Diffraction: Connecting Art, Industry and Innovation
A conference report
Liverpool 4th & 5th April 2006
Arts Council England and FACT
Noise becomes data when it has cognitive pattern that can be registered in
Data becomes information when you can assemble it into a coherent whole
Information becomes knowledge when it is integrated with other useful
Knowledge becomes understanding when it can be related to other knowledge in
Understanding becomes wisdom when it is informed by ethics, principles,
DEE W HOCK: Founder and CEO Emeritus VISA USA and VISA International
Genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.
Thomas Alva Edison
The first of these profundities issues from a man who dreamed of a universal currency, who dreamed of accelerating global change with only a little piece of plastic as much as it ever had been accelerated by horse, gunpowder or astrolabe. And the second is from someone who transformed the world with inventiveness and industry.
It was the conceptual and creative force of entrepreneurs and technologists that was being invoked in this conference initiated by two arts organizations. In promoting the cause of art and artists it was looking outside the narrowly defined cultural world. The implication was that social relevance and creativity, whether of knowledge or of wealth, are not the monopoly of any one sector but arise from synergy and cross-fertilization. Bronac Ferran, as Director of the Interdisciplinary Arts Department at Arts Council England, was representing one of the host organizations. As she emphasized in her welcome, this was an opportunity to bring together lots of very different kinds of people in the interests of discovering new knowledge. This conference was one attempt in the effort to create structures not just for information exchange but also for understanding, evaluation and critical discourse. I didn’t hear anyone talk about wisdom but I felt it was the goal.
In his flow chart of consciousness Dee Hock, quoted above, lays out a pattern which is as aspirational as it is analytical. The Diffraction Conference was, similarly, as pro-active as it was re-active. It seemed to exemplify a recognition that cultural activity is currently spreading and spilling over the lips of the containers made for it by public policy and private enterprise. So it was a move towards identifying an emergent mode of practice and simultaneously opening up a new field in which individual artists and corporate entities might play. This conference turned a Janus face towards both past and future. It was a lens designed to concentrate into itself and magnify the diverse rays emanating from sparky collisions between science, technology, business and art. But it was simultaneously a lens designed to scatter light in new unforeseen directions.
The conference functioned in these two modes throughout, mingling retrospection and divination, presenting case studies and identifying new opportunities.
Case Studies and Histories
Bronac Ferran set the tone by mentioning the twenty-eight artists’ placements backed by the Arts Council’s ‘Artists Time, Space, Money’ agenda. This scheme has artists working in such diverse contexts as the BBC archives, Hewlett-Packard, the Thailand Creative & Design Center, and Pontos de Cultura in Brazil, using as their material anything from urban planning to agro-research, manufacturing to Law, and in places as far afield as Kings Cross, Yorkshire, The Netherlands, Cambridge and India. These operational examples, we were told, were meant to pose questions. They should be thought of as not as discrete projects but as an ecology of initiatives emphasizing interconnectedness and the establishment of wider contexts for individual efforts.
Clive Gillman, previously Associate Director at FACT now Director at Dundee Contemporary Arts, took up this theme by describing ITEM, a pilot research and development programme for the exploration of new media tools. He had helped to set up the project at FACT and mapped its evolution out of MITES (Moving Image Touring and Exhibition Services) which had aimed to support artists’ use of technology in a very practical way. ITEM became a much more pro-active endeavour, deliberately pushing the envelope of artistic work, and promoting research as the itemization of creative knowledge.
Phase 1 of ITEM was launched in 2003 with a grant from Nesta and the Arts Council. It began with an open call for artist/technologist collaborations. Clive Gillman took pains to point out that the research was emphatically not intended to lead to an art exhibition and nor was it intended to be purely academic research. It was something other than those two models. A body of researchers was convened who could share their methods, tribulations and outcomes. A primary mode for this sharing was during three away days held at FACT in Liverpool, at Grizedale Arts in the Lake District, and at BT Exact in Ipswich during which formal and informal bonds were made.
Phase 2 of ITEM was launched in early 2005 and brought together ten collaborative projects. Two key outcomes marked the end of the project. One was this conference, conceived as a research symposium, the other was a publication in which each of the projects was extensively reviewed, with project diaries and evaluations written by the participants. Many of the collaborative teams also exhibited or gave demonstrations of their work during the conference.
A key outcome of ITEM was identified as the legitimation of non-academic research in the arts. In a field which is ordinarily based around exhibition, performance or product, ITEM sought to support the creation of new knowledge, both for individuals and across the sector, through practice as research. Important ways of achieving this objective included brokering, to help develop a language of collaboration, and writing clear contracts in order to establish a strong framework for collaboration.
From the very recent past we were then taken back, by a veteran practitioner, to some early examples of socially engaged art practice. Barbara Steveni boldly stated ‘I am an archive’ and went on to prove it by embodying an art practice firmly rooted in the activist, confrontational aesthetics of the mid sixties. She spoke authoritatively about a history of art making in social contexts, describing how she came to start the Artists Placement Group, with John Latham, in an attempt to expand art making beyond the strictures of tradition, to dematerialize the art object. She personalised this early history by telling the story of a time when the Fluxus group came to stay at her house and were looking for materials for an exhibition. She had offered to go out to an industrial estate at night but had become completely lost and suddenly stumbled upon booming, midnight factories. That was when the idea of working in such places came to her.
Steveni made a telling point in trying to clarify what the role of the artist might be. She quoted John Latham’s words:
‘It could be interesting to hear if the term artist can be erased somehow. What kind of alternative noise would be thrown up to cope with the manifestation?’
And then related an anecdote about Joseph Beuys, told apparently by Rasheed Araeen, in which Beuys, during his ‘Honey Pump’ installation, smashed down his beer glass and said ‘Artist no! Incidental Person, Yes!’
This notion of the Incidental Person was a key one for APG and continues to have relevance in any discussion about artistic integrity when surrounded by commercial and political interests. The erasure of the professional category is an important tool for free thinking. This celebration of marginality reminds me of ways in which the words nigger or paki can be wryly appropriated. It can be liberating to be a superfluous, expendable afterthought.
Things have changed a great deal in the forty years since the first APG actions, not least its name which changed to O+I (Organisation+Imagination) in 1989 to distinguish it from arts administrative placement schemes set up in imitation of the APG example. The core principle however has remained constant. One formulation Steveni gave of this core was a set of four questions voiced by Tony Benn, ‘What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? How do we get rid of you?’
Through all the changes Steveni defined research above all else as ‘motivation’, the blinding desire to find out. This need is what leads artists to the use of whatever tools are available.
There was some concern from the floor in the discussion period that the pendulum may have swung too far and the term art is being completely erased. How are we then to hold on to ‘creativity’ and the ‘artist’? To counter this Adorno’s term ‘Cultural Industries’ was raised, with its tone of disdain for a popular culture that seduces the masses into passivity.
Gordon Knox brought to mind George Balanchine’s insistence that he did not want ‘people who want to dance, but people who have to dance.’ Then in his presentation he described the Montalvo Artist Residency Program, a centre in California of which he is Director. He spoke about residencies, fellowships and placements in international contexts as being about process, exchange and idea, rather than finished product. He gave a condensed history
Of the circuitry between artists and capitalists in Silicon Valley going back as far as 1936 with the establishment of the Artist Residency Program at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga. The importance of process over product, with a Californian slant, was apparent, for instance, in the inclusion of a Culinary Fellowship to foster convivial exchange around the table.
Collaboration and Competition
According to Knox, Silicon Valley had produced more wealth in the past twenty-five years than in the entire history of the human race. The runner-up is Venice during the Renaissance. A major part of this lucrative activity was by people who weren’t quite technologists or industrialists but might more accurately be described as bohemians, hippies, counter-culture drop-outs, and artists. In the relationship between art and business Knox asserted that it is artists who have the upper hand. Ideas and innovation are the new gold.
He offered a schematic view of this relationship, saying that while art provides industry with communicative and expressive powers, its most important contribution is a critical faculty. Art provides a challenge to the given, it is the engine of social change. And, going in the other direction, while industry offers art tools, materials, vehicles and new possibilities, its most important contribution is the opportunity to deliver an effective and resounding critique.
Having sketched a conceptual basis for collaboration Knox gave some intriguing and entertaining examples of actual practice. These included the South African electronic gumboot artist, and IDO, the silicon valley designers of Apple’s mouse, who together have invented a skateboard interface. Another example was of Ashok Subramaniam, an artist/programmer working with social space, and Sun Microsystems User Interface Team, the head of which happens to be a Californian male witch, who have been working on a user interface based around spell-like gestures. Subramaniam has been been working with surveillance politics in public space and brought a sensitive critical evaluation of Sun Microsystems’ corporate position in relation to the American military machine.
Gordon Knox’s presentation was neatly counterpointed by Jean-Pierre Dautricourt, an ex- Silicon Valley engineer in the business sector who was now head of a non-profit company.
He questioned whether the current milling about of artists in industry in fact represented a new ecology and re-iterated the point that during the eighties’ boom in software and semi-conductor industries there was an unintentional and unselfconscious interdisciplinarity. People came to computer programming from all sorts of other areas. English majors and painters rubbed shoulders with mathematicians and prospectors. He identified the new challenge as the management of the information overload brought about by such richness.
The question of Intellectual Property and ownership was raised by both Bronac Ferran and Clive Gillman as a contentious issue requiring nimble legal footwork. At Montalvo collaborative work with Law schools is ongoing to allow the maximum movement of ideas while ensuring maximum safety. Lawrence Lessig’s notion of the commons seemed to Knox to be the most useful way forward. In response to the question of who pays, how to convince industry to stump up cash, he said he appealed to goodwill. Art was primarily a philanthropic activity, a contribution to the future. But there was also self-interest. Bringing in an outside, bright, communicative person is good for a team and can introduce a new dimension in an environment where R&D engineers are often struggling to move in a linear fashion from point A to point B. Buying this new perspective was simply a matter of paying attention. $50,000 dollars to pay for an art programme is actually an insignificant amount to Sun for instance, hardly a pin-prick. Still, as Barbara Steveni said, the challenge was to get a capitalist organization to pay for not knowing.
A panel discussion followed in which we were treated to some examples of not knowing by artist/technologist partnerships which had been supported by ITEM. The chair Marie O'Mahony set the scene by describing the serendipitous discoveries of jewelers inspired by new textiles and fashion designers working with industrial materials. Some detailed accounts of methodologies and motivations came from the creative teams around the table. Julie Myers is working with narrative film fragmented and recombined by the world wide web. Her work is about collecting and exchanging stories and images from participants in widely separated parts of the world, which are then stitched together in impressionistic narratives. Her goal is to let the technology and the interface speak and to become invisible as the editor or artist. Martin Russ described the design of the clip-choosing interface which took on importance as the central work, overshadowing the importance of images, story, or human participants.
Jen Southern, Jen Hamilton and Jon Southern’s work, by contrast, used technology to sense aspects of human relationship which were otherwise hidden. Although the machinery was sophisticated, human relationship was still central. They used GPS maps to extend the idea of taking a line for a walk. Lines on maps became cues for stories and memories. In that idea I heard the resonances of Aboriginal songlines. It was the physicality and emotional richness that constituted the centre of the work. The cold machinery was simply a tool to expose the feelings. So for instance they showed GPS maps of eight schoolchildren running into a playground, or a kite flyer being pulled around by a kite.
Susan Collins and Paul Gillieron were also concerned with presence and they were also excited by the technology first, later finding the content. Their excitement was in discovering 3D audio, soundfield microphones and binaural recording. The content of the work arose through playing with the kit. Collins described the sound of a kiss for instance, that makes your ears feel wet. The heightened sense of place enabled by the resolution of the recording equipment became fascinating. Although transposing one sound space onto another is an idea that has interested many artists, here three-dimensionality and real-time web streaming became the motivating concerns. Paul Gillieron described ways to enhance listener interactivity, including various tracking devices, such as the little ultrasonic sensors known as crickets which are capable of picking very subtle movements in a space.
In response to these presentations, Clive Gillman mapped the innovative work onto an imaginary topology with two axes, vertical ‘mining’ and horizontal ‘roaming’. It was their willingness to range through this whole space which made artists ‘expert generalists’ - another useful moniker perhaps for the ‘Incidental Person’.
An institutional viewpoint was provided by Paul Gerhardt who is leading the Creative Archive project for the BBC. He described a huge strategic shift in the whole organization as its charter was renewed and it moved from conventional broadcasting to publishing all sorts of content. Although the BBC holds a million hours of image and sound, he thinks of it as not just a repository but a factory. The Big New Vision was of a virtual downloading library that was also a resource to be used in partnership with creative agencies. Already links had been forged with Channel 4, the BFI, Teachers TV, Open University and the Community Channel. In future the BBC might be open to an even wider range of users. This required some careful thinking about rights and ownership and again Lawrence Lessig’s creative license offered useful models. The BBC has an interest in protecting the tapestry of rights in its content. It also has a brand to uphold. Traditionally the broadcaster has rationed goods by time limiting them. Now broadcast content is becoming ubiquitous and shareable. Again, dogging the technology, it is IP issues that are turning out to be the most thorny and complex.
Having explicated some of the background Gerhardt went on to describe the placements organized in collaboration with the Arts Council. The two posts had attracted a large number of applications. The first went to Vicky Bennett who will have full access to the archives, but to material which is not necessarily rights cleared. The second went to Chris Dorley-Brown who will have access to material cleared for full distribution. These pilot projects will be used to test the market. The Public Value Test will come in early autumn 2006.
The afternoon panel gave us a visionary and inspiring account of the frontiers of knowledge in art and industry. Roger Malina is chairman of the Board of Leonardo the international society for the arts, sciences and technology and the Executive Editor of the Leonardo Publications at MIT Press. He outlined two models of the interaction between art and science or technology. These were a Weak Case, whereby artists can contribute to the resolution of scientific or engineering problems through the usual processes of interdisciplinary interaction; and a Strong Case, involving a much more fundamental interaction whereby the course of science or engineering itself changes, inflected by extra-disciplinary practices.
Malina, in a poetic call to arms, called for bold innovation. He was not interested, he said, in tiny homeopathic doses of art but insisted on a wholesale, radical shift in order to overcome the limitations of our human senses. The history of invention was an iconoclastic history of sensory expansion. Humans are driven to detect energy that the body cannot sense. A glimpse of this incessant momentum can be had by imagining Leonardo daVinci with a cellphone. Malina asserted that daVinci would never be able to work out how the thing worked.
Reality is a creative activity according to Malina, and machines are the agents of that creation. In the expansion of our bodily senses we invent constantly new hallucinations, we build machines that hallucinate. The question is how to make those hallucinations consensual.
Liliane Lijn is a perfect example of an artist explicitly manipulating this hallucination. She took us through an overview of a practice which is, at its heart, about the ambiguity of the material world. She approaches the world as a shifting play of energies. Her work is to use sound, light, movement to mark and express forces otherwise beyond the range of our senses. Pragmatic necessities led her to work with industrial plastics in the early sixties when very few artists worked in industry. Indeed Lijn at that time saw her work not as Art in Industry but Art as Industry. It was in light industrial plastics facilities in London that she found space and materials with which to work. She started wrapping thin copper wire around poles, unknowingly making Fraunhofer diffraction gratings. By this means every surface deformity of the poles was made clearly visible, their solidity was destabilised.
The materials Lijn used early in her practice, by-products of the Post Office’s telecommunications development strategy, were eventually superseded by fibre optics but the poetry of those works remains undiminished. She later went on to become the first resident artist at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Lab.
She was followed there by Semiconductor, a collaborative duo comprising artists Ruth Jarman and Joseph Gerhardt. The work of Semiconductor also destabilizes the notion of a monolithic, authoritative story of reality. They had returned from their residency only a couple of months earlier and so were able give world premieres at the conference of two new audiovisual pieces arising from the residency. One was a film of interviews with scientists in which a succession of talking heads was shown head scratching and umm-ing and aah-ing. It turned out they had each been asked by an off-camera interviewer, ‘Do you think Science can understand everything?’ The range of responses, in which the professional poise and guard collapsed for a while, was funny and salutary.
But the coup of the entire conference, for me, was Semiconductor’s simple and elegant film ‘Brilliant Noise’. It consisted of close-up views of the solar surface taken from NASA archives and unsubjected to any sanitisation for public consumption. This was monochrome footage complete with digital noise, dropouts, dirt, interference and raw edges. Semiconductor subtly added to this rough effect with a soundtrack made up of static, white noise, blips, scratches, crackles and hums. The resulting film felt like a much truer image of the sun than had ever been seen before. Its awesome magnificence was all the more apparent because it was clear that we can never actually see it. The obvious imperfection of the imagery encouraged the imagination to work. This short film indirectly exposes NASA’s aesthetic in presenting data from its probes to the public, and reminds us of the extent to which the machines we build make hallucinations to please us. The real world is messy, incomplete, full of noise and distraction. We are so seduced by the seeming reality of romanticized, highly coloured, pin sharp images from the Hubble telescope or from electron microscopes, we are apt to forget that they are as manufactured as oil paintings. Ironically it takes artists to brush away the art of the scientists.
Success and Failure
The second day of the conference was opened by Bronac Ferran taking up the end note of the previous day. She spoke about fragility. There is precariousness and delicacy in relationships, methodologies and outcomes. Indeed all knowledge is fragile. And this idea leads on to the notion of evaluation. How do we know when something works? What kind of structures can be erected to measure something so contingent, fragile and ephemeral as creativity?
As this question drifted in the air William Latham bulldozed into the space. His presentation was a tour de force of provocation. Speaking as an artist he gave a brilliant caricature of the attitude of the rampant capitalist, launching brilliant initiatives, inventions and lucrative enterprises off the ramp of an unshakeable self-belief, jacking up on adrenaline soaked deals, and hiring and firing officeloads of faceless drones on lunchtime whims.
He traced his career in Marvel comic superhero style. His genesis was in a cold call to IBM while he was still wet from college, re-branding himself from artist to genetic engineer as he designed Darwinian software and played God with little mutating forms, breeding and selecting as much as inventing.
Gradually he reduced the role of the human agent in his work. While Deacon, Cragg and Kapoor were making massive solid sculptural objects in 1980’s Britain, Latham made the ghosts of sculptures, immaterial art based on algorithms and protocols. Matter was redundant. Human craft did not matter. Design was a brute force of nature. Architecture was evolution.
Paradoxically the less important he considered the human agent, the more his personal power burgeoned. He became increasingly convinced that it is the Corporation that drives society. The Darwinian imperative, rather than any individual conscience, was written into human economy. By 1993 he had started his own company designing music videos, computer games and organic art. There is nothing amazing about human creativity, he opined. Design is in Nature. Humans are here to do business. In Latham’s words ‘if it cannot be auctioned it is not art’, so his commercial activity amounted to the production of culture. Infinite reproducibility, survival in a competitive environment, mutation - these were Latham’s materials. Any art, it seemed, happened as an ornamentation of the impersonal laws of nature. In the absence of religion aesthetics is the only basis for decision making.
Then one day in 2003 he got tired of doing million dollar deals, closed down the company, shrugged off ninety wage-slave hangers-on and defected to academia. From his position as having been there, done that, and got out, Latham proffered four terse points of advice.
Don’t be a pioneer. Fire anyone who isn’t any good. Don’t work in the music industry. Get paid up front.
I for one certainly felt like I’d been slapped about and shaken a bit by the end of Latham’s talk. Here was someone turning art and commerce on their heads.
While the implications of Latham’s mash-up of art and capitalism settled in, more case studies were presented. Arantxa Mendiharat, coordinator of Disonancias, a programme of international visual artists' placements in industry and research labs in the Basque country, described some of the practical strategies she uses to broker dialogues between very different interest groups who are often completely ignorant of one another’s working methods. She echoed, in quite a different style, something William Latham had said. Artists need to understand how to work in a group. Latham had recommended that teamwork should be taught in art schools. Otherwise artists are too individual. His advice to artists struggling in their practice was to ‘just get a job’. Mendiharat worked to train artists in corporate contexts, educating both sides to accommodate one another’s styles.
Creation and Destruction
Disonancias has been working to set up a range of short and medium term residencies with varied artists and companies. By contrast Clare Reddington and Erik Geelhoed, representing Watershed Media Centre and Hewlett-Packard Labs respectively, presented a story of a single partnership that has been growing and strengthening since 1999, sustained through a variety of projects. The stability of the core relationship has drawn together many other partners through various projects. Aardman Animation, Mobile Bristol and 422 have been significant partners for instance. The Watershed/HP collaborative model has proven its worth many times over. One important proof of concept occurred with Utility Computing, the idea of providing computing power in the same way as gas or water are supplied, but over the internet, paid for perhaps by an ebay-like system. Bristol is a world centre for animation and Computer Generated Imagery, which are perhaps the most processor intensive operations computers are called upon to perform. Computer power on tap could transform the animation industry. Watershed and HP Labs initiated a project in which Utility Computing was moved out of the lab and into production. The outcome of the project was successful on a number of levels and the collaboration has grown in many directions and through many other media. HP Labs in Palo Alto have used Watershed to test prototype interfaces in social settings, and now a placement is being set up for an artist to work in HP Labs in Bangalore. This is a partnership that has travelled geographically, conceptually and commercially. Its maturity was evident in the dialogic nature of its goal setting. They were not asking ‘what does business want?’ or ‘what does art want?’ but rather, what is our common purpose? Can we identify a shared goal. This project is clearly a well developed node able to support diverse branching offshoots.
Another of the presentations also had potential commercial applicability but was at a very early experimental stage. Alexander Wendt, Gregory Byatt and FeONIC described their work with the brain’s alpha waves and how these frequencies might be simulated and stimulated using binaural beats. Alpha waves supposedly enhance mood and coincide with deeper appreciation of other environmental factors. This team’s objective was to invent architectural applications of alpha wave inducing sub- or ultra-sonic signals. FeONICS have developed a sound diffusion technology, using magnetostrictive materials, capable of being incorporated into architectural structures. This research project acted as a kind of feasibility study for the idea.
Chris Meigh-Andrews, rather than using brand new materials, was pushing existing technology to its very limits. In attempting to make a self-sustaining outdoor video installation he was pushing his materials to destruction. Fragility, instability and the edge of operability were the keynotes in his work. He wanted to make a machine that could perch in the very top of a tree and look out over Coniston Water just as John Ruskin had. A machine that would be sensitive to the view, that would respond to the wind and feel the sway of the tree. This was a lot to ask of a machine. Meigh-Andrews celebrated the importance of failure – the system was almost bound to break down – and thereby celebrated human frailty and the necessary response of awe in the face of nature.
Simon Biggs later reaffirmed the importance of abusing technology. If the principle characteristic of Capital is to absorb difference, he said, it is a primary function of radicals, hackers, the avant garde to break down the means of production.
Currency and Exchange
Failure was a key concept in the ensuing discussion around the panel on Exchange Value.
Gordon Knox emphasized the value of failure but went on to say that it had to be defined independently for each separate constituent of a partnership – artist, industry and broker. Value for artists might be defined in terms of access to stuff, and for business in terms of returns for shareholders. For brokers, such as the Arts Council there has to be a social/historical perspective. This is the mode in which they add value. Without a social historical perspective they are redundant.
Helen Chandler from The Arts and Genomics Centre at Amsterdam University described how good practice is ensured in the interface between the visual arts and genomics and commented on the need for yet another set of measures suitable for academic institutions. A big barrier was pointed out, however, by Julie Taylor, Head of knowledge transfer at AHRC. The way R&D and innovation are currently defined in OECD countries, Art and the Humanities are not even included. Simon Biggs wondered whether, even if what constitutes knowledge is agreed and shared, whether that knowledge is valued equally by the different participants.
The question of time scales was raised by Roger Malina. Evaluation methods should take into account the long view of history and register long term social effects rather than just short term goals. As he is fond of reiterating, fifty years ago all the computer artists in the world would have fit into a small drawing room. Now conference halls bulge with them. Their networks spread worldwide. The threat of global warming was forcing our whole culture to think on a different timescale and businesses should think in terms of five-year plans instead of quarterly profits.
Clive Gillman questioned exchange value from another angle, wondering whether the right metrics can be found. Can trust, belief and faith replace socio-economic metrics as measurable values? Maybe this was a political project rather than a cultural one. The inadequacy of current metrics was widely acknowledged – they cannot measure impact, only quantity – but it was felt that new ways of evaluating performance needed to be situated within the discourse at the highest political level rather than out of it.
The final panel discussion of the conference considered how to go about building an International network of good practice in interdisciplinary partnerships. Wibke Hott spoke of the development of a website that would be carrying forward the themes of the conference and would act as a central point of information exchange. Roger Malina and Nicola Triscott talked about their experiences with networks. Malina’s Strong Case for art/science interaction was taken as the desirable state of affairs. Some case studies of existing networks were given. Leonardo the international society for the arts, sciences and technology, Arts Catalyst, the MIR Consortium and also very new models such as YASIMIN, which seeks to connect artists, scientists and scholars around the Mediterranean Rim, from the Middle East to North Africa to southern Europe.
Friendship and Freedom
YASIMIN is a new kind of network that eschews the customary north/south divide and promotes new regional and cultural groupings. In a similar spirit of innovation it was recommended that multi-disciplinary research labs be constituted that could remain independent of any institution. Flexibility, autonomy and a degree of informality were clear requirements for creative, multi-disciplinary research. Perhaps innovation can only be fostered to a limited extent in an institutional setting.
There may be something inherently contradictory in a project attempting to characterise, canonise, professionalise and institutionalise artistic practice. These are the methods of business. The value of art may lie in its very distinction from business. It’s disregard for efficiency, stability, utility. Perhaps, after all, the defining quality of creativity is freedom.
If the artist is a catalyst, independent of the reagents, then the artist’s work must be to continue to remain distinct from the corporation, to commit to nothing but the pursuit of wisdom. And wisdom ultimately transcends the corporation. The cultivation of wisdom is the prerogative of people, not of impersonal, legal entities. Wisdom, as Dee Hock says, is distinct from mere knowledge, or even understanding, being ‘informed by ethics, principles, spirituality, memory and imagination.’ Wisdom cannot arise, however, without a supportive infrastructure to shape the noise. It is a collaborative project.
But Capital has no conscience and no culpability. Constituted with only one aim, that of growth, the corporation has no moral imperative. A business can certainly trade in data, information, and knowledge, possibly even facilitating new understandings. But does it care for wisdom? I believe this is the question that must lie at the heart of any encounter between art and industry. And I would suggest, paraphrasing Jean-Francois Lyotard, that wisdom is essentially an ‘incredulity towards grand narratives’. The relentless logic of economics can perhaps only be dismantled and examined by those who are willing to step outside it. Could this be the role of artists?
This conference gave a historical, conceptual and strategic context for such a disturbance of the status quo, such an interference which aims at enrichment beyond economics. In Roger Malina’s words, diffraction is constructive interference.
The occasional flashes of brilliance that this conference exposed in the sparky collisions of past encounters between art and industry might be seen as gropings towards wisdom. And for the future, ‘Diffraction’ aspired to reflect and broadcast the light of these flashes to fitfully illumine something of the path ahead.