Human vs. Hardware

Jaron Lanier, ICE Summit Keynote Speaker

A personal account of the ICE Summit by Mark Callahan:

Ideas for Creative Exploration describes an ongoing dialogue that has recognized the overlapping of disciplines in contemporary art practice and the potential of generating new projects in a collaborative studio program.

The ICE Summit welcomed a diverse group of guests, known for their roles as innovators in the arts, to Athens for three days of presentations, performance, and conversation.

ICE made its first public appearance on Wednesday night with a keynote address delivered by Jaron Lanier. My immediate response was to the figure of Lanier set against an enormous oil painting of the interior of St. Peter’s in Rome, which dominates the stage area of UGA’s historic Greek-revival Chapel. This unintentional pairing of images seemed appropriate to the event, as Lanier referenced his involvement in the development of MIDI, Virtual Reality, and Tele-immersion technologies in a speech punctuated by humanist themes more familiar to the traditional academic environment of the university. Lanier’s carefully constructed speech called on artists to play an active part in the development of new tools, and criticized the trend toward letting machines dictate the parameters of new art. Following the address, he invited the audience to an informal viewing of a recent concert videotaped in Poland which featured Lanier playing an array of unusual wind instruments accompanied by a full orchestra. The most interesting aspect of the performance was a projected digital animation, programmed by Lanier to generate images from sound, that the musicians could “learn” to play.

The Summit fluctuated between scheduled events and a continuous high-energy discussion that revolved around ICE. Thursday’s itinerary included tours of art and performance facilities on the UGA campus and concluded with an evening of public performance. Troika Ranch, a dance studio based in New York, performed several works that incorporated interactive digital technology by using actual movement to trigger sampled video and sound.

Throughout the Summit ICE existed as a kind of sketch, a point of reference for intersecting lines of thought. Friday’s business meeting and roundtable presentations explored the potential of an Institute for Creative Exploration from cultural, practical, and educational perspectives. Jim Kerkhoff, from the Center for Advanced Studies in the Arts (CASA) at the University of Texas, Austin, shared his observations about the history of CASA and his visits to comparable programs including the Media Lab at MIT. Kerkhoff and others stressed the need to define the institutional culture of ICE, scan the immediate environment for funding opportunities and unoccupied niches, link existing practices on campus, and develop a very specific mission statement. Christina Yang, from the Kitchen in New York, discussed the importance of locating existing and emerging talent in the community. She described the Kitchen as a neighborhood resource that supports artists. Her ideas were underscored by a video presentation that traced the thirty-year history of the Kitchen with clips of early performances by Woody Vasulka and Steina, Laurie Anderson, Bill T. Jones, and others. Colin Fallows, from Liverpool John Moores University in England, suggested that ICE should begin to visualize projects. He identified the Internet, CD-ROM exhibitions, and participation in international festivals such as Ars Electronica and the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts (ISEA) as ways to extend ICE to a global network through projects and publications. Steve Murakishi, from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, characterized ICE as an organism fed by critical discourse in a “culture of communication”. To build an educational model, Murakishi suggested that ICE identify what it means to be a contemporary practitioner and maintain currency by generating new projects.

Looking back on my notes from the Summit, I notice an underlined phrase, “human vs. hardware”. Considering the role that new tools have played in the careers of those in attendance, it may seem surprising that so little of the conversation was devoted to technology. Ultimately, the impact of the Summit was felt in the resolve to move ICE forward through projects and people. By focusing on new collaborations, ICE will maintain its ability to navigate the changing conditions of cultural production.