An Introduction to the creative use of technology

Written by Mitch Said

The article is intended to serve as a primer for artists interested in the creative use of technology, and will hopefully provide a jumping off point for interested parties by pointing towards some tools and resources that I’ve found both useful and inspirational.

As a preface, I’d like to distinguish the area of artistic practice I’m talking about here from the broader ‘new media’ spectrum. I want to make a useful distinction between the artist who uses technology as a means to a creative end, and the artist who foregrounds technology as the primary method of interaction with the work, or as the subject of the work itself. It should be noted that the focus here is not on tools used primarily for digital facilitation, production or effects. Rather, I’ll be looking at some ways for artists to grapple with the ‘raw material’ of digital interfaces - code, programmes, hardware. If that sounds intriguing but somewhat daunting, then hopefully this piece will help lessen the barrier to digital art entry.

One of the most encouraging trends in digital arts is its increasing kinship with the ‘open source’ movement. Put in it’s simplest terms, open source means free - in both price and philosophy. Often maintained by a core group of dedicated individuals, open source software is made possible through the participation of any number of enthusiastic (often anonymous) users-slash-makers willing to donate time and knowledge to the improvement and growth of a particular programme or tool. And while you may lose a certain kind of out-the-box ease of use that comes with professional software, you often gain a supportive and dedicated community. I’ve found that the latter to be more valuable, and especially important for those new to digital art - open source communities often seem especially willing to provide assistance to newcomers.

One of the programs that’s become especially popular as a digital art teaching tool is Processing. Created by Ben Fry and Casey Reas, it’s a great introduction for artists interested in the ability to generate visuals, sounds and experiences via code. That doesn’t mean it’s in any way basic or limited - on the contrary, it’s an exceptionally versatile language. For the first time user, the interface might initially appear intimidatingly stark - a white rectangle with a blinking cursor. But after going through some of the online examples - you might also want to order a copy of Daniel Shiffman’s “Learning Processing” - that empty space starts looking more like a blank canvas, ready to be filled with creative code. Processing is also good at adapting itself to the user’s level of sophistication, and can be thought as a kind of a ‘gateway drug’ to other, sometimes more rigorous, programming languages (and if you can comprehend my comparison between recreational intoxication and computer coding, you might be susceptible).

Though the programme is probably best known for it’s abilities to create complex visuals using computer algorithms - think generative art - in the last couple of years, Processing has become increasingly adept at handling video. So if you’ve got a project in mind that involves capturing and treating live video, Processing is definitely an option.

Intriguingly, there’s a very recent effort to allow Processing-created programmes to run on mobile phones that use Google’s “Android” operating system (and while those devices might still be prohibitively high-end and expensive today, the accelerated obsolescence rate of mobile technology means that today’s smartphone - a miniature computer in many ways - will likely be entry-level in a year or two). This democratizing effect is aided by the fact that Android is itself open source - which invites customization from both manufacturers and users. It’s an exciting moment that promises to shrink the digital divide, and an exciting notion for an artist looking to reach a wider audience.

If you’re looking for is a way to interface your digital creations with hardware, however, you don’t have to rely on commercial products to create art that involves physical electronics. The open source movement extends beyond software, and the Arduino microprocessor is an ideal example. Arduino is a relatively cheap hardware platform, ideal for the artist looking to connect the digital and physical realms. The software interface for Arduino is also based on the Processing environment, so once you’re familiar with the one, it’s easy to interface it with the other. The two-way relationship between software and physical computing - soliciting input from the ‘real world’ that is then treated digitally, or controlling external objects and electronics via programming (or any combination of the two) - can be enormously enticing to the artist, and the simplicity of the Arduino platform means it’s available to anyone with no required technical or engineering background. An unintended side effect - your local hardware/electronics store might suddenly look like a repository of diodes and LEDs and a hundred other bits you had no previous use for. A number of tutorials and an eager community of users are available online, but some helpful books are “Physical Computing” by Tom Igoe and Dan O’Sullivan, or “Getting Started With Arduino”, by Massimo Banzi. The Arduino is available to purchase in South Africa via Netram Technologies, or Yebo Electronics.

To get back to software - another programme commonly used by digital artists is Cycling 74’s “Max/MSP”. “Max” is geared towards sound and video manipulation, and uses a visual metaphor of interconnected “patches” to generate output (which a number of artists will no doubt find more intuitive than lines of code). Max’s graphic interface makes it a kind of ‘right-brain’ alternative to Processing (to use a lazy formulation), and it’s especially ideal for handling live video input, where results can be previewed within the software. “Max” is not free or open source, though discounts are available. However, there does exist a very similar open source alternative called “Pure Data”, or “PD” (originated by one of the creators of Max). Though not as well documented and not as cleanly presented as Max (some of the common perils of open source), it’s free, and users are working to fill the gaps.

The tools I’ve talked about here are somewhat general purpose, and the further one delves into any one specific area of digital art (and the more technically skilled the user), then more niche software might displace Processing or Max (SuperCollider for advanced audio programming, or OpenFrameworks for visually intensive work, to mention a couple). What I hope I’ve managed to convey is that digital art needn’t be an exclusive realm, walled-off by technical geekery and expensive gadgetry. With free tools and some relatively cheap hardware, it’s possible to realize that dormant work that seemed unachievable, or to simply tinker until the possibilities reveal themselves.