Where art and technology meet.
Things are different today. Arts majors may still be unfamiliar with thermodynamics, but many of them feel comfortable with the products of modern computer and communications technology; it's not uncommon for professional artists to integrate coding, 3D printing, and other technologies into their processes and products. Sculptor Scott Kindall, for example, has an understanding of code and looks for ways to combine it with his sculptural metier. Jeffrey Thompson, director of the Visual Arts and Technology program at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, has a similar background. "As an artist, a lot of my work is about technology, involving personal and poetic relationships," he says. "I use a lot of technical tools in my work, writing a lot of code, using tools in a functional way, and exploring them from a critical perspective."
At the same time, the focus on STEM topics from elementary school on means that engineers and scientists often lack much knowledge of arts and humanities, and with it the broad sensibilities of the gentlemen-amateur scientists of Snow's era. Amid broader questions about the effects of that separation in disciplines, the firms responsible for many of today's technological innovations increasingly see the value of introducing artistic sensibilities into their wares and their cultures. Indeed, as in many other things, Apple's Steve Jobs was a leader in this area. Discussing the quality of the Macintosh, Jobs once noted that "people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world."
That awareness has resulted in an increasing number of Artist-in-Residence (AIR) programs that bring artists into companies to work at close quarters with scientists and engineers. While different companies run their AIR programs in different ways, each typically gives its resident artists the opportunity to mix with scientists and engineers, study and use the firm's technology, create works of art in their own specialty, perhaps have some input on product designs, and generally contribute to the firm's creative culture. The concept is intended to benefit both artist and company and, at least indirectly, the corporate bottom line. "There's a clear business case to be made for AIR--the tangible effect on the culture of the institutions," says Thompson, whom Nokia Bell Labs appointed as its first artist-in-residence in the middle of 2016.
Bell Labs is just one of several high-tech sponsors of AIR programs. Elsewhere, Autodesk, a California company that creates software for 3D printers, manufacturing plants, construction sites, and architects, has an ambitious program that twice a year brings in 16 artists for four-month terms of residence at its offices in San Francisco's Pier 9. Facebook has a largely unpublicized program in which artists produce works for the company to display. Google, meanwhile, recruits data artists, who translate digital information that they or others have gathered into works of art, for its residential program. The nonprofit research world also offers artist residencies. CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland, and the US Department of Energy's Fermilab both bring in artists for short terms of service. And the Los Angeles County Museum of Art runs a hub that pairs artists with science-based organizations such as NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and SpaceX.
These organizations, and others that engage resident artists, and the artists themselves seek to benefit from interaction among a breadth of viewpoints. Artists and technologists "are trained really differently and have different perspectives--the empirical versus the intuitive," says Thompson. "Our world views overlap in some ways, but I'll ask different questions than an engineer or scientist." Vanessa Sigurdson, manager of Autodesk's artist-in-residence program, expands on that thought. "Employees and AIRs share the same space and tend to rub elbows around the equipment as they learn how to use our tools and execute their own projects," she told TheArtian, a website that explores the influence of art and design on business and innovation. "Cross pollination of ideas often occurs informally and organically, leading to meaningful and lasting collaborations."
AIR programs have obvious benefits for both artists and the corporations that engage them. "There's not a lot of public support for artists in this country," Thompson explains. "Time, resources, and space to do my work are most valuable; residency involves all those." His residency is exposing him to such advanced technologies as machine learning, computer vision, and robotics. "I hope my work at Bell Labs will result in easier use of technology and data sets of value to the technology community--things that can be spun off into products," he continues. "Art can stand up to the rigors of any field, and can also benefit the institution."
Susanne Arney, AIR program manager at Bell Labs, outlines the program's value for the institution: "We believe that the marriage of our scientific research and the artistic insight and creativity from [Thompson] can help more clearly reveal important problems for us to address," she says. Such thinking has particular value for a corporate research enterprise, like Bell Labs, that focuses more on the future than many industrial laboratories do. "You might not see the benefit from one artist, but if you bring in 50 over 10 years or so, they can have a tremendous impact as a whole," Thompson explains. "It's like the venture capital model of investment--high risk and potentially high return." On a more immediate scale, the goal of Facebook's AIR program, according to the company's website, is to "promote creativity, innovation, openness, and connectivity within our community through art and design."
The idea of bringing the arts into corporate technology programs is hardly original. In creating its program, Nokia Bell Labs recalled the Experiments in Art and Technology program initiated in 1967 by pre-Nokia Bell Labs. That venture paired 10 artists from New York City with 30 scientists and engineers to produce groundbreaking works of art. The artists experimented with then-new technologies, such as video production, transmission of sound by wireless, and Doppler sonar, to create entirely new works of art. More recently, Xerox PARC had an artist-in-residence program, and in 2002 German firm Siemens sponsored an AIR for musicians intended, in part, to help the company "understand the cultures and people of the countries where we conduct business."
While Nokia Bell Labs looks for longer-term benefits from Thompson's stint as artist-in-residence, Autodesk has gained more immediate dividends from its program. In his residency with the company, Kindall created a sculpture of San Francisco's underground water systems, which he used the company's advanced 3D printing systems to produce. The task, which took up to 50 hours to complete for each of several models, provided a significant stress test for Autodesk's products. The company has also benefited from its AIR program in human terms: When they completed their residencies, some of its AIRs joined Autodesk "in roles that never existed" before, such as developing new uses for 3D printers, according to Sigurdson.
Thompson expresses the hope that more technology corporations will become involved with artists, to the benefit of both. And he has a piece of advice for firms that want to do so. "To make sure that the artists work for the company while understanding the concept of how artists work," he says, "hire an interface person who understands both worlds."
MaryAnne M. Gobble, Editor
Peter Gwynne, Contributing Editor Boston, Massachusetts firstname.lastname@example.org
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|Title Annotation:||News and Analysis of the Global Innovation Scene|
|Author:||Gwynne, Peter; Gobble, MaryAnne M.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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