Meet the new pioneers of digital art
Written By Polly Checkland Harding
From collaborative studios to 'ultratechnologists', we look at some of Marshmallow Laser Feast's contemporaries – all leading the way in digital art.
It’s hard to imagine that the great Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, who died in 1926, could have foreseen the mathematical techniques he used to design the Sagrada Família being drawn upon again in 2017, by a digital art collective called Marshmallow Laser Feast. Less still that the result – when combined with cutting-edge robotic technologies and perceptual research – would be an installation called ‘IRIS’, premiering at The Lowry, in which lasers are choreographed to create sculptural shapes out of the darkness.
However, this approach is shared by other artists and collectives working at the forefront of digital art today. Although they use some of the most advanced technology in the world, they also continue to draw on enduring logic, and are inspired by ancient phenomena.
Art Inspired By Trees And Water
Where IRIS plays with how we gather visual cues to construct our sense of shape, Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF)’s other work has recruited technology to unlock new perspectives on the natural world. ‘Treehugger: Wawona’ (2016) allows audiences to follow the journey of water droplets down the length of a 100m-tall giant Sequoia tree via a virtual reality headset, travelling a stunning scanned replica from the canopy to the buried roots. By contrast, MLF’s award-winning ‘In the Eyes of the Animal’ (2015) shifts viewpoint, facilitating a 360° experience of the sensory perspectives of an owl, dragonfly or frog moving through a forest.
Interdisciplinary group of ‘ultratechnologists’ teamLab go one step further, creating nature-based artworks that directly respond to human interaction: enter one unlit installation and, if you stand very still, luminous flowers will bloom on your body through projection mapping (‘Flowers Bloom on People’, 2017). Situating the viewer directly within an artwork, as when an animated waterfall parts the moment you step into it (‘Universe of Water Particles’, 2013-17), teamLab redefine the usual boundaries between audience and exhibit. By prioritising individual interactions and allowing the viewer to instigate change, the group is exploring the concept of Ultra Subjective Space, a theory that suggests that encounters with art might come to influence the way people perceive space more generally.
Human Perception And Digital Ventriloquism
As well as creating something of a parallel to teamLab’s waterfall in their famous ‘Rain Room’ (2012), collaborative studio Random International have undertaken more localised inquiries into perception. Their international commissions include ‘Fifteen Points / I’ (2016), an experiment in the minimal amount of information required for a moving form to be recognised as human. Fifteen robotically steered points of light outline the shape of a walking person, with even the tiniest adjustment causing the form to revert back into an unidentifiable arrangement. An exercise in digital distillation, ‘Fifteen Points / I’ is the inverse of complex CGI.
For artist Ed Atkins, however, the devil is in the details; his self-proclaimed “super-viciously artificial” artworks rely on hyper-realistic effects to create, for instance, an avatar inhabited by actors, musicians and artists at Manchester International Festival 2015. Titled ‘Performance Capture’, this piece digitally maps the facial movements of the performers onto a white, male head, created using special effects. In the process, they are pointedly defaced; the expressions and words of people from a range of genders and races are ventriloquised through a computer-generated model that Atkins describes as representing “the protagonist of empowered, homogenised cultural normalcy.” Pieces like ‘Performance Capture’ have led to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist calling Atkins “one of the great artists of our time.”
Monuments In Light
Alongside deeply personal VR experiences and gallery-based artworks, digital artists are making increasingly large interventions into the public realm. This is partly due to the efforts of organisations like Quays Culture, whose large-scale events on Salford Quays include a wind-responsive installation by Squidsoup of over 12,000 individual LEDs, and Lumiere in Durham, the UK’s largest annual light festival. Monumental artworks are also being backed by both funders and the public; American artist Leo Villareal saw his 1.8 mile-long installation of 25,000 white LED lights on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge become a permanent feature by popular demand in January 2016.
In December of the same year, the Mayor of London announced that Villareal was also the winner of a competition to create a free permanent light installation along London’s bridges. ‘Current’, created with architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands and curators Future\Pace, will see environmentally friendly LEDs attached to the cables and outer faces of select bridges, with washes of paint in colours inspired by the palettes of Impressionist masters on the sides and undersides. Site-specific programming will adjust to echo the river’s reflection of sunsets, moonshine and sunrise. Inspired by classical artists and digitally organic, ‘Current’ is the next landmark artwork to marry the most advanced human technology with natural forces still far beyond our control.