Does technology serve art?

Published on 22 March 2021

Reading time 11 minutes

For tens of thousands of years, art has played an integral role in our lives. It has fascinated us and taken us on distant journeys to foreign lands. More recently, the emergence of new technologies has contributed to a significant change in our relationship with art. In this article, we'll discover the place technology holds in the current art world.

Beginnings in the use of technology in art

The first drawing machines

Let's start with a little history!

On the occasion of the exhibition Le Mouvement in Paris in 1955, the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely presented the first robots used in art to the general public: drawing machines that mechanically produce drawings.

Four years later, in 1959, his famous Meta-matic 17 was put on the front of the stage during the first Paris Biennale: | Photographer: Martha Rocher (1959)

More than 60 years later, a group of scientists, developers and art historians worked on The Next Rembrandt project. On this occasion, an Artificial Intelligence capable of reproducing Rembrandt's chiaroscuro technique was born. After 18 months of experimentation (2014-2016), and after showing it multiple paintings by Rembrandt, the AI learned the different characteristics of this technique and copied a painting by this Dutch painter identically. The result: a painting that's truer than life! Although the brush strokes look real, it turns out that the work is only composed of several layers printed via a 3D printer.

In the same vein, Portrait of Edmond de Belamy, a canvas print made from algorithms coded by young American artist Robbie Barrat and taken over by the French team OBVIOUS, is being auctioned for the first time in 2018.

Art has indeed become conceptualizable thanks to technology! But how far can the collaboration between art and technology go? What artistic role can new technologies play? Lastly, how can digital technology bring positive changes to our society?

Technology as a tool in art

Does the digitization of art rhyme with its democratization?

Digitization of art means easier access to artwork.

At the dawn of new digital ways of consuming artworks, can we really talk about its own democratization?

Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in the United States, described openness as one of the most important qualities of art. Indeed, art is open to all. Each of us is free to interpret art in our own way based on what we see, hear, touch, and feel, so there's no misinterpretation.

This is why it's crucial to democratize art and make it more accessible on a large scale.

Online purchase of works of art

Some platforms now allow users to digitalize and internationalize the art market.

For example, digital gallery Singulart connects collectors with selected artists who have built a reputation in local markets. This platform also offers temporarily closed galleries the opportunity to present a selection of their works during dedicated digital events. The pandemic has provided a great opportunity for e-commerce in the art sector.

Virtual tours of museums

Although immersive and interactive experiences for the public had already been put in place before the Covid-19 pandemic (more on this below), the trend has become much more far-reaching over the last two years.

Following the health crisis, new ways of consuming art have multiplied. Indeed, so-called "non-essential businesses and other venues open to the public" shuttered in March 2020 in order to respect security measures to stop the pandemic. Among them, museums had to innovate and find solutions to continue their activity and compensate for their extended closure.

Virtual and augmented reality, which had already seduced the world of video games and cinema, are now helping keep museums alive and make them even more accessible.

Cultural sites such as the Palace of Versailles, the National Gallery in London, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam are now offering virtual tours in partnership with Google Arts & Culture—a digital platform that facilitates access to art and culture.

Since its creation in 2011, this platform offers free content to the greatest number of people—available anytime and anywhere, and for anyone with an Internet connection. Google is collaborating with artists and cultural institutions from around the world to make this multicultural project complete and comprehensive. This collaboration gives users the opportunity to:

  • Virtually explore 4,000+ partner museums, using the same technology as Google Street View
  • Consult works in high definition and admire them down to the smallest detail, thanks to gigapixel images (composed of a billion pixels to give the works a more real-life effect)
  • Access the information and history of each work and/or artist
  • Create your own virtual exhibition, as each user is able to make a compilation of as many works as they wish and share them on social networks
  • Experiment with all types of art, from music to drawing, puzzles, crossword puzzles, and virtual coloring, to stimulate creativity
  • Test your knowledge through various educational tools and quizzes on art and culture
  • And much more...

Art digitization coincides with its democratization, and this trend seems more and more essential in light of the current health situation that has limited cultural activities. From now on, no matter where we are, all we need is an Internet connection to discover the rich history of art from all over the world!

Adding a digital and sensory aspect to the artistic experience

How virtual and augmented reality complement the physical experience

Long before the pandemic, virtual reality and augmented reality were already seducing a growing number of artists.

As proof, in 2014, Japanese artist Nubumichi Asai—along with his team of technology experts, digital designers, and makeup artists—implemented projection mapping software called Omote. It involved projecting video patterns onto moving faces, transforming them into real digital canvas.

While some museums were already offering applications, Spotify podcasts or YouTube videos with additional information about the works visited, others such as the National History Museum in Paris, the British Museum in London or the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto were allowing visitors to experience live, interactive artwork through virtual or augmented reality. They could (re)discover the works in a more immersive way thanks to video projectors, spatialized sound systems, and virtual reality headsets to immerse themselves in an artistic and playful world.

Moment Factory, a multimedia entertainment studio located in Montreal, Paris, Tokyo, and New York City, had the idea to create digital and artistic experiences in public. In order to adapt to the health crisis, the studio had the opportunity to work on artistic projects whose experience could be entirely accomplished while respecting social distancing.

Moment Factory | LinkedIn

Learn from the public's behavior

The collaboration between technology and art also allows us better ways to analyze and understand audience behavior.

As shown in the technological varnishing set up by artist Laetitia Bensmail and the Cité de l'Innovation et des Savoirs Aix-Marseille (CISAM) in March 2020, it's possible to track eye movement thanks to glasses and specialized computers, and even to consult "hot spots"—places where the audience's gaze lingers the longest. Using this technique, which is based on identifying the audience's eye movements, artists can more easily identify areas of development and improvement in their work and predict the audience's interest and buying behavior.

A heritage conservation issue

Digital Archives: witnessing our artistic evolution

According to Tim J. Marlow, a renowned art historian and member of London's Royal Academy of Arts, the popularity of museums and galleries has not waned despite our ultra-connected world. Quite the opposite: technology is attracting a new audience and allowing us to establish archives so we can see our artistic evolution through time.

Furthermore, the Time Machine Europe project has among its primary goals to digitize and map the cultural evolution of Europe through the ages. These large-scale scanning operations allow the development of new reflections on past and future works, as well as new artistic perspectives to come.

The art of the replica

Thanks to technological advances and the digitization of art, the protection and restoration of heritage are made easier.

We can look at Factum Arte in Spain, which uses homemade 3D scanners to preserve paintings and create replicas through 3D printing. This workshop uses cutting-edge technologies like:

  • the Veronica 3D scanner equipped with several devices capable of taking bursts of HD photographs and scanning body parts (such as heads or busts) in just a few seconds;
  • the Lucida ultra-precise 3D laser scanner, which allows to scan works of art in their depth without any contact. It captures the data of the scanned work (texture, relief, depth) and allows to reproduce it to the smallest detail.

This art of replication has also been witnessed thanks to Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari. Thanks to a collection of a multitude of photos and the creation of 3D drawings, she was able to reproduce artwork destroyed by the Islamic State. In addition to a 3D reconstruction of these statues, the artist also put within it USB keys tracing their history.

Lastly, we should mention the Al-Nouri mosque, a sacred Iraqi monument destroyed in 2017 whose reconstruction was made possible entirely thanks to virtual reality.

Code: a new tool for art

Today, computer programming can be identified as a tool with both aesthetic and useful potential in the service of art.

Some artists use code to highlight their creations so that they're visible and accessible directly online, such as artist Filipe Vilas-Boas, most known for works that combine the physical and virtual worlds.

You can also read our interview with artist Arnaud Renaud, freelance developer and web development trainer at Wild Code School, but also student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris!

Finally, we can look at agencies like Artiscode. Specialized in web and mobile design and development, this operation located in Paris and Toulouse creates custom websites, mobile apps, and software. Each has its own visual identity and is all at once "functional, highly readable, explanatory, and immersive."

Can Artificial Intelligence be creative?

Creativity tends to be defined as a uniquely human characteristic: triggered by a touch of audacity, a spark of curiosity, and overflowing spontaneity.

However, over the years, we've witnessed some creative events from various forms of Artificial Intelligence. Where does this creativity come from?

Like humans, artificial intelligence is able to learn from experience—and especially from its own mistakes. In tech, this phenomenon can be compared to evolutionary algorithms based on the theory of evolution in order to solve a given problem.

In short, AI can be creative. Here are but a few examples:

  • AlphaGo is an AI developed by Google that's known for having played against Fan Hui, the world Go champion. This game requires you to follow your instincts in order to outwit your opponent's moves—and that's exactly what AlphaGo did! During the match, AlphaGo proceeded with a strategy that seemed illogical—even wrong. Ultimately, this strategy has become commonplace in schools ever since it allowed AI to dethrone the world go champion;
  • Angelina is a Java-based game creation that learns from its mistakes—and constantly improves game mechanics by testing each option to find the best way to finish the levels;
  • Hello World is an album released on Spotify and produced by the artist SKYGGE with the help of a form of AI. The purpose of this album was to demonstrate that an AI can be used to create new and attractive melodies.

What are the limits of collaboration between technology and art?

Well of course! Partnering technology with art has certain limits.

In 2016, Artificial Intelligence was even used to write a short science fiction film, Sunspring. The script for this film, directed by Oscar Sharp, was generated from scratch by the AI, but the roles were played by humans.

As you can see in the video below, the dialogues and scenes seem to be meaningless—enough to make you question the scripting capabilities of an Artificial Intelligence:

To conclude, we can think we're slowly but surely progressing toward digitally modified art, even art perfected by technology.

Yet art as we know it is spontaneous and unpredictable. It doesn't always seek usefulness and purpose; quite the contrary, it aims at aesthetics, evoking emotions, and originality.

This new era of conception and consumption of art implies new ways of thinking, innovative techniques, and a change in aesthetic norms. Are we really going to enter a new space-time continuum where our works will be totally immersive, connected, interactive, or even hybrid?

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