Art must flow constantly to maintain its strength. And when the media through which it is expressed do not expand, almost by art of magic, it finds new channels that take it to a higher level.
Flanders, mid-15th century. Bruges. An enormous megapolis with over 45,000 inhabitants, reborn thanks to the wool trade. This is a historic moment. The appearance of a new technology – the printing press – will shake all of Europe. Private citizens will be able to store up knowledge and a new social class will emerge: an educated class, neither clergymen nor aristocrats, consisting of craftsmen and merchants.
Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert, with the commercial patronage of the Duke of Burgundy, stumble upon a new glazing technique in oil paint. By mixing the new pigments directly with linseed and walnut oil, they achieve what tempera paint had never been able to do. The brush slides almost magically, generating glazes and colours never seen before. Jan paints a portrait of the Arnolfinis, a prosperous Italian merchant couple; and he signs, ahead of his time, like a true graffiti artist: “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434.” Just above the mirror. Virtual spaces of two-dimensional perspective.
Would the Italian Renaissance and the Spanish Golden Age have been the same without the creative genius of Leonardo and Velázquez? Undoubtedly no. Would they have been the same without the Van Eyck brothers, chance and the new technologies of the time? No again. In a few short decades, oil painting would spread like wildfire across the Old Continent.
Barcelona. January 1990. The multiple combinations of fate crash crazily into each other like neutrons escaping from the nucleus. Eighteen years ago, when we began that vague project called ArtFutura, the Internet as we now know it didn’t even exist. Tim Berners-Lee was still designing his World Wide Web and the scientific community who used the network barely outnumbered 100,000 people. A village.
Festivals like Ars Electronica and conferences like Siggraph created a new awareness in the art community and lead to the birth of festivals like ArtFutura, inspired by a new technology called Virtual Reality and guided by the ideas of a writer named William Gibson.
William visited Barcelona several times with his entire family (nanny included) and dedicated more time to Gaudí’s work and the long nights at the bar “El Otro” than to his new book-in-progress, The Difference Engine. An alternative novel – co-written with Bruce Sterling – that tells how the English scientist Charles Babbage could have realised his project for the Difference Engine. Something that would have altered the course of history and launched the digital revolution over one hundred and twenty years earlier.
London, summer of 1940. The “Eagle Day” operation begins. The German Luftwaffe perpetrates a massive bombing raid on airfields in English territory. On the 24th of August – some say by mistake – several bombs fall in central London. Two days later, Churchill orders the Royal Air Force to attack Berlin. The reprisals against the civilian population begin. Terror is served.
That same year, a British research group called Ultra creates the first totally electronic computer with the participation of Alan Turing and based on the experiences of Babbage, Byron and Boole. The computer is dubbed “Robinson” and it is designed to decode the German messages generated by Enigma, a cutting-edge cipher machine. Three years later the same group will develop the “Colossus,” which uses electronic tubes and runs one thousand times faster than the “Robinson.” The German messages are completely deciphered. The machine will play a decisive role in determining the war’s outcome.
Seven years pass and, in the middle of the Cold War, the first transistor appears. It is 1947 and the world is captivated by the popularity of a new medium – the television. But it would not be until the 1970s that computers reach a new level with the microchip. Goodbye tubes, goodbye transistors; from now on we will have a new magical element at our fingertips.
In April 1976, Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak - from a garage in Los Altos, California - found a new company bearing the same name as the Beatles’ record label. Their first project, the Apple I, is considered the first fully equipped personal computer in history. Jobs and Wozniak market 200 units. And they sell. One year later they introduce the Apple II, the machine that will change the world. They end up selling millions of units and putting technology in the hands of individual citizens, who are now able to store knowledge – and process it. Four years later, in 1981, IBM itroduces its own personal computer (PC) on the market.
Over the next twelve years, personal computers would spread around the globe, exponentially multiply their processing speed and be put to a wide variety of uses. In the early 1990s, with the appearance of the World Wide Web, a new era is ushered in: in another twelve years, the number of Internet users would jump from one hundred thousand to 1.2 billion.
February 2007, the sun rises in Trancoso, Brazil. An old fishing village on the coast of Bahia. Unspoiled beaches, golden sands, mangroves and palm trees as far as the eye can see. It is summer high season, right around when Sao Paulo’s tourists invade their beaches. Beside the Quadrado – the square built by the Portuguese four hundred years ago – is the local cybercafé, full of tourists eager to read their e-mails. Supposedly they are on holiday, but the cybercafé is something more than a computer and a cable that regularly fails. It is a social space. Where you say hello, where you exchange information, where you meet people.
From the offices-with-a-view of Wall Street’s skyscrapers to the narrow streets of Singapore’s Chinatown, from the nameless telephone booths in Madrid to the tropical cybercafé of Trancoso, computer networks complete and broaden our senses. They multiply ourselves and generate parallel lives. 1.4 billion human beings latched on to the udder of global knowledge and the endless chat. Machines that express emotions previously unknown to us. Emotions. Machines and emotions. Virtual spaces of three-dimensional perspective.
Boston, 1984. Sherry Turkle, MIT professor, publishes “The Second Self”, a crucial work for understanding the power of computers and their influence in the new era:
“The computer is a new mirror, the first psychological machine. Mirrors, literal and metaphorical, play an important part in human development. In literature, music, visual art or computer programming, they allow us to see ourselves from the outside, and to objectify aspects of ourselves we had perceived only from within.”
The computer goes beyond the industrial machine. Its ability to process information and its ubiquity have made of it a constant companion in practically every area of our lives. An industrial machine repeats mechanically the same function, but the computer’s virtuality makes its codes and its functions infinite.
And the crucial element in the new technological discontinuity is our humanity. Without it, everything else is meaningless. Computers do NOT think. They replicate thoughts. Computers do NOT feel. They replicate our emotions. They are, in effect, the psychological mirror in which we see ourselves reflected – mirrors where we play, where we feel, where we stretch our imagination, and also where we learn. Mirrors. And what about souls? Can they be replicated?
Japan, 1760. From the monastery of Shoin-ji, on the slopes of Mount Fuji, Hakuin Ekaku writes a letter to his feudal lord (another terrible politician with a penchant for art). Between recommendations to treat the peasants of the Hara Valley with honesty and human decency, Hakuin writes:
“The mind is heaven, the mind is hell and the mind has the ability to become one of them. People continue to think that they exist somewhere else, outside of them… But heaven and hell are not at the end of life, they are here and now.”
Here and now. Hakuin developed his painting style in the final years of his life, after he had already turned sixty. He created over one thousand paintings and calligraphies in twenty-odd years in such a wide diversity of styles that it is often hard to believe they were made by the same person. Hakuin was famous for breaking out into fits of laughter during his enlightenment experiences. He once said, “Meditation in the midst of activity is a thousand times superior to meditation in stillness.” In other words, inspiration should come while you are working. This was well ahead of his time. No wonder he burst out laughing.
Souls and Machines.
June 2008, Madrid. Museo Reina Sofía. The exhibition “Souls & Machines” attempts to explore the fact that, at the dawn of the 21st century, art and science are travelling parallel paths. And it achieves this through the work of a group of artists selected for their ability to combine art, technology, mystery, emotion and beauty.
All of them use digital technology as a tool in multiple ways: as a medium, as a developing element, as a research method or as springboard to new sensibilities. But their computers themselves do NOT create. And without the emotion and creativity of its authors, digital art is nothing. It would be like talking to a mirror.
Sachiko, Paul, David, Theo, Rafael, Antoni, John, Evru, Pierre, Daniel, Vuk, Ben, Chico, Natalie... working from Tokyo, London, New York, Delft, Vancouver, Barcelona, Boston, Paris, Madrid, Ljubljana, San Francisco… they amaze me, they make me think, discover, ask questions, investigate, they make me feel, they move me… in a new way. Virtual spaces of infinite perspective. Here and now.
Paris in the 1920s. New York in the sixties. The capitals of art also pick up and move with their luggage, their artists, their galleries and their museums. But how do Internet and digital technology affect the art world? At the beginning of the 21st century, the neurological centre of the new Cultureburg seems a bit confused. It is no longer necessary to walk the streets of Montmartre or the New York Soho to feel like an artist. We can’t even say that West Chelsea is the new global node. It isn’t. The centres and nodes have multiplied and are everywhere, from Shanghai to Berlin, from London to Tokyo, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Moscow… we are all here.
What is more, the new global artist spends more time searching for inspiration online than visiting the studios of his competitors, riding the wave of chrome pixels instead of comparing palette knives. Could it be that the new capital of art is moving to the Internet? Where is the luggage?
In “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, Wassily Kandinsky wrote, “Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. In the same way that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated.”
Why is it that we need new stimuli to move us in a new way?
The present constantly demands new ways of feeling, of asserting that we are alive. Virtual reality, Internet, social networks, synthetic images, artificial life… these are just the tip of the iceberg. The world we know will transform even more rapidly in the coming years. Our museums will be different, our art will be different, our ideas, our lives and our relationships will be different.
It is the vital impulse that drives us to generate new forms and new experiences, to grasp reality in a broader, more real way. Because, at the end of the adventure, that is what we are: souls yearning for new experiences and new emotions. Here and now.
And art? Where will art go from here? José Miguel Monzón, that other great philosopher of our century, once said, “Time is the perfect usher: It eventually puts everyone in his place.”
Director of ArtFutura
Text originally published in the catalog of the exhibition held at the Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid.