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Mother of Invention
by Sara Diamond
Artists often invent because they are hungry. Something they are making cannot or will not work. There is no one else around to solve the problem. They have to feed themselves. While invention is the child of yearning, it becomes desire in its own right.
Invention demands a high level of concentration. The process is like trying to get the perfect surface on a painting. It is a fiddly, precise, demanding task. Sometimes, when eating toast with apricot jam, I feel both overwhelmed and pleased by the human capacity to imagine tools, processes and recipes. Consider the coarsely-milled organic flour, the tractor, the farmer's clothes, the plate, the bread pan, and the fuel to heat the oven -- the variables of invention are so many.
Invention can be pure. At Quintessence , a recent conference event held by the Banff New Media Institute, physicist Anthony Zee described the emergence of new scientific theories. This kind of invention requires freeing the imagination within a certain order of constraint. Physicists delve into a space inside themselves, where it is very quiet. Theories require the inventor to imagine a world. The dreamer closes their eyes and concentrates until that world appears. From this visualization, the inventor can sometimes create a model. Marc Rioux, a senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada, described feeling an instinctive certainty when he was in the process of invention, a sensation based in intuition but grounded in theory. Then, the overwhelming pleasure of discovery when a problem is solved at last -- immediately followed by disappointment. "How can it have taken so long? It's so obvious!" the researcher exclaims. This birthing process is familiar to artists.
Artists who are inventors frequently describe the glow associated with creating something new that is also functional. We are prepared to delight in form, but there is also great delight in function. Artists succumb to the pleasure of serving others. Creating new utilities for a larger public is usually called design. But artists' inventions tend to be more idiosyncratic than those of designers. Artists resolve problems shaped by emotion, language, beauty and sensation rather than utility. In the first instance, they serve themselves. Artists' inventions also tend to embody their worldview quite directly. For example, the company SoftImage developed a series of animation tools in the 1980s and 1990s. These practical tools were influenced by Canadian visual artist Char Davies. But they also expressed her love of painterly abstraction and fluidity of image.
But perhaps I am describing too direct a line between the invention and its circulation. Maurice Benayoun [www.benayoun.com], a French new media artist and inventor, proposes that most artists' inventions are "gadgets", made to solve the problem at hand. When these eventually generalize, they become tools valuable to a broader community of users. They become inventions. But it is not necessarily the responsibility, or capability, of the individual inventor to know how to share his or her tools. There are not many artists at the Venture Forum. Too bad! Artists who invent can often straddle a dual economy.
Artists who invent also frequently walk the uncomfortable space between art, design and engineering. But as the recent past has demonstrated, design tends to naturalize, while art denatures. Quandary: is it hard to criticize that which you invent?
Throughout most of the twentieth century, artists preferred to work with available or obsolete technologies applied in unexpected ways. Dada preferred discarded technology, taking the past or the near past and remaking it into a future that held both the past and present within it. This assumed a critique of technical utopianism. With the rise of new media, some artists have militantly embraced this methodology. They do not want to contribute to techno-determinism. They are concerned about the misappropriation of new technologies they might inform.
The movement away from the romance of the old began in the latter part of the twentieth century -- as early as the 1960s, in fact. Some artists felt compelled by the potential of emerging technologies. The Art and Technology Movement, for example, believed that they could influence the direction of technological change by entering the design process at the beginning. Others felt that here was an aperture, with exciting new materials and possibilities. Artists began to work with technologists and scientists, to invent together, creating a rare culture of collaboration. This subculture of invention went even further, bridging the space between art and science: In the first decades of electronic music, you were only considered authentic if you could program computers.
Here emerges one of the problems that art in the service of invention faces: the pressure to subordinate to functionality, to the hermeneutics of being close to the machine.
In recent years, artist-inventors have tended to side with hacker culture, with peer-to-peer, open source and the Demo movement in software design. Artists' inventions have responded to the needs of subculture. For example, at a time in history when the database defines access to information, artists have challenged the inherent hierarchy of online databases by creating local data navigation tools, or search engines, dedicated to picking out strategic cultural references. In one instance, the UK collective Mongrel created Linker [http://www.linker.org.uk/Linker/], a tool that finds signs of "Blackness" within the vast sentience of the Web.
Meanwhile, remix culture (the twenty-first century dada movement) exists next door to expressive yet functional software utilities designed to act against the recently over-commercialized software industry.
Invention finds even more radical expression in the tool development and software design of Elizabeth VanderZaag, Andre Ktori, Joshua Portway, Mary Flanagan, Sher Duff, Simon Pope, Technologies to the People, and many others. Their software systems divide into two camps, operating as critiques of existing tools, or as functional designs. Some bridge both spaces. Here the radical gesture is not necessarily political, but experiential. It may be in this arena that a new form of productive critique exists.
For one brief moment, I would like to conceptually separate the process of invention from the process of art making, and then re-twine the two. Perhaps there are different aesthetics at work here, parts that make up a larger whole. Elegant inventions can be clothed in variable skins. And perhaps the skins that clothe these inventions ought to be made to rub against and over them, at times even in a troubling fashion, until we become aware of the abrasion.
This is precisely the way in which David Rokeby, our featured artist in Issue 3, has always worked. During his twenty-year career as an artist-programmer, he has invented a number of new technologies -- most famously, Very Nervous System. In that installation, he created a responsive environment that drew attention to the relationships of humans to the world around them, as well as to the inventions embedded within it, underneath a variable skin. By suturing together media and movement, this musical space embraced the potential of improvisation and precision. As one of David's earliest works, it was a minimalist tool, an architectural device. In the hands of others who later applied it, it became many other forms and applications.
This adaptive radiation, in its turn, has inspired INVENT, an issue of HorizonZero dedicated to the necessity of creativity, uniting right and left brain, celebrating the artist as inventor.
To the necessity of creativity!
A Special Moment Of Crossing Over
It is with quintessential pleasure that I welcome Martha Ladly to HorizonZero as our new Creative Director. Martha has had an illustrious career, first as a Canadian musician and visual artist, then as a designer. She collaborated with Peter Gabriel for many years while serving as head of Real World Design, in the UK. There she worked on the development of award-winning multimedia projects such as Eve and Ceremony of Innocence. Martha is currently a faculty member in Bell Globe Media's Interactive Project Laboratory, and teaches at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Most importantly for us, she now graces our electronic pages with her creativity and wisdom.
Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.