Joshua McLucas

Art + Tech: Stronger Together

September 02, 2016

Estimated Time to Read: 4 minutes

There are few visitors to my website who are interested in both sides of what I do. Even I have, historically, not been interested in both software engineering and theater in the same sentence. The closest I’ve come to a synthesis of the two disciplines is making websites for [redacted] and being asked jokingly to act out my favorite JavaScript function in an interview. Lately, however, I’ve been desperately seeking a way to meld the two, clamoring for some way for art and technology to synthesize.

I am, of course, a relative novice to the these scenes; I haven’t yet held a full-time software engineering job for one year, and my perspectives on the art world at large are colored almost entirely by my role in theater. Nevertheless, I am beginning to think that tech holds a key (there may be more than one) to breaking the barriers between the contemporary art world and the so-called “real world”.

This assertion will surely make performing artists uncomfortable. We thrive on the “real-ness” and “live-ness” of our art. Theater is theater precisely because it’s bodies on stage; technological advances are the domain of film and photography and obscuring the connection between audience and art is antithetical to our pursuit. Similar things could be said of dance, live music, and other disciplines. I mostly agree with these thoughts.

Tech Meets Life

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that technology is a new extension of personhood. We are attached to our phones, and we conduct entire relationships, full of nuance and complication and truth, via the Internet. Our brains have urges to text, ‘Gram, Snap, and Google and our fingers know how to navigate an app without ever seeing it in action. We remain wholly human, but technology is woven into our social and cultural fiber. This is neither better nor worse than generations prior - we’ve sacrificed some face-to-face interaction in favor of access to a boundless wealth of knowledge and instant connections.

To believe that live performance is superior to the consumption of technologically-enabled experiences is a form of cultural arrogance and pretension that pushes audiences away. As a theater artist, I certainly believe in the value of uninterrupted live exchange, but placing this above technologically-mediated interactions ignores the massive cultural shift of the 21st century. Continuing to do so surely makes theater increasingly insular and self-congratulatory. If audiences no longer have attention spans to make it through a two-hour Shakespeare production without their phones, we have two choices: make better theater, or exploit that technological connection. If artists could accomplish the former, this conversation would never have begun.

Integrating technology into the creative process need not invalidate the purity of a performance. I am not suggesting that we begin by throwing tech into performances. It is precisely the reckless addition of “cool stuff” without consideration of its impact on a project that renders those elements useless. The phenomenon of Tweet Seats seems to me a particularly trite and counter-productive example of tech in the arts.

In-show tech is just one way for tech to have an impact. Space for tech also exists before a piece begins, after it ends, or as a parallel experience for the live, bodies-only performance. In most cases, it’s probably still useful to ask people to turn off their phones before a show. But, we should not be afraid to admit that sometimes a phone in a hand is just what a piece needs. [redacted]’s first show, Juniper Street, forged true friendships between our characters and our audience, partially by sending the texts our characters sent each other to our audience members too.

Access Is Key

I speak as though technology occupies a set, understood space in everyone’s life. It, of course, does not.

There are numerous issues of access to technology, but these issues are mostly the same ones that apply to the arts. Urban areas are hotbeds for art and technology alike, and poorer/rural folks typically don’t get equal exposure to both of those things. Who has access to these tools is just as important as how they are used. Unifying the arts and technology will not solve these access issues. But maybe bridging the two communities will allow for inventive solutions.

Access concerns creators and audience members alike. In bringing the art and tech worlds together, it will be critical that all types of makers converse and collaborate. If tech is reserved only for those most-established makers, its benefits will only be felt by that scene’s elite class.

What Next?

So, how do we facilitate collaboration between these two wonderful communities?

I don’t yet have a strong idea to propose. One or more will certainly arise as I digest these thoughts and write this series. For now, what I’m offering is the notion that the knowledge and budgetary gaps between the arts and technology need not be permanent. It is up to us - the artists, the technologists, those of us who fit both labels - to work to shrink these gaps until the question of “Should I integrate technology into this project?” becomes as common as “Should I clothe my actors?”, even if the answer is often ‘no’. This is as much an end in itself as a means toward solving the problems of the world that both the art and tech communities are individually tackling.

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