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Art and Technology

From the 20th century until now

The contemporary perception of technology is often limited to computer and internet-related interactions. However, the definition of technology is much broader and encompasses scientific knowledge used in practical ways to develop techniques, skills, or methods. Technology has been present since the invention of stone tools over two million years ago and includes a wide range of engineering beyond modern-day developments.

In the previous curation of the art and technology series, we presented the correlation between art and technology spanning from the early Renaissance period to the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Through this exploration, we discovered that technology's evolution across history has impacted art in several ways, from the utilization of technology as a direct source to the depiction of societal transformations brought about by technological progress. If you prefer to read our previous curation first, here is the link: Art and Technology Part I: From Renaissance to Industrial Revolution.

The interplay between art and technology continues to be relevant today, especially with the significant technological advancements of the 20th century, which include photography, television, and the Internet. In the contemporary era, we have become even more familiar with cutting-edge technologies, such as Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and NFT technology. In Art and Technology Part II: From the 20th century until now, we will delve into how this relationship has evolved from the early 20th century to the present day.

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1. Futurism and the Russian avant-garde

2. Photography, Film and TV

3. Computer and the Internet

4. VR, AI, and NFTs

Futurism and the Russian avant-garde

As technologies developed, art also continued to transform and the 20th century saw prevalent changes in the intersection of art and technology. Both Futurism and the Russian avant-garde embraced the new technologies and industrialization of their time. They were adamant that innovations such as cars, first mass produced by the Ford Motor Company in 1908, could lead to a more dynamic society. This atmosphere was reflected in their artwork. Believing that the power of art lies in shaping and influencing the world with an experimental attitude to create modern aesthetics inspired by the machine age, the artists of the two movements had a tendency to reject traditional forms and outdated ideas.

Emerging in early 20th century Italy at the dawn of World War I, Futurism was a movement that celebrated the possibilities of technology and the machine age. Many of the Futurists were initially supportive of the war, seeing it as an opportunity to bring about radical change and revolutionize society. However, as the war dragged on and the devastation and human suffering became more apparent, some Futurist artists began to question their previous support for war and violence.

Giacomo Balla
Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912
Buffalo AKG Art Museum, Buffalo, NY

Futurist artists celebrated modern life's speed, dynamism, and energy, aiming to capture innovation and progress. Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912) expresses the violence, speed, and destruction of war using simultaneity, a key technique of Futurism. The Futurists viewed war as a vital force to dismantle the old and create a dynamic society. Their art reflected the celebration of war's power and energy.

Umberto Boccioni
The City Rises, 1910
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The City Rises (1910) by another Futurist artist, Umberto Boccioni, depicts a construction site with workers and horses. Fragmented and abstracted, the image contains multiple perspectives and overlapping forms. The painting can be interpreted as a celebration of the power of industrialization and the military-industrial complex. The piece is a reflection on the belief in the transformative power of technology and the desire to create a new, more modern world.

The outbreak of World War I had a profound impact on the Russian avant-garde, as many artists in the movement saw the war as evidence of the failure of traditional art and culture. At the same time, the Russian avant-garde was deeply engaged with technology and the possibilities it offered for artistic expression. They were experimenting with new forms of media such as photography, film, and graphic design. The Russian avant-garde's relationship with technology was not always straightforward. The rise of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist regime led to a shift in the movement due to artists being forced to create art that was propagandistic and in service of the state.

Vladimir Tatlin
Model for Monument to the Third International constructed by Tevel Shapiro, Sofia Dymshits-Tolstaia, Iosif Meerzon, and Pavel Vinogradov under Tatlin’s direction, 1920 / reconstruction 1979
Courtesy of CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York

Unlike many Russian avant-garde artists who embraced wars, Vladimir Tatlin rejected the celebration of war. Instead, he focused on creating art that could serve the construction of a new society. Tatlin conceived a framework of the Monument to the Third International, which would have functioned as the Soviet Union’s power and progress. Though never realized, Tatlin’s design embodied the fascination with technology and its potential for innovative art forms.

Alexander Rodchenko (Aleksandr Rodchenko)
Composition, 1919
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Russian avant-garde artist Alexander Rodchenko was known for embracing the new visual language of the machine age in his works. He often implemented geometric shapes, bold colors, and the dynamic lines of industrial design in his pieces. Rodchenko's photomontages are a striking example of his interest in technology and modernity, as he used photography and collage techniques to create images that combined different perspectives and viewpoints, resulting in a sense of movement and energy reminiscent of the technological advances of the time.

Photography, Film and TV

The further advancement of the camera in the 20th century was a key technological development which had a significant impact on the world of art. With the ability to capture and reproduce images with unprecedented accuracy and detail, photography became an important medium for artists. After the first mass-production of the camera with the Kodak No.1 in 1888, photography became more accessible to the general public. The portable camera was introduced in the early 20th century, including the first 35mm camera, the Leica. Later, the digital camera was invented in 1975 by Steve Sasson at Eastman Kodak, launching a revolution of the camera not only in everyday use but also in contemporary art.

The development of film from photography was a significant technological advancement that revolutionized the way we capture and view images. Before the invention of film, movements through photographs were only achievable by taking pictures with high-speed cameras and putting the images next to each other in a precise order; Eadweard J. Muybridge’s photographs demonstrate this well. A motion picture device called cinématographe, which could record, develop and project motion pictures, was introduced by the Lumière brothers in the late 19th century. With the popularization and mass supply of the television later in the 20th century, people were eventually able to enjoy films from the comfort of their own homes.

The first successful photograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce View of the Window at Le Gras, 1816
In Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas, Austin

French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce experimented with a printing technique called lithography in 1813. He coated pewter with various light-sensitive substances to copy superimposed engravings in sunlight. After several attempts, Niépce was able to capture the first permanent "photograph," a view from his house in Chalons-sur-Saône, France, which required several days of exposure. However, he and others at the time could only see it as a kind of etching or drawing, calling it heliography, meaning drawing with the sun.

Gelatin silver prints were the dominant form of photography from early 20th century through mid-20th century. They were made by exposing a light-sensitive paper coated with gelatin and silver salts to light, and then developed by submerging the paper in a chemical solution. Color photography was also in the works from early 20th century, with a history tracing back to 1861 when Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Sutton experimented with black and white photographs taken through red, green, and blue filters. Due to the complex process and high cost, color photography was slower at advancing, and it was not until the 1960s, when Kodak’s Instamatic cameras were introduced with easy-to-load 26mm films, that color photography became affordable for the masses.

Alfred Stieglitz
The Steerage, 1907, printed in or before 1913
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Steerage is a gelatin silver print photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1907. It is considered one of the most important photographs of the 20th century for its complex composition of diagonal lines and geometric shapes. Stieglitz faced technical obstacles due to the slow sensitivity of photographic materials at the time. To achieve desired depth of field and detail, he used a small aperture and long exposure, posing challenges for capturing moving subjects. Despite the technical challenges, Stieglitz succeeded in creating an iconic image that elevated photography as a respected art form and inspired others to explore its boundaries.

As color photography became more popular and affordable to use from the 1960s, there was a shift from black and white photography, which was considered more “artistic”, to more vibrant color photography. The technology behind color photography is based on the principle of mixing the primary colors, red, green, and blue (RGB), to create a full range of colors. Color films use multi-layered sensitive photographic materials that project images when exposed to light, and digital cameras use sensors to capture color images and process the result.

Richard Hamilton
Swingeing London 67 (f), 1968-69
Tate, London

Artists began to incorporate color photography into their work, especially in pop art. The integration of photography and art validated it as more than just documentation or journalism, establishing it as a legitimate medium in fine art. Richard Hamilton would sometimes use color photography in his works, such as in Swingeing London 67 (f) (1968-69), where an image of Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser in handcuffs is cropped and enlarged from a newspaper article. Utilizing acrylic paint, paper, and canvas, the work exemplifies the diverse potential of photography as a versatile artistic source.

Auguste and Louis Lumière
Still from Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, 1895

The groundbreakers of film are undeniably the Lumière brothers (Auguste and Louis Lumière), who are renowned as the pioneers of photographic equipment and who developed an early motion picture camera and projector called the cinématographe. Their initial public screening in 1895 at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, where 33 spectators watched several short films, was a surprise beyond all expectations. When the first audience watched a 50-second film named Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895), depicting the train coming to a stop in front of the station, the viewers screamed and ran from the screen as they had never seen such a sight before.

Georges Méliès
A Trip to the Moon, 1902

The emergence of cinema in the early 1900s paved the way for artists to experiment with the possibilities of film as an art form. One of the earliest examples of this is the work of French filmmaker Georges Méliès, who created some of the first special effects in film using techniques such as stop-motion animation and superimposition. His film A Trip to the Moon (1902) is a classic example of early cinema and is still widely recognized as a masterpiece of the medium.

In the mid-20th century, an increasing number of artists began to utilize the medium of film to explore new forms of expression and to create works that challenged traditional notions of art. In Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1966), a split screen technique is used to create abstract and multidimensional narratives. While this avant-garde technique was used by various artists in the early days of cinema in the 1920s to experiment with and explore filmmaking, it became more popular in the 1960s and 1970s amongst contemporary artists of the time.

Andy Warhol
Still from The Chelsea Girls, 1966
© The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, a museum of Carnegie Institute
All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

A family watches TV together in 1958
Frank Martin/BIPS/GETTY IMAGES

Before the 1960s, televisions used vacuum tubes to amplify and control the flow of signals. With the development of transistor technology, which was less bulky and more affordable, smaller and more efficient televisions could be manufactured. In the 1980s and 1990s, the development of digital technology enabled the introduction of more advanced televisions such as Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) and Plasma displays. This allowed for larger screen sizes and the picture quality also increased.

Nam June Paik
Magnet TV, 1965
© Nam June Paik Estate
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Nam June Paik is a pioneering figure in video art, who revolutionized the field through innovative use of technology, particularly television and video. Paik manipulated television sets, creating abstract patterns and images solely through technological means. His work Magnet TV (1965) utilized a magnet to distort the broadcast image, causing random changes. In the 1990s, he continued to explore the television medium, crafting large-scale installations and sculptures incorporating multiple TV screens and electronic components. Paik's influence on video art and artists working with new media remains significant.

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Virtual Visit

Nam June Paik solo exhibition at Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong (Sep 24 - Oct 23, 2021)

Computer and the Internet

It is not an exaggeration to say that the computer and the Internet have become essential technologies. Moving away from the analogue into the digital age, computer technology saw rapid development and evolution throughout the 20th century. Some of the key milestones and advancements in computer technology during this time period include IBM’s release of the first mass-produced computer in 1952; the first personal computer (PC) in 1975; the advent of the Internet in the late 1980s that revolutionized communication; and the rise of mobile computing and the development of smartphones. The Internet has revolutionized communications and methods of commerce by allowing various computer networks around the world to interconnect. The history of the Internet as a communication network dates back to the invention of the telegraph in 1836, which marked the start of the revolutionary development of modern communication.

The development of computer technology and the Internet has not only transformed communication and commerce but also opened up new avenues for artistic expression. Its advent began with the creation of machines that could perform complicated calculations, and continued through the 20th century with the invention of other digital technologies such as softwares for computer generated imagery (CGI). In the 1980s, personal computers were introduced alongside Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, which made it possible for artists to experiment with complex compositions. 3D computer graphics further encouraged the use of software tools to manipulate space, as well as create sculptures through computer programming.

Vera Molnár
55 carrées après ouragan 12.33.37, 1974
Programming - printing on paper listing
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Denise René, Paris

Computer art can take on various forms, including the use of programming languages to produce generative art. One of the pioneers in this field is Hungarian-born artist Vera Molnár, who first gained access to a computer in 1968 and taught herself how to program. Molnár’s computer-generated artworks often contain geometric shapes or patterns, which are created by using algorithms that determine the final image in a way that is unique and unpredictable.

Hong Seung-Hye
Aerial Gala, 2020
Courtesy of the artist

Contemporary Korean artist Hong Seung-Hye creates abstract art using digital pixels generated by computer software. Her immersive installations merge physical and digital elements, inviting viewers to engage with a multi-sensory experience. While her works may seem austere and impersonal, Hong injects emotion by animating pixelated geometric shapes that respond to music. Alongside their visual allure, her pieces often delve into themes of memory and identity, influenced by her personal experiences and cultural background.

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Virtual Visit

Seunghye Hong, Point·Line·Plane at Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul (Dec 13, 2016 - Apr 16, 2017)

The development of the Internet can be traced back to the 1960s, when the United States Department of Defense initiated a research project called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) to create a communication network that could withstand a nuclear attack. Following that, in the 1980s, a new communication technology was developed so computers on different networks could “talk” to each other. Eventually, in August 1991, the first website was born, introducing the concept of hyperlinks which marked the foundation of online information for the contemporary era. The Internet has revolutionized communications and methods of commerce by interconnecting the world.

Olia Lialina
Still from My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, 1996
Whitechapel Gallery, London

The Internet provided artists with a new platform for sharing their work and reaching a global audience. Browser art, a subgenre of Internet art, emerged in the mid-1990s, was created specifically to be viewed through a web browser. Some artists use browser art to explore the medium's potential, while others utilize it for social or political commentary. Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996) is an early hypertext net artwork, requiring audience participation by clicking elements in the browser window to unfold the narrative.

The rise of social media platforms further expanded the way we interact with technology and one another. Internet sites such as MySpace and YouTube provided alternative platforms for art, allowing artists to express themselves and self-promote. Other forms of social media like Instagram and TikTok have become increasingly popular in the recent years. Although this phenomenon has opened up even more opportunities and possibilities for artists, enabling art professionals and collectors to expand their horizons, concerns eventually arose about the authenticity of online identities and their impact and influences.

Amalia Ulman, one of Excellences and Perfections series, Instagram Update 2014
Courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Missa, London

The increasing accessibility of mobile devices has expanded social media platforms, enabling real-time sharing of experiences. Amalia Ulman, a multimedia artist, explored identity and technology in her 2014 project Excellences & Perfections. Ulman created a fictional character, an aspiring “it-girl” in LA and documented her seemingly glamorous life on Instagram, amassing nearly 90,000 followers, later revealing it was a performance critiquing gender stereotypes. The performative nature of social media, challenged traditional art notions, while showcasing how the platform can be a tool for artists to examine the impact of technology on our lives.

VR, AI, and NFTs

In the final destination of this curation, we will explore the latest technologies related to computer science, such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence and NFTs. Many contemporary artists effectively incorporate new technologies into their practice to express their emotions and experiences, or to enhance the appearance of their work. In some ways, these works are similar to traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture, but they may be difficult to recognize as “art”work as they involve different approaches towards the audience.

VR exhibition tour of Between the Earth and Sky at Kasmin Gallery, New York

The definition of Virtual Reality (VR) can encompass a wide range of concepts, from how the space is interpreted to in terms of real/virtual, to modern day technology. In this case, the focus is on the latter, as a high-tech method that simulates 3D environment. This technology enables users to explore and interact with an immersive virtual surrounding in a way that approximates reality as it is perceived through the users' senses. Currently, standard virtual reality systems use either virtual reality headsets or multi-projected environments to generate some realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user's physical presence in a virtual environment.

Illustration of Pygmalion's Spectacles by Stanley Weinbaum, 1838

The concept of VR was first introduced all the way back in 1838 through the first stereoscope by Sir Charles Wheatstone. A century later in 1935, American sci-fi writer Stanley Weinbaum presented a fictional model for VR in his short story Pygmalion's Spectacles, depicting a special pair of goggles that lets the wearer experience a fictional world through holographics, smell, taste and touch, giving rise to a feeling of virtual reality.

Hito Steyerl
Virtual Leonardo’s Submarine, 2020
© The artist / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022
Image © Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl is a contemporary artist who explores the intersection of technology, media, and society. One of her recent projects, Virtual Leonardo's Submarine (2020), was initially created as a video installation for the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, but has now been transformed into a VR work. When inside the VR, viewers are transported underwater, surrounded by marine life, and joined by the artist's avatar, while a voice speaks about topics like technology, power, corruption, art, and war. This VR experience embodies Steyerl's idea of "Bubble Vision," which places viewers at the center of a digital world and raises questions about how invisible systems and automation affect people.

Rachel Rossin
Boo-hoo (brain), 2020
Courtesy of the artist and Magenta Plains, New York

Rachel Rossin, a New York-based artist, is a self-taught programmer whose multi-disciplinary practice has established her as a pioneer in the field of virtual reality. She combines traditional art-making techniques such as painting and sculpture with new technology, including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), to examine the boundaries between the hyperreal and the imaginary. Rossin utilizes an imagery of mechanical supports and asks the question: what do we lose in the process of turning reality into simulation, and simulation back into reality?

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Virtual Visit

Rachel Rossin, Boohoo Stamina at Magenta Plains, New York (Apr 17 - May 22, 2021)

John McCarthy, who helped pioneer computer chess, playing a match against a computer in 1966
Courtesy of CHUCK PAINTER/STANFORD NEWS SERVICE

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the ability of computers to perform tasks that were once only achievable by humans. This includes activities like recognizing, analyzing, and inferring information. The term was first coined in 1956 by American mathematician John McCarthy, along with his colleagues Nathaniel Rochester and Claude E. Shannon, in a paper presented at the Dartmouth Conference. McCarthy was one of the early pioneers of computing and collaborated with other influential figures, such as British researcher Alan Turing, to develop one of the first chess-playing programs.

A few years before the terminology was minted in 1956, English mathematician Alan Turing looked into the machine’s ability to learn from experience, and later proposed the central concept of artificial intelligence in a report entitled ‘Intelligent Machinery’ during a public lecture in 1947. Turing is also known as the founder of the Turing test, a method of figuring out whether the computer is capable of thinking like a human being by finding figures, probability and similarity associations between the two different components in a specified context.

Julian van Dieken
A Girl With Glowing Earrings, 2023
Courtesy of the artist

AI is one of the latest technologies to be involved with art. The rise of machine learning and other AI-based technologies have led to the development of new forms of generative art that rely on more sophisticated algorithms and data learning abilities. AI is used both as a method and subject matter by contemporary artists to further experiment with the technology and address issues around ethics and authorship. Concerns about how the use of AI may influence the role of human artists in the art world have also emerged.

Installation view of Ian Cheng: Emissaries at Museum of Modern Art, New York (2017)
Photo: Pablo Enriquez

Ian Cheng stands out among celebrated artists who utilize AI technology in their artwork and practice due to his focus on exploring the intersection between technology, art, and artificial life. Cheng employs simulations and computer-generated environments to create immersive installations, challenging our perceptions of reality. He is particularly intrigued by "live simulations," computer-generated systems that can evolve and change over time, which he views as a means of creating artificial life-forms that offer insights into the workings of our world. This concept is central to his Emissary trilogy (2015-2017) and BOB (Bag Of Beliefs) (2018-2019) series.

Vvzela Kook
Confidential Records: Execution, 2019
Courtesy of the artist

Hong Kong-based artist, Vvzela Kook imagines a future where humanity and AI coexist in Confidential Records, ongoing since 2016. The series is based on the history of Kowloon Walled City, an old city in Hong Kong, using which she creates a fictional narrative while constructing notable futuristic cityscapes. Built through spatial and sensorial manipulation of the exhibition environment, the artwork includes 3D-printed objects, videos, and interactive installations.

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Virtual Visit

Vvzela Kook, Confidential Records: Overwrite at Para Site, Hong Kong (Dec 5, 2020 - Apr 25, 2021)

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, have gained significant attention as a novel type of digital asset. They are able to leverage blockchain technology to provide unique verification, ensuring authenticity and exclusivity. NFTs have become popular in various sectors, including art, music, sports, and finance, as they offer unparalleled security and originality. In the contemporary art scene, NFTs provide artists with a new means to monetize and sell their digital creations, while collectors can own and invest in exclusive pieces of art with a higher level of transparency and trust. The ownership of an NFT grants collectors a unique piece that cannot be replicated, thereby increasing its value and exclusivity.

Jeremy Deller
Still from The Last Day, 2021
© Jeremy Deller

British artist Jeremy Deller, known for his innovative and socially-engaged artworks, expanded his artistic practice by exploring the use of NFTs. In his work The Last Day (2021), Deller's approach to NFTs stood out from many other NFT artists as his aim was to showcase how artists could use this technology as a new way of disseminating and profiting from their digital works. Additionally, his approach challenges the conventional methods of art production and distribution, which typically rely on established galleries and auction houses, enabling him to interact more directly with his audience.

Indeed, the use of NFTs in the art world highlights the close relationship between art and technology and encourages artists and audiences to consider future innovations in the field. The implementation of NFTs has also sparked discussions about the role of technology in the art market and how it can be used to support artists and their creative practices. Despite the controversies surrounding them, such as their disruption of conventional ideas of authenticity and ownership, the use of NFTs in the art world provides a compelling example of how technology can shape and transform the creative field.

Through the journey of the two curations, we traced the technological developments from the Renaissance until now, exploring the influences that art and technology have had on each other. New technologies have always probed artists to respond to the phenomenon as a subject or a medium, enriching and providing alternatives to existing modes of artistic practice.

In today's society, where technology often outpaces human intellect and creative activity, it is more important than ever to further discuss the related issues, whether they be aesthetics or ethics. As we look towards the future, we are left to ponder what new forms of artistic mediums and practices may emerge. The possibilities are endless, and it is exciting to imagine what will be next in art.