, beneath the streets, attendees got the opportunity to interact with pieces and projects, and then with the creator standing modestly nearby. When they went above ground, a stone’s throw from a dozen tech start-ups, they pulled up their Uber apps to get a ride home.
Read about our past two arts salons:
“Is there still room for artists in Seattle?” by Cambria Roth
“The Color of Race” by Martha Tesema
Nicole Capozziello is a former Wisconsinite with a past split between cheesehouse and liberal arts college. She has called Seattle her home since 2009. She currently works at TOPS alternative school, and at Theo Chocolate, where she lives the dream as a chocolate factory tour guide. She enjoys cooking, exploring Seattle’s lovely parks with her dog and wonderful friends and attending author readings.
This story is part of a three-year initiative, funded by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, to elevate coverage of the arts in the Northwest. In 2016, Crosscut curated three Civic Art Salons featuring artists who develop visual, film, or performance art. They explored various topics, including preserving art space in Seattle, the intersection of art and tech, and race and diversity. To be notified of events like these, sign up for our daily newsletter here.