The Artist’s Digital Transformation

A lot of tweets and comments in class show my interest on the impact of digital transformation on the creative process. My interest in the potential for technology to transform how people create and experience content goes back to my undergraduate studies at Oberlin College, where I designed an independent major that combined computer science, film/video and studio art. This was essentially a degree in “Multimedia Studies” before institutions were offering such things. Years later, my time as a graduate student at MassArt really informed me of the process of launching digital based content properties, as well as the R&D behind such work.

In this blog post, I’ll share some examples of creative work that leverages technology. Note, I’m not examining distribution channels (streaming vs in person) nor monetization of digital art via crypto strategies like NFTs, but instead looking at how creatives have leveraged digital technologies to create work that wasn’t possible before. And while I want to focus on the now, I do think it’s important to provide some context with a couple of historical examples.

Early digital based art work in the 1960s & ‘70s was limited to “digital visualizations” (ie digital painting/drawing). A lot of pioneering technology based work was still analog based via video and satellite experiments. WGBH–right here in Boston–offered artists like Nam June Paik access to equipment to experiment with some results broadcast on WGBH. While not strictly digital, artists like Paik challenged the established rules of how new technologies were meant to be used, often with an eye at destabilizing the power dynamics of what voices/ideas have access to “broadcast” via TV or radio. This “medium for the masses” message is prescient when one considers some of the early promises of the internet in the 1990s, in terms of the democratization of access and authorship.

Still from Nam June Paik’s Video Commune, 1970

Marina Isgro, in writing for the Tate Modern’s site, described Paik’s four hour 1970 piece, Video Commune, that featured a narrator, Russell Connor:

About an hour in, Connor’s voice returns: ‘Dear audience, this is participation TV. Your TV set is not there just to be watched passively, but to be played with actively.’ He then gives instructions to home viewers, explaining how they can modify the colour, brightness, and other aspects of the image using the knobs on their television sets – in effect hijacking controls meant to correct the picture and turning them into creative editing tools.

The advent of the interactive potential of networks, both wired and wireless, sparked a wealth of interesting work at the turn of the century. Scalability was a factor – there were systems in place in terms of network and storage such that it was feasible to explore concepts on a smaller scale. 

In 2001, a German collective The Chaos Computer Club developed a project that leveraged existing SMS messaging capabilities, simple web sites and crude graphics, albeit on a large scale, to create an interactive public art experience. In essence, the face of a building in Berlin was transformed into a low resolution monitor through the installation of a number of lights connected to circuit relays. A computer rendered simple images and animations to play out on the building, but the truly groundbreaking part was that visitors could use their phones to either send messages or play video games on the screen. Project Blinkenlights launched over 20 years ago and while the technological tools used might seem quaint now, it’s still such an effective participatory work of art.

That participatory nature–engaging the audience and activating a space–is something most artists strive to do, instead of delivering a set message or piece. There’s a lot of interesting work happening right now in our area and so I want to highlight two pieces that each utilize a specific technology we’ve discussed: AI and VR, respectively.

At MIT’s Open Documentary Lab, Algerian-American documentary filmmaker Assia Boundaoui is developing work exploring her identity as Muslim-American growing up in a community in Chicago that she described as being “under government surveillance.” She discovered there was indeed a domestic terror FBI operation that focused on her neighborhood and as part of her work she filed numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to gain access to what the FBI reported. Her requests were granted, but in the thousands of documents she was able to access, much of the information was redacted.

So she set to work with members of her community to help fill in those gaps by creating a multimedia installation as part of a body of work titled Inverse Surveillance. Boundaoui also incorporated AI to fill in those redacted gaps, as she explains:

The idea to use artificial intelligence in the Inverse Surveillance project by coding a machine learning algorithm to imagine what might be behind the redacted spaces in the FOIA records. This data set will be made up of two parts: it’ll be historical, and the other part will be anecdotal from the community. The historical part tries to pull together all of the records that have been released from the FBI records of the [historical] surveillance of communities of color, and take that unredacted record and use it to try to imagine what might be behind the redacted spaces in the records of my community. The second part of the data set is the idea to have people share their stories in non traditional ways, in story circles and different ways in the community, in ways that don’t re traumatize people, but offer a way, a path towards healing that also is a benefit to people.  

These data sets will help the machine learn, and we can begin to imagine a new narrative in that redacted space.

It’s beyond simply just predicting what information is redacted. We’re  co-creating with AI to create a counter narrative, using people’s recollections, using people’s lived experiences.

Another interesting offshoot of this project, was a collaboration she did with artist Robin Bell to take some of these reconstructed redactions and then project them onto FBI buildings, thereby taking what is deemed secret and classified and sharing that in an open public space, literally activating the space.

In closing, I must mention a VR piece I had the privilege to experience: The Chalk Room, a collaboration between artists Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang. Until COVID, it was being exhibited (somewhat) locally at MASS MoCA, in North Adams, MA. I had a chance to explore the piece when out there a couple of years ago and it was a true paradigm shift in terms of experiencing a creative work. 

Laurie Anderson, The Chalkroom, 2017
Virtual reality installation with Hsin-Chien Huang

Users enter a dark room that is covered in white drawings and graffiti (hence “the chalk room”) and don VR headsets that show, bizarrely, a rendered space of that dark room with chalk drawings. You are literally looking at a VR representation of the space you are in… and then the walls collapse, you are floating in space and things get WILD.  You freely explore this amazing world where you can control sights and sounds, often manipulating words and drawings as if they are elemental DNA strands. It’s really hard to describe, but when I took off the headset, I really felt like I’d experienced some sort of other-worldly phenomenon. It’s worth making the trip to MASS MoCA to see (heck, it’s worth heading to MASS MoCA just to see a wealth of really amazing work!)


  1. Kanal Patel · ·

    Great Post Ravi! As I was reading it I thought of the immersive Van Gogh Exhibition that brings his art to life. Its amazing how we are able to change the experience of art. In case you are interested: I also love how more and more exhibitions now incorporate a digital aspect to bring the artwork to “life.” Of course traditional art work is beautiful as it is, but its great to experience it differently as well.

    1. Thanks for the heads up on the Van Gogh! It would be interesting to see how institutions leverage technology to bring awareness to “static art” like painting vs. artists that embrace new technologies as their delivery platform.

      If the Van Gogh exhibit encourages people to then seek out actual Van Gogh pieces in person, I would call that a success. If however people feel like they don’t need to do that based on seeing something like this immersive exhibit, I might question the success of the venture (from a purely artistic POV).

  2. Shannon Reardon · ·

    The ChalkRoom seems like an incredible piece of artwork. Allowing art to function apart from the physical piece, in my eyes remains the greatest progression of art. Digital photography, or in this case virtual reality art, brings a whole new experience to art and I appreciated your exploration of its current state. I’ve also heard of AI artwork, where algorithms are programmed to generate artwork, so it will be interesting to see how that will affect pricing and the unique individuality of art.

  3. shanpopzaruba · ·

    This was a lovely read! Honestly you convinced me to schedule my next trip to the Mass MoCA, but now I am curious about how the rest of the creative world is moving forward in best utilizing digital transformation in their work. Assia Boundaoui seems like a wonderful person to follow and see what work she will create. Thank you for the recommendations!

  4. Carlos Montero · ·

    Ravi, what an excellent topic! The videos were a great way to visualize, and the Berlin people seemed to have a great time! I wonder if you had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh art exposition in Boston. I heard great things about it, and I think this will be right up your alley.

  5. This is such an interesting approach to digital transformation. I usually think of art as being one of the few aspects of our society that will remain untouched by digital transformation (outside of monetary means such as NFTs). But your post illustrates how the art world has embraced digitalization for over 50 years and continues to innovate. Pre-pandemic I visited Mass Moca and experienced my first VR headset art exhibit. I had no ideas what to expect (and honestly had low expectations), and surprisingly found myself completely immersed in the exhibit. I look forward to revisiting Mass Moca and seeing the new digital exhibits they’re offering.

  6. llamadelmar · ·

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and how new art forms have spurred because of technology. One thing that came to mind is about art critics. They tend to be highly critical of established art forms and styles but have they established a standard of how to interpret and interact with digital art? Or has there been a shift since digital art seems to lean more into art that embodies experiences?

  7. DownEastDigital · ·

    I appreciated the way you started this blog because almost immediately I started thinking about NFT’s. It’s so easy to focus on what’s most relevant and ‘in’ right now but the roots of what we’re learning about are even more interesting sometimes to me. I was surprised Blinkenlights was in 2001, really crazy how far digital art on buildings has come in such a short time. I think it’s only a matter of time before there’s more AR incorporated into these types of public exhibits. I had never heard of the MASS MoCA and have added that to the list of places I’d like to check out…quite the hike to get out there though!

  8. Christina S · ·

    This was so interesting! I admittedly haven’t paid much attention to how the art world is evolving, particularly after the infamous banana art installation at Art Basel a few years ago (haha), so I appreciate learning quite a great deal from your post. One thing, unrelated to art, that came to mind when reading about Boundaoui’s project is how governments will need to evolve to better keep their classified information classified! I hadn’t realized how much easier it would be now to infer the redacted information from AI and ML – maybe that’s what spurred all of those declassified documents about UFOs last year.

  9. lexgetdigital · ·

    This is a really cool post, Ravi! The FOIA piece caught my eye the most as I’ve done research into how to challenge FOIA redactions. It’s not an ease feat. I also worked on a pro bono case challenging some of the government secrets doctrine that supports those redactions. While these rules are generally in place to protect the public, there are spaces for challenging them and I am glad that Assia Boundaoui decided to do so in a creative way. There’s a fine line, but it looks like she did it with the right intentions (civil disobedience).

    1. Thanks for sharing your insights Lexie. I can imagine just how much time she had to spend on those FOIA requests! Like any entrepreneurial venture, I learned in art school that doing the actual “it” (making art) is often just a small slice of everything one has to do to in order to succeed.

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