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The Art and Consequence of Collaboration: Interview with Vicki Sowry and Jonathan Parsons

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Presented by the National Arts Council Singapore, The Art and Consequence of Collaboration with the Australian Network for Art & Technology (ANAT) and Experimenta is a series of presentations that give an insight into the art/technology and art/science sectors in Australia, scanning the development of these practices over the past 30 years and key areas of current practice, and the leading Australian artists working in these areas. The presentations take place at the National Museum of Singapore and the Esplanade Theatre Studio, and the programme is jointly organised by National Arts Council, Culture Academy and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

Experimenta has supported the development and presentation of the work of artists working with technology in Australia for over 30 years, and ANAT has been a catalyst for experimentation and innovation across art, science and technology in Australia for the past 25 years.

We speak with the presenters of the event – two of Australia’s leaders in the art and technology field – Jonathan Parsons, artistic director of Experimenta, and Vicki Sowry, director of ANAT, to learn more about their background, issues of ethics and accessibility in the arts, and what science and art can learn from each other.

 

AE: You have been working at the intersections of art and science for the past three decades. Could you take us to the origins of your practice and share briefly how you got involved with this sector?  

Vicki Sowry: I had a circuitous route to the work that has become my passion. My first career was horticulture, first as a gardener, which I wasn’t particularly good at, then as an arborist, which I was. After an injury put paid to that work in my early 20’s, I returned to university, shifting countries to do so, from NZ to Australia. After graduating with a BA Communications I realised that my career prospects as an experimental short filmmaker were limited, at best. Instead I applied myself to the bigger picture, working with screen industry organisations focused on encouraging practitioners to adopt digital technologies. At the same time, I was working on the boards of a number of organisations bringing artists together with technology; it was during the late 90’s, as a board member and then Chair of ANAT, that my imagination and attention were captured by a cohort of truly amazing artists, an enduring fascination that remains with me today. I joined the ANAT team in 2007 to run the Synapse art/science program, and was appointed Director in 2012. ANAT remains as important today as it was 30 years ago – it introduces artists to emerging technologies with the potential to inform or transform practice, and it brings artists together with scientists and other non-arts partners to pursue interdisciplinary research and development.

Jonathan Parsons: As a curator and artistic director my work has consistently been at the intersections of knowledge systems, including those based on culture and/or artforms, because it is in the meeting of different knowledge systems that we often see fresh ideas and practices emerge. My first role as an Artistic Director was in the mid 1990’s when I initiated the Pacific Wave Festival in Sydney, an exploration of contemporary pacific arts that brought together cultural expressions from across the Pacific and incorporated both traditional and contemporary practices across a variety of artforms. I directed this while working at The Performance Space in Sydney, a multi-disciplinary arts venue where many of the first experiments by artists in the digital arts were being presented.  In 2003, when I became Director of the Riverfestival in Brisbane, I began to work specifically in the art science area. Riverfestival was an annual citywide festival celebrating the river that winds its way through the city of Brisbane. A key component of the program was the International Riversymposium , which brought together experts in river management and conservation from across the globe. In this context, I utilised arts and cultural programming as an engagement tool leading audiences to the environmental sciences – science by stealth, if you will. In more recent work at Experimenta and Robotronica I have become increasingly interested in the opportunities that arise from in depth collaboration between the arts and sciences and, in supporting this type of practice, I can drawn on my substantial experience of affecting collaborations across and between different knowledge systems.

​AE: Arts and science/technology have, conventionally, been situated in opposition to each other. How has the relationship between art and science/technology evolved through the years? 

Within Western cultures there have been a number of periods in history where the arts and sciences have not been in opposition, perhaps most notably in the Renaissance and epitomised by the work of Leonardo da Vinci. We appear to be seeing a welcome return to this more holistic approach to knowledge production in recent years, perhaps in light of our growing understanding that complex problems and questions require more than simple and singular responses. Almost every aspect of our 21st century lives is impacted by technology and, as we move into the Anthropocene, there is a growing urgency for the arts to engage with and critique the complex challenges being wrought by these enormous changes.

​AE: What are the key changes and innovations in technology in the last 20 – 30 years that have impacted or enhanced art practice? 

The single most important technological advancement was the birth of the personal computer in 1984 that brought the computer out of the scientific laboratory and into our workplaces and homes. As the size of computers reduced, their computational power accelerated, giving rise to a previously unfathomable range of new tools becoming available to artists. These technologies spawned the eclectic fields of digital and media arts, and the myriad of artforms that have arisen since – from net art, to more recent developments in AR, VR and robotics.

​AE: What can science and technology learn from the arts? 

Collaboration between the arts, technology and science has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to each field. Artists, technologists and scientists approach creativity, exploration and research in different ways and from different perspectives; when working together they open up new ways of seeing, experiencing and interpreting the world around us.

​AE: Accessibility, especially for persons with disabilities is an increasingly urgent concern in the arts. How is technology used (or how can it be used) to address the needs of artists and audiences with disabilities? How can it be used to challenge the practices and assumptions of able-bodied artists and audiences? 

VS: As an organisation focused on creative research and development, ANAT has long been interested in artistic practices engaging with technology and the human body. In 2009, our Super Human: Revolution of the Species symposium and exhibition presented leading international artists and researchers working in the fields of cognition and augmentation. I became struck by the deep disconnect between futurist utopian discourses of technological innovation, and the dystopian realities of the many people ‘ground truthing’ those same technological innovations. As a way to break open this schism and create agency for users of enabling technologies, ANAT developed the international partnership project, Unfixed, a creative challenge to the characterisation of bodies as ‘disabled’ and ‘abled’. Bringing disabled artists from the UK and Australia together for a creative research residency in Australia in late-2015, followed a year later by a creative development lab in the UK, Unfixed tested the belief that the disabled need ‘fixing’, and questioned many of the ironically disabling assumptions underpinning the discourse around augmenting technologies.

JP: As a presenting organisation Experimenta has focused on strategies to ensure disabled audience members are able to access our programs. Strategies include accessibility being an important factor in the selection of our partner organisations, the development of a partnership with Description Victoria to produce audio description guides for our touring exhibitions, and live streaming our events to those unable to attend in person.

​AE: There is both excitement towards the potential of technology as a more integrated part of everyday life as well as a great sense of apprehension and fear towards its ethical implications, for example issues regarding privacy, data collection/mining, and artificial intelligence. How do you address these ethical concerns?

We do this in two ways: firstly, we support the work of artists who interrogate the social, cultural and philosophical implications of our ever-expanding scientific and technological capabilities; secondly, we educate audiences about the use, application and potential impacts of technological developments, adding to the knowledge-base they need to navigate and make sense of the proliferation and expansion of technology in our day to day lives.

 


The Art and Consequence of Collaboration takes place from 6 – 7 July 2018. It is jointly organised by National Arts Council, Culture Academy and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

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