Thomas Hughes is Associate Director of the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry within the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University. Although Tom does not define himself as a multimedia expert, he has developed an informed opinion on the matter, which has been influenced both by personal research and by his experience in discussing innovative projects in his workplace . The STUDIO sustains “atypical, anti-disciplinary and inter-institutional arts research” created at CMU by students and faculty. It administers an endowment to finance original projects, accommodates artists, facilitates their access to resources and is committed to providing knowledge of new trends in art, technology and new media to a diversified public. AMT Lab contributor Sofia Stucchi recently sat down with Thomas to discuss his viewpoint on the conjugation of art and technology. The interview focuses on the necessity to look out for an excessive enthusiasm when approaching virtual reality for creative purposes. The exploration of new expressive forms by artists and the search for new audience development strategies by arts managers should avoid thoughtless implementation of new technologies.
SS: As the person responsible for managing the STUDIO’s programming and activities, could you give an overview of your role at the STUDIO and of your background?
TH: Our research lab mission is to support atypical interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research at the intersection of arts, technology, science and culture. I work under the Director Golan Levin, who is a faculty member at CMU and Professor of Electronic Art. He is a new media artist and is the personality who runs the STUDIO and its curatorial vision for all projects as well.
I am from Pittsburgh, I have an undergraduate degree in tridimensional art, which used to refer to things such as ceramic and glass. Afterwards I attended the CMU Master of Arts Management program. After that period I worked for a dance company, where I was marketing and managing events. Now I have been in the STUDIO for 15 months, where I basically help artists figure out complex administrative and managerial problems and assist them in finding funding. A lot of my job is trying to gather what the artist’s project is and then translating that to the funders without losing the artist’s original intention or vision in the process. I play the part of translator and advocate for the artists. In that, I have the opportunity to work with artists across pretty wide backgrounds: performance artists, dancers, visual artists, writers, movie makers, which is why I really like my position, because I get to work with a really wide variety of artists using a lot of different mediums.
I became interested in technology when I started thinking technology is essentially a tool to achieve purposes. When I was in undergraduate school, I was very focused on particular mediums, I was trained in ceramics and sculpture, I had friends who did digital art and painting. What I couldn’t understand immediately after school was that it is not much about the medium itself, but about what is the best tool and method for communicating your idea.
SS: Currently you are working on organizing the “Weird Reality” conference for the Studio. The aim of the program is to critically discuss VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality) used for broad scopes, including the Arts. Could you define these different kinds of realities?
TH: The reason why the program is called Weird Reality is because whenever you talk about that you have to talk about VR, AR, and MR. I just heard someone the other day using the term “Artificial Reality”. In a practical sense MR is when things, interactive elements, are placed into the environment, if you imagine looking through a set of glasses and seeing something in the real environment. VR is a completely artificial reality created in one head set. AR is placing a digital layer on top of a real situation, it has been around for a long time and VR has been around since the early 90s. In my opinion MR reflects the advancement in the field now. However, we do not want this conference to be specific or define categories, we want to address all these different head sets and the way they are mixed and changed in VR, but also asking: can you do something interesting with them? A lot of mass media right now is focused on the application of VR and MR for things such as video games or new ways to do film shot through 360-degree video. Technology is not something to achieve, but a tool to express an idea in an interesting way.
SS: Do you think this kind of technology could contribute to the arts in a meaningful way?
TH: I used to think ‘Oh, a new technology has come out, how could we apply it to something that exists right now?’ That feels very much like trying to push a square peg in a round hole. A lot of people tend to have reactions like ‘Oh, we need it at the art experience, we need a MR experience’. When you are just trying to apply technology because it is cool and current, I think you lose a lot of the creative drive of the project, whereas if you flip it and you get the artists and the arts organization to have something interesting to say and a virtual mix is the vehicle for them to do so, I think you have a chance for some really beautiful, creative, engaging, disturbing, crazy, weird projects.
SS: Can you provide examples of such a combination?
TH: In a small scale, one of the things we are trying to do at the STUDIO for a work with the HoloLens is an Open Source Library of Code to allow artists to rely on this library to create their own software on a Microsoft device. We are not saying to someone ‘Make something great for the HoloLens’ but ‘We have made the HoloLens a useful tool, now make something interesting’. A lot of our work starts by saying ‘Isn’t it an interesting idea?’ You cannot be inspired by the possibility of what technology can achieve, you have to go from that point of inspiration. One of the students we are working with is presenting a fantastic piece at the conference, it is called Shining 360, which has recently been mentioned by the musician Bjork as a VR inspiration for her. It is a three-dimensional environment created from the movie The Shining using different techniques exploring the gaze of the viewer.
SS: Do you think there could be relevant economic impacts on the arts from the combination of the arts and technology?
TH: There has been a combination of art and science going back centuries upon centuries. I do not really understand why people separate the two ideas. For instance, Flemish painters have been known to use different techniques with mirrors and glass; isn’t photography the combination of science and art? Printmaking is a very technical thing as well. I do not think there is a separation, however, a lot of art organizations think they can use technology to make more people interested, but it is not automatic. You must try to bring great art to people as best as you can, technology can give you the chance to do so. Great art can be made utilizing technology, but utilizing great technology will not make great art. For instance, MET Opera having simulcasts of live opera in movie theaters across the country has actually taken away from the economic value of the local opera houses and the fact that more people were attracted to opera is hard to prove. Technology is a really fascinating tool, but it is not a magic bullet. It is an amazing tool and you can achieve amazing things, but if it is not integrated as an essential part of a process of making or representing the art, it is not automatically making it economically valuable and being a real contribution. I think it is a really complex question and I do not think there is a simple answer to it. A lot of art organizations think technology is a magic bullet that could perhaps help in building audience and make people interested. I think it is not automatic, I think when you integrate technology in the way you approach things, there is a possibility to build an audience or to do something in a really fascinating new way. Great art is great art, you have to try to bring this art to people the best that you can.
SS: What is the role played specifically by VR in art creation or delivery?
TH: I don't personally know it. It is one of the big questions that will be addressed at the conference. We are bringing a lot of fascinating speakers from many different backgrounds and levels of experience with different technologies. We are trying to focus on having new, independent, marginalized voices on how creating VR will affect how people make art. However, the conference is not about making a statement. There is a couple of things we are not trying to do: we are not trying to say which head set is the best, which technology is the best, or which kind of VR is the greatest experience, we are not trying to give a definitive answer. We are interested in seeking out, in asking people questions and exploring possibilities. Discussing, sharing, pushing things forward make amazing things happen. For example, one of the most exciting things that is happening in new media is how people are using the so called "machine learning", which is to say teaching a machine how to think, to create very advanced projects. When they figured out how to do it, they share it on the Internet. There is this very healthy culture online of people creating ideas while making projects and sharing them. What is most fascinating is that many media artists make amazing projects and, instead of putting a period when they solve the problem, they prefer a comma and continue to the next step.
Keep an eye out for more coverage on the Weird Reality "Art and Code" conference on AMT Lab later this month