How mobile tech is changing the way we make and enjoy art

From Shakespeare on your smartphone to interactive app-driven experiences,Matt Trueman explores new ways to engage with art

The Guardian, , Tuesday 11 November 2014

A woman takes a picture with her smartphoneRemember the Walkman? How it allowed you to take your music wherever you went. The e-reader has done the same thing to your library and the tablet device to your TV and your DVD collection. Last week, Shakespeare’s Globe launched Globe Player, a service that allows users to stream and/or download its productions onto their computers and mobile devices. Online audiences can watch 51 of the theatre’s past productions wherever (and whenever) they happen to be. The Google Cultural Institute has also made huge swathes of visual art and museum exhibits just as accessible.

Mobile technology has changed the way we encounter art. It has made art mobile. “On demand” has extended into “on the go”. Art is everywhere – and everyone with a smartphone is a potential audience member.

As Ruth Mackenzie, interim CEO and creative director of The Space, a new BBC and Arts Council England-backed digital arts platform, puts it: “The average person looks at their mobile 100 times a day, so just imagine if art were a part of that diet. What if, instead of playing Candy Crush, you did art?” That picture’s too simple; it implies the only shift is in the interface – the mode of encounter as opposed to the encounter itself. Screens have replaced the page and the stage, but it’s deeper than that; digital art is a form of its own, with its own rules and possibilities.

One possibility is that offered by The Space, which is running an open call for new digital art designed for mobile tech and tablet computers. Any artist over 18-years-old, from anywhere in the world can apply. “If film was the new discovery and the dominant artform of the 20th century, then maybe digital art is going to be of the 21st,” says Mackenzie. “That’s the opportunity we’ve got.” (…)

Meet Karen

Mobile technology is a two-way encounter. It can tell the artists about the participant – and vice versa. Blast Theory’s next project, an app called Karen, relies on that.

Karen is a virtual life-coach in the form of an app. “Initially, she claims to be able to offer advice, but gradually she gets more interested and the boundary between her professional life and her personal life starts to break down a bit,” says Adams. Crucially, Karen adapts to the information you provide.

But Karen isn’t a computer game. There’s no winning and losing. It’s narrative-driven, but it’s not really television or film; it’s a hybrid form. Technology is shifting the territory of art. The more we see the screen – whatever its size or shape – as an artistic interface, like the stage or the cinema, the more we can see anything on it as art.

For Adams, it’s in “the world of games, particularly indie games, that the most exciting and risk-taking work is taking place”. Artists are starting to pick at the seams of the form. Take Papa Sangre, a game for handheld devices created by content business Somethin’ Else. Described as a “video game with no video,” it presents players with a black screen to represent a pitch-black labyrinth, which players navigate using the surround-soundtrack they hear through headphones. Sidestep the mythic-quest casing and you’ve got a smart little artwork exploring sensory deprivation, but one that could only exist on a mobile device.

With the right selection of apps, every smartphone owner has a digital camera or a set of mixing decks to hand; every tablet user can cut together a film and upload it straight onto YouTube. These devices make every user a potential artist in a more spontaneous way than ever before. “There’s access to the means of creating art that simply wasn’t there 20 years ago,” says Mackenzie. “You can talk about finding new audiences, but I think we’re going to find new artists too.”


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