Arie Altena

Doing Strange Things with Technology

Arie Altena

"People doing strange things with technology", runs the 'tagline' of Dorkbot.1 This is a loose network of small organisations spread across the whole world. They organise evenings at which artists, musicians, designers, scientists and technicians show what they make with the aid of technology: robots, software, art objects, musical instruments, interactive objects, games and 'circuit bending' appliances. Who the technicians are and who the artists are is not always easy to tell, but within the universe of Dorkbot this is not important. It's a question of what you can do with technology.

An artist is someone who makes something and then shows it. It can be an object, a performance or merely the description of a concept. In order to make something, something has to be done and the one who makes something uses material. A writer works with language, whether narrative or conceptual, and uses a laptop, for example, with word processing software. A painter works visually and uses paint for this. The photographer also works visually and uses chemical-optical or digital means in order to record a scene. The 'dorkbot people' work visually and/or conceptually and use computers and software. Their material is the technological structure of contemporary reality. They use electronic circuits, micro-controllers, Arduino boards, mobile telephones, electronic toys, resistors, video cameras, copper wire, hard drives, RFID, and so on. The list can be endlessly added to with the names of old and new technologies and items from the Conrad catalogue, for example, the mail order company for all sorts of (technical) components. Nothing of what I am mentioning here is exclusively technological; they are all elements and building blocks of today's social world and are directly or indirectly connected with everything that happens there and that we wish for. Whoever makes art with such material, produces something that concerns our world. I do not see this as exceptional; there is nothing in our world more natural than making art of this kind.

Dorkbot is the domain par excellence of 'do-it-yourself' artists, ranging from individuals and collectives with their hands in the material, 'circuit-benders' who screw open equipment in order to create new, strange and unexpected circuits and to exploit technological 'faults', to scientists who spend their days in technological laboratories. Dorkbot generates enthusiasm since there you can knowledgeably 'mess around' and experiment. The result may look rather less 'slick' and 'finished' than the products of innovative, technological design or of well presented (interactive) installation art, but this is to point to the most essential difference. What the example of Dorkbot makes clear, and this is why I begin my essay with it, is that knowledge of the material and of the technologies employed is the best path to making art. The reason I mention art here is that an artist doesn't just need a superficial knowledge of the technique that he uses and about which he wants to say something. He has to know how it works. The 'black box' of technology has to be opened in order for 'something' to be done with the material, for insight to be gained into it and for something meaningful to be created.

In the development of technology, the functioning of things is hidden further and further away, translated and encapsulated into other technologies and ways in which we deal with the world. There is nothing wrong with this, since it means we can make use of extremely complex matters without understanding their full process. It would be extremely difficult, for example, to be able to communicate with computers only in machine language. We don't have to know how a mobile phone works in order to be able to call up someone and send text-messages. Nor do we need to know how the Internet functions in order to send each other e-mails or to purchase a book online. We have turned such technological processes into 'black boxes' that we are able to work with without knowing what is going on in the 'box'.

The artist who chooses such a technology as his material will turn it to his advantage by opening the 'box' in order to see what processes take place within it. If only to understand which choices - and these are both technical as well as political and cultural choices - have been made and laid down in the design of the software, for example. Anyone not doing that, runs the risk of making only superficial choices and uninteresting art. What exactly someone needs to know depends on the questions that one poses as an artist and on the vision or experience that one wants to convey. Sometimes digging a bit deeper than the 'consumer surface' is already enough when someone is making work about the cultural and social use of technology, for example. Sometimes an artist has to go much deeper, certainly if he wants to carry out an idea of his own. One needs to know things and have insight into, because they touch on the concept, and there are skills for executing the work, either as a prototype or as a final work of art. There are no rules determining how many 'layers' have to be peeled off or the extent to which the 'box' has to be demolished in order to be reassembled in a different way. Technology always has to be 'unpacked', sometimes only minimally; this does not have to be complicated. This 'unpacking', however, should always stem from the artist's curiosity and the desire to make something new. It is a self-evident part of the creative process.

The most important competences of an artist who works with technology are a basic knowledge of electronics and programming in order to be able to make a prototype.2 Some knowledge of electronics is necessary in order to execute the work, to 'do something' with equipment that has been taken apart and to be able to experiment. Knowledge of programming is necessary for understanding the process of technology. It is not necessary, and even undesirable, for an artist to become a professional programmer, but a world opens when an artist can do a bit of programming. One then knows the way of thinking that lies at the basis of how computers function and thus of the major part of the technology that surrounds us. Knowledge of programming is also necessary for the insight involved in building one's own work and to be constantly able to experiment. It means, too, that the artist can explain what he wants to programmers who are helping to build the work, and understand what is or is not possible, what is simple or what is extremely complicated.

Artists inevitably run into problems with programming while making their work. In order to make it easier, various software programmes have been developed that enable artists to programme without learning a programming language. Musicians work with MAX/MSP, Pure Data and SuperCollider and 'script' their own 'patches' themselves: a part of their artistic skill lies in this. Visual artists are increasingly making use of Processing, originally developed as a didactic instrument for teaching artists how to programme. Artists making installations work with 'microcontrollers' that process data input. Coupling hardware and software to each other is one of the most normal operations for artists in this field. The more complex the project, the more important it is to be able to make prototypes. One cannot afford to work for two years on a complicated installation only to come to the conclusion after a year and a half that it might well have sounded good on paper, but does not work at all in practice.

In an ideal world, students beginning a masters course should have command of a certain basic knowledge and basic competencies. All students beginning at the MFA Interactive Media course should have a basic knowledge of electronics, and be able to do a bit of programming and making prototypes. In addition it goes without saying that that they are already profoundly interested in the contemporary world and its technological structure, and are making, or want to make, art with the aid of these technologies. If this knowledge and these skills and attitudes are present, then the student can enter the depths. In reality, however, the situation is different. There is hardly any undergraduate course, and in any case no art academy, where students can graduate with this stock-in-trade. If they already possess it then it is either because they have followed a different educational route or because they have taught it themselves. The students do, however, enter the masters course with the desire to familiarise themselves with these things.

The remarkable thing that happens, at least for those who believe in an ideal world, is that the masters course also has to provide training in these basics, in addition to the other things that are relevant. It is certainly the case that students following the course make progress in terms of knowledge and skills, and also broaden their insight into their own ideas, precisely through being involved with the basics, either via a workshop given by a guest tutor or in a workplace. As long as undergraduate courses do not provide the basis, this situation will continue.

But this has also given rise to something positive. It means that it is possible to work with electronics, hardware and software at the masters level and to combine this with a broadening of insight into the role of technology in today's culture. That is one of the aims of the theoretical part of the MFA Interactive Media of the Frank Mohr Institute. Among the questions discussed are: What is technology? Can one see technology as separate from society or is it inextricably interwoven with reality? What is the role of technological processes in our culture? Such questions can be posed in general, but one can also bring in the philosophy of technology, science and technology studies and the sociology of technology. Many examples can be cited from the history of art and technology, with a lot of fascinating case studies about the development of technology, stranded and unrealised possibilities, paths not taken and late successes of written off technologies. Such case studies illustrate, for example, that technologies are always embedded in social processes, that they are connected with culture, including politics, economy, law and art. This knowledge sharpens the view of today's culture and all (so-called) new technologies and the effect they have on social intercourse. The practical way that technology is dealt with in the masters course is focussed on 'unpacking' it and this is also the case within the theory-education that has to do with technology. In its turn, theory clarifies matters that recur in practice. In the words of Dorkbot, it is a question of 'doing strange things with technology'.

This results in questions and experiences; political or personal questions, strange and absurd questions, impressive experiences of beauty, incomprehensible experiences and ones that make you realise or understand something. This is what I always hope for with art and it is also what I hope that students on a course like that of MFA Interactive Media in Groningen will realise.

2. These skills were also formulated, in about the same terms, by Anne Nigten (V2_), together with Kristina Andersen (STEIM, from whom I have borrowed the term 'unpacking technology) during a closed meeting at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam.

Written for the end exam catalogue of the Frank Mohr Institute, Groningen, 2007
some rights reserved
Arie Altena