Event review: TURF v TechCity! Can art and science work together for Croydon?

By - Thursday 5th February, 2015

John Gass enjoys a recent Turf Projects/Croydon Tech City event but is left wondering what comes next

Photo by Fluid4Sight, used with permission.

Most regular Citizen readers will be aware of both Turf Projects and Croydon Tech City, each of which, in its own way, contributes to the burgeoning artistic, technological and cultural opportunities that Croydon residents can enjoy. The fact that they are now exploring the possibility of closer collaboration is exciting and tantalising in terms of what they will be able to offer the borough in the future.

The blurring of art and technology? What might that look like? One example that I’ve enjoyed recently involves a video of rotating 3D-printed solid objects. Both the design of the objects and the photographic techniques used are very involved and technical, but the resulting video, which you can see here, is a truly mesmerising work of art.

A sample QR code.
Photo author’s own.

Turf Projects’ recent exhibition ‘A Pixel Or Digit?’, held at the Parfitt Gallery in Croydon College, neatly showcased how modern tech can be harnessed to create and present art in novel ways. Each of the participating artists produced a piece of work which could be shown on a smartphone or monitor – anything from a still image to a full-blown audio-visual extravaganza. On entering the exhibition space, however, visitors weren’t greeted by banks of TV screens; instead they saw walls bearing large-scale QR codes. These are the square patterns of blocks and spaces that are becoming increasingly prominent (just look at any local bus stop!) which, when scanned into an app using a smartphone camera, takes you to a unique online destination – in this case where each of the artists had stored their artwork. I’ve included a photo I took of one of the exhibitors’ QR codes so that readers can try this for themselves (hint: try swiping across what you see!).

I was struck by the gulf between the artists and the techies

This was the background to a stimulating debate jointly organised by Croydon Tech City and Turf Projects, discussing how art and technology can contribute to Croydon culture and society. The pre-event publicity said: “Today boundaries between art and technology are becoming ever more blurry and the Internet ever vast and current. Artists and technologists need to come together to discuss this expanding relationship.” Although this was discussed by some, I was mainly struck by the apparent gulf between the artists and the technologists. This isn’t to diminish the value of the event – I see it as a timely reminder that realising meaningful levels of cross-fertilisation will involve a significant journey, not a quick sprint.

The evening centred on a panel of four speakers – two speaking on behalf of the arts, two on behalf of technology. Firstly, Ami Clarke focused on one of her recent art projects, ‘Low Animal Spirits’, which is the result of her collaboration with Richard Cochrane who has written derivatives trading software for Goldman Sachs. They use what are known as ‘High-Frequency Tradingalgorithms to automatically determine how newsfeeds from nearly one thousand global sources are sampled and combined to form ‘headlines’. Their installation continuously flashes up these computer-generated headlines, which observers are invited to read and interpret. You can see a demonstration and an in-depth explanation here.

Not all techies talk about meditative states and how the mind makes connections!

The next speaker was Croydon-based Sanjay Poyzer, who demonstrated a project he has co-founded called ‘whatleads.to’ which invites people to enter a big idea, such as ‘What leads to reducing climate change?’ and then, using automated prompts, the software guides the user into increasingly refined statements until a clear and useful series of actions emerges. What really caught my attention, however, was when Sanjay talked about art and his musicianship, and how this led him to seeing the tech world differently – not all techies talk about the meditative state and how the mind makes connections!

Next up was Perce Jerrom, an artist who showed us his ‘Lifehacker’ project, which he described as being ‘new media folk-art’, using discarded technology, such as broken computers, combined with other materials to produce a variety of installation pieces.

Finally, Ramesh Sur, a freelance photographer and technology enthusiast, talked about how the world could be improved by using the internet to connect specialists to areas of specific need. Ramesh suggested that three areas of specialism (health, education and practical skills) could be mobilised virtually so experts could deploy their skills wherever needed without having to travel the globe.

Technology is useful whilst art is meaningful

During these presentations and the subsequent Q & A session, I was struck by the different language of the technical and artistic people, each having their own parlance and buzzwords. I could imagine this being a real barrier when technologists and artists meet. Another potential stumbling block was, for me, highlighted by Sanjay Poyzer’s remark that technology always has ‘purpose’. What, I wondered, does art have? Certainly art also has purpose, but not in the practical way that technology can claim. The best I’ve come up with is that technology is useful whilst art is meaningful. I’m sure many will disagree with this simplistic conclusion, but I think it serves to show another significant aspect of the art/tech divide.

So what are the next steps that will move us towards a deeper, more original and inventive exploration of potential collaborative projects? I asked this question of the panel and I best identified with Ami Clarke whose answer basically boiled down to ‘put a techie and an artist in a room and don’t let them out until they start connecting and producing ideas’. That sounds like a great suggestion, but also a fascinating art installation that I hope can be brought to Croydon!

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John Gass

John Gass

John is the Croydon Citizen's first associate editor, assisting Liz Sheppard-Jones in preparing articles for publication. His interests lie mainly with politics, culture and the arts. He has been a Croydon resident for ten years and, following a period of severe cut-backs, is delighted to see that the local arts and culture scene is starting to thrive and grow again.

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  • Terry Coleman

    I’m pretty sure that engineering students obtain a fair amount of art and design encouragement as part of their degree coursework. I’m not so sure about the social scientists.

    • John Gass

      I’d hope everyone gets a rounded education that gives context to knowledge, making it relevant and interesting to all. It certainly wasn’t like that when I studied engineering. My best memories of a career in electronics & software design are those when people looked wider than their narrow discipline and, as a result, came up with novel and original solutions to important problems.