Decoding Digital Art

Published on 15 February 2016

Art created by coding and computing takes centrestage at Betwixt Festival, an inaugural digital interactive art festival that demystifies this medium of expression and invites possibilities.

BY PAMELA HO

Digital technology is so pervasive these days that it has become almost invisible. We do everything on our smart phones, from online shopping and banking to getting directions and ordering food. We’ve seen Changi Airport introduce digital check-in counters, supermarkets replacing cashiers with digital scanners and restaurants using iPads to take your orders in place of waiters.

Singapore will also see Smart homes soon, with apartments in Punggol, Clementi, Sembawang and Tampines set to pioneer smart technologies. These new flats will boast home monitoring and alert systems, smart car park management and waste disposal systems and even energy-conserving technology.

We’re fast becoming a Smart Nation, harnessing technology to improve our lives, create more opportunities and build stronger communities. So what about the arts? Has the process of art-making also gone digital to achieve these aims?

EVOLUTION REVOLUTION

The use of digital technology in the visual arts is not new. Most of us will be familiar with the Kinetic Rain installation at Changi Airport Terminal 1, created by German design firm Art+Com. This moving sculpture made up of 1,216 bronze rain droplets is crafted by digital programming.

In fact, digital art has been around since the 1950s. Singapore’s own Lin Hsin Hsin started creating digital art as early as 1985. In 2007, she became the first person in the world to create three-dimensional (3D) art using only mathematical equations. A graduate in mathematics and computer science, Lin has also used technology to compose music, create digital music instruments, digital Chinese calligraphy and digital Western oil painting.

“When you look back on the early history of digital art, you’ll see that it was very expert-driven. Only a small group of people had access to computers the size of a three-room flat,” says Ng Wen Lei, an experiential artist who represented Singapore at the 11th Venice Biennale and was co-art director for the Singapore Showcase at the APEC Summit 2009.

“The biggest change in recent years is that people are creating their own software and releasing it online for free. Anyone can use it and contribute to it,” Ng reveals. “This idea of ‘open source’ in the digital community has drastically changed the way people perceive technology and use technology — artists are now using it freely as a form of expression.”

RIGHT AS RAIN Kinetic Rain, the iconic moving sculpture at Changi Airport Terminal 1, is an art installation created from digital programming.  PHOTO  Changi Airport Group

DYNAMIC DUO Thrusting digital interactive art into the spotlight are Betwixt Festival founders and festival directors Serena Pang (left) and Ng Wen Lei (right), collectively known as Spang & Lei. PHOTO Olivia Kwok

DIGITAL DNA

At the recent Collider exhibition presented by the ArtScience Museum, an interactive art installation called ‘The Gift of Mass’ gave visitors the mind-blowing experience of seeing themselves dancing with particles and interacting with the invisible matter around them.

London-based Singaporean digital artist Debbie Ding has also held solo and group exhibitions at the ArtScience Museum, NUS Museum and The Substation, as well as overseas. Ding was also one of the design leads for the FutureEverything, Signals of Tomorrow lab, an initiative by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore.

“I use design as a process to produce my work, but I intend for the output to be art,” clarifies Ding, who holds a Masters degree in Design Interaction from London’s Royal College of Art. “As artists, we have the flexibility of applying technology in novel ways — allowing it to tell new stories about the reality that we wish to have. To borrow the words of novelist William Gibson: the future is already here; it’s just not widely distributed yet.”

PRESENCE IN PAST Singapore has featured digital art and digital artists in the past, like Debbie Ding and ‘The Gift of Mass’ installation at the Collider exhibition, ArtScience Museum. PHOTO  Marina Bay Sands

BETWEEN THE CRACKS

For this reason, artists Ng Wen Lei and Serena Pang — collectively known as Spang & Lei — have joined forces to launch Singapore’s inaugural digital arts festival, Betwixt Festival 2016.

Betwixt (pronounced ‘bi-twikst’) is the archaic term for ‘between’. The choice of name can be explained in part by the theme of its inaugural edition: ‘Interstice’. “We came across the term ‘interstice’ from architecture. It refers to gaps and intervening spaces. This festival therefore seeks to fill the gap between art and technology, to answer questions that fall in this interstice,” says Pang, a performance studies specialist and recipient of the Tisch School of the Arts’ Performance Studies Emerging Scholar Award 2014 by New York University.

While digital art is in our consciousness, it’s not in the forefront. Honor Harger, executive director of the ArtScience Museum, believes the time is ripe for a dedicated festival here. “Singapore is a multicultural cosmopolitan country with deep connections between the technology sector and the arts — this makes us unique,” she reasons. “By hosting a dedicated festival, we provide a platform for the cross-pollination of ideas across borders while encouraging innovation and experimentation.”

DIGITAL MANOEUVRES In Arcs21, Austrian artist LIA invites visitors to spend time interacting with a projected digital artwork, by tweaking mysterious sliders and buttons. PHOTOS LIA

CASTING THE NET

Held at the ArtScience Museum and other locations, Betwixt Festival 2016 aims to inspire new narratives from this confluence of art and technology, and to explore data and code as new materials for artistic expression. Running for six days, the festival comprises an exhibition, conference, lectures, performances, masterclasses and screenings.

Established international artists will descend upon Singapore, including Austrian artist LIA, considered one of the pioneers of software and net art; American interdisciplinary artist and writer, Nathaniel Stern; and Lillian Schwartz, best known for her pioneering work in computer-mediated art. Her artworks were the first of this medium to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

An open call last October attracted over 100 proposals from around the world. A special shout-out to the local community also drew out aspiring artists from our arts institutions. Among those shortlisted are Samantha Chua from School of the Arts (see sidebar) and Sarah Mamat, a final-year student in LASALLE’s Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Fine Arts programme.

Mamat’s work ‘#dataselfieme’ is a visual representation of data collected through self-tracking. It can be described as an intimate portrait of an artist created from digital traces. “I chose data as the medium for my work because it’s so abundantly available today and it’s able to reveal insights that previously would’ve been hidden,” she explains. “I hope my work will make audiences ponder and be mindful of what they post online.”

The festival also boasts a youth talent development programme dubbed Fun With Arts and Bytes, where Spang & Lei conducted a 10-week workshop with students from Ping Yi Secondary School. “It’s completely voluntary, and these 14-year-olds have no prior background in fine arts or robotics,” says Pang, adding that three shortlisted student projects will be showcased at the exhibition.

PIONEER GENERATED American digital pioneer Lillian Schwartz  presents film screenings tracing the artistic sensibilities of computer-generated art from the 1970s to the present.  PHOTO  Lillian Schwartz

SPARKING DIALOGUES

To create a platform for dialogue and exchange of ideas, the Betwixt Festival presents two panel discussions: Women, Art & Technology and Digital Art in Southeast Asia, which features curators from the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.

Harger (above) observes that there has been an increasing number of Southeast Asian artists practising digital art in recent years. “This is evident through the recently concluded Prudential Eye Awards 2016, which saw three very strong Southeast Asian artists, Anupong Charoenmitr (Thailand), Sutthirat Supaparinya (Thailand) and Trinh Thi Nguyen (Vietnam) competing for the Best Emerging Artist Using Digital/Video award,” she notes. “Their works really resonated with the panel of international judges and stood out from the over 100 submissions received for the awards.”

“We felt that it was important for Southeast Asian curators to start having conversations around digital interactive art because a lot of such conversations at the moment are European, North American or North Asian,” shares Ng, who believes that the cultural diversity in the region will make this community all the more quirky and interesting.

PHOTO Marina Bay Sands

THE GREATER GOOD

Visual arts student Chua believes digital art reflects the times in which we live. “Such art is relevant to us,” states the 17 year-old. “In Singapore, we’re often made to keep a respectful distance from a work of art. Digital interactive art promotes a more open approach to art; it’s more inclusive and embracing of the audience.”

This inaugural festival will push digital interactive art to the fore. It may well be the first time the public and existing arts practitioners consider data and coding as mediums of artistic expression. What better way to send out a signal to like-minded people out there?

“Through Betwixt, we are proactively creating a platform where like-minded people can gather. We want to say: hey, we’re here; anybody wants to come connect with us?” says Ng with a chuckle. “At the end of the day, it’s not just growing the digital arts community, it’s growing the arts community; it’s injecting vibrancy into this entire community.”

Betwixt Festival 2016 is on from 25 February to 1 March at the ArtScience Museum and various locations. Admission is free. To find out more, visit www.betwixtfestival.com.

WOMEN UNITE An all-women panel, comprising artists Denisa Kera, Angela Chong, Debbie Ding and ArtScience Museum’s Honor Harger, will explore the role of women in digital interactive art. PHOTOS Denisa Kera & Angela Chong

NEXT BIG THING

If there’s one budding digital artist to look out for, we’re putting our money on this teenager. 

A final-year visual arts student at the School of the Arts (SOTA), Samantha Chua, 17, responded to Betwixt’s open call with an idea hatched from her time as a mentee under Noise Singapore, a mentoring platform for aspiring youth artists initiated by the National Arts Council. That idea has since materialised into a digital interactive site-specific installation entitled ‘The Conversation’.

Inspired by the acoustics at the entrance of Sunshine Plaza, Chua created wooden ‘critters’ that would rattle and roll freely in the space. Embedded with ultrasonic sensors, these critters evade people who cross their paths. “I want people to realise that this echo is always there, whether or not my work is present to create the interaction,” she says. “But by putting these critters there, I can turn what is a transitory space into a lingering space, where they will stop and appreciate.”

When Chua started out, she knew nothing about coding. “We don’t have courses in interactive media or coding at SOTA. That’s not to say I didn’t receive support — I just needed to be proactive in finding that support,” says Chua, who sought help from Chemistry and Physics teachers in school, and mentors like digital artist Ong Kian Peng. “Also, you can learn everything on YouTube!”

Self-taught from online tutorials and books, Chua states, “As with anything foreign to you, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that it’s possible for you to learn this and to actually create something — but you can.”

PHOTO Samantha Chua

Festival Highlights

Festival directors spang & lei share their personal picks. 

DIY Mind Machines & Creative Eye-Ware

This workshop brings us back to our childhood, making strange devices out of the odds and ends found in our play-boxes. Come make-and-play and enjoy your personalised ‘optical-devices’!

P.P.M. (PUZZLED. PROCESSED. MESHED.)

This fun performance takes the metaphor of a game controller and replaces our fingers with live bodies bouncing up and down on trampolines. With camera sensors, every bounce is transformed into imaginary virtual worlds of 3D shapes and textures!

Homosonus

What is it like to hear a touch? This artwork answers this question in a very poetic way by using sensors on a frosted wall to create unique sounds when you ‘touch’ someone on the other side.

Memory Repository

We love the voyeuristic feel of looking through a peephole and seeing other people’s tweets about growing up — but you’ll have to hunt for these hidden peepholes first! You can tweet too. For us, it reflects a yearning to be part of a ‘collective memory bank’.

LIA Arcs21 (Featured International Artist)

LIA is definitely one of our favourite pioneers of software and net art! This is the first time Singaporeans will get to interact with Arcs21 through her handmade customised interface box. Through this box, you can manipulate the image and create a ‘personalised painting’ that is projected in real-time on a large screen.

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