Will technology be essential in art? A discussion with Nick Rothwell

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How much is technology influencing art? This is a tough topic but also really important for me, as truly passionate by about art and technology I think the contamination is there. Technology is already part of our lives, we can’t do much without it and I think it’s taking the role of art in terms of expressing ourselves, so I’m really keen to learn more about it.

A couple of weeks ago (well, maybe a bit more) I’ve been to an event called Digital Futures: Rebooting Digital Commons, looking to explore how open technologies and open source communities are driving civic awareness, innovation and social change.
The event was great, with a lot of inspiring topics and ideas coming out from a panel of amazing and inspirational speakers (Sarah Gold, Ele Carpenter, John Bhavani Esapathi, Nick Rothwell and Hannah Stewart) sharing their works and research projects.

I’ve been particularly fascinated by Nick Rothwell and today I’m really proud to introduce him to you! Nick is a composer, sound artist, programmer and software architect working with artists and involved in multiple art projects..but let’s start the conversation!

Nick-Rothwell-London-composer-programmer-artist-sound-composer-technology 1)  You’re a composer, performer, software architect, programmer and sound artist. But I think there’s something you much prefer compared to others. Which are the things you enjoy doing the most?
I think there are different kinds of enjoyment. My technical strength is working in code (which I regard more of a craft than an art), and I am more fluent there than in other artistic media. Creatively I work both in visuals and music; I find working in visuals easier, and more immediately fun in the process; working in music is much harder – perhaps it’s not as well aligned to the coding comfort-zone – but it feels more emotionally connected, and more much rewarding when it eventually works.

2) I was really curious about the several projects you’ve been working on matching technology and choreography. Could you explain them better?
Well, I don’t see technology as an art form, and I’m not sure it’s even a medium – the term is too general. And it’s also not a process. What I’m interested in doing is taking aspects of computer science – data structuring, computation, algorithmic design, mapping, transformation – and seeing how they work as part of the creative process (in visuals, sound, movement), and how that process can then be collaborative with artists in other media. And computational ideas are best realised with computers, hence the technology.

Too-Mortal-Cassiel-LondonHacking Choreography 2.0 was a clear example of this: taking something theoretical and formal (in this case, nested data structures and time-based transformation) and realising it in a visual form which could then form part of a collaboration. (The choreographer, Kate Sicchio was also doing some of the coding and timelining, while I also composed the soundtrack.)

Often, software allows you to build some kind of engine which makes the art, rather than having to make the art directly; ideas can be generated by machine and then curated, filtered, shaped creatively. The engine can be generative, stochastic, unpredictable, non-repeating. For the TooMortal soundtrack  the software had to be built before any sound could be made – a bit of a leap of faith, based on an intuition that the software would be the right soft of tool for the kind of soundtrack that was needed.

3) So, should artists follow tech patterns and not their creative instinct anymore?
All artistic practice has to be constrained – framed – otherwise there’s no focus, no pressure. The trick is to identify the right constraint. Technology tends to be sold on a promise that anything is possible – “creativity unleashed” – which is the opposite of the kind of constraint needed to be creative. Following patterns is a constraint system, so there’s nothing wrong with that. But be mindful of the choice – choose a technological constraint by all means, but use it to create something that’s not just about the technology. There needs to be a message, a discovery, in there somewhere.
On the other hand: our art is influenced by our tools. But traditional tools are limited and focussed, so perhaps that’s OK.

4) What does technology mean to you as an artist? Do you think this connection will become essential in the next future?
Technology is good for replication, reproducibility, accuracy, storage, communication, amplification – so whenever a part of the creative process benefits from those aspects, it’s a good thing. I didn’t say “choice,” since I’m not sure that aspect is a creative one – or rather, it’s far too easy to use to excess. And no, none of this is essential, although technology has always been with us, from the paint used from the earliest cave paintings onwards.

Trespass-Cassiel-Shobana-Jeyasingh-Dance5) Tell us about your favourite project.
I’m not sure I have an absolute favourite. I’m fond of TooMortal, ras goffa Bobby Sands and Troop because they involved taking a dance piece on tour into different kinds of performance space, which was fun. Oh actually, perhaps Counterpoint: big, loud and summery, and beautifully choreographed.

6) Future works?
A new work with Shobana Jeyasingh: Trespass  combining choreography and robotics research. We have our first R&D session next week, and hopefully things will develop from there…


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