Multimedia Reporter

When Vantablack, then the world’s darkest material, came out in 2017, it sparked chaos in the art community. Surrey NanoSystems, its creator, had granted sculptor Anish Kapoor exclusive rights for artistic use of this “blackest black”– and many artists cried foul at the seemingly selfish move.

Perhaps the most famous reaction came from fellow artist Stuart Semple, who — as a form of both protest and performance art — made his self-created “pinkest pink” pigment available to anyone, with the caveat that Anish Kapoor never get his hands on it.

On the other hand, Ben Jensen, founder and CTO of Surrey NanoSystems, felt that artists were justified in reserving such rights. “You go back to when [J.M.W.] Turner [English Romantic period painter] was creating his blacks and you go up to him and say, ‘Hey, you created an amazing black, I want it,’ You’d have been laughed out of the art scene,” he said.

Whether you’re a Renaissance painter shifting to oil paints to keep up with the era’s stylistic demands, or a contemporary artist-and-scientist team developing a material even darker than Vantablack for a new piece, artists have always pushed for and utilized innovative tools in their work. 

And with Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies making their way into the art community, exciting possibilities– as well as new ways of feeling and experiencing– are being unlocked.

Different expressions

To an artist, the choice of medium is as instrumental as the actual art itself. With fresh “canvases” like Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) now at their fingertips, artists are able to explore new ways to express their thoughts and interpret the world around them. 

Projects like Hito Steyerl’s Actual Reality and Estella Tse’s Two Sides of the Same Coin use augmented reality to discuss inequality and identity, respectively. The First Thinking Sculpture, inspired by Catalan architect’s belief in art as a sign of the times, uses IBM’s AI Watson to analyze opinions on AI, IoT, and security and moves its segments according to these trends.

Locally, Issay Rodriguez uses VR in her installation Doon, part of the upcoming Art Fair Philippines 2020. Inspired by her experiences with Aeta wild honey gatherers, participants are immersed in a fantastical beehive where they help bees gather honey and are rewarded for their actions. “My work was incepted not just to push the boundaries of virtual space, but also to weigh in the equal importance of physical play or space,” she said. “The Link is the perfect venue, because… of its multi-layer car park, so it’s like reliving the trek inside the forest but in a different sense.”

Aside from the art itself, 4IR technologies are also being used to improve and enhance the preservation and appreciation art. The National Museum of China uses AI and IoT to create customized environments for each specimen and predict potential threats to their infrastructure. Visitors to Connect, BTS, a series of global art installations commissioned by the eponymous South Korean band, can access augmented reality videos of the members explaining the piece. 

For Ibba Bernardo, CEO of I AM Cardboard PH, these innovations in the art community make our digital experiences much more natural and engaging. “The user experience and interface [of mobile devices]… [they’re] catered to humans, but the device isn’t. The fact that our heads are bowed down and we consume media in tiny, 5×3 format screens isn’t optimal… That is our next [step], where we can interface with information with our heads held up high like human beings, not bent down at an angle.”

A palette of opportunities

As more and more members of the art community incorporate 4IR technologies in their projects, it’s produced some interesting economic effects. According to job site Hired, demand for AR/VR engineers increased by a whopping 1,400% in 2019. AI is also having its own moment, with computer vision and machine learning engineers tallying a 146% and 89% demand growth, respectively. 

Rodriguez, who also teaches art and design part-time for high school students, believes in these great opportunities for the next generation. “This gives a lot of chances to my students who, if they are actually prepared with the skill sets, can already achieve so much… There [could also be] a lot of freelance opportunities where they won’t be confined by the traditional setup of going to the office, especially with the bad traffic.” 

These new technologies are also making art more accessible to the general public. The Ayala Museum and I AM Cardboard PH, for example, were able to bring their VR historical dioramas to various schools since all they needed to work were the headsets.

“[Technology brings] down the cost of experiencing art and reduces the need to travel to see art, in most cases,” said Cristina Herfort and Sandra Palomar, representatives of art agency art/n23. “It also adds an educational dimension: it is easier and less elitist to bring art education with digital technology.”

To the real, through the “unreal”

While most of these artworks straddle the line between the tangible and intangible, their creators believe that they spark something very real within their audience. “I think of these virtual reality experiences that we make as ‘empathy machines’…You read it in a book, but we put you there,” said Bernardo, who has seen viewers cry after watching their VR installations.

They also help people to connect and reconnect with their surroundings, allowing them to see and feel the familiar world through a different lens.

“Instead of doing something that’s just showing what’s wrong in the world… I want to participate [in] and distribute new ways of looking at the world,” said Jakob Kudsk Steensen, whose virtual work Catharsis simulates the growth of a re-imagined old forest. “So I really hope that the audience who sees this… [would] want to connect with nature and the technology they live with in new ways.”