By Oliver Smith
Art and technology. Creativity and invention. Curiosity and innovation. The artist can confidently claim a preeminent position as a generator of new knowledge. Within the Academy the artist can play an important role in unlocking unforeseen research potential by imaginatively engaging with burgeoning technology. When married with established modes of practice the artist as researcher not only offers a unique vision within an interdisciplinary context but also employs the cutting edge of technological advancement to refresh the very foundations of their own discipline. That is, the creative application of new technology opens up a space for what is to follow while also making the old new again. The benefits are indeed manifold.
As a silversmith I have learned to maintain connections to tradition whilst simultaneously embracing fresh creative opportunities granted by new ways of working. A commission from the Australiana Fund to produce two silver table bells for the Governor General illustrates this approach. I discussed the project with Dr Rodney Hayward former Head of the Furniture Workshop at the ANU, School of Art. Hayward is someone who has embodied the crossover between Art and Science. Thanks to his insight and experience he was able to put me in touch with Professor Neville Fletcher, a Physicist working in the Department of Electronic Materials Engineering. The equations developed by Fletcher as part of his research into the physics of musical instruments have been successfully applied to bell making by Dr Anton Hassell of Australian Bell, who I contacted in turn. The commission was realised through collaboration as Hassell expertly cast and digitally tuned two silver bell bodies to which I added silver handles, stands and clappers. The result was not only a pair of bells with the purest pitch salience possible but a project process that epitomises the advantages of cross institutional and cross disciplinary dialogue within the broader Academy and alloyed with studio practice. Indeed this elevated research as applied in the highly specialised laboratory of the artist’s studio operates akin to the bells themselves. For just as when the Governor General rings the bells the resonating note struck is clear, pure and true.
There are many other models for creative engagement with technology. In the realm of sculpture Dr Michael Doolan has developed a local network of advanced manufacturing contacts operating at the forefront of digital technology and fabrication. These Melbourne based industrial connections complement his modelling of figurative sculptures by hand. Here the artist greatly increases the scope of the hands-on work done in the studio by opening up a range of scales, materials and finishes offered by collaborating with industry. The outcome is achieved by stepping a project through a series of allied industries that serve to make relevant the continuation of the tradition of sculpting by hand whilst placing this practice in the present moment and enabling the complete range of current production methods to be employed by the artist. It is worth noting that the advanced manufacturing companies as commercial businesses value the artist’s input as it can push their problem solving abilities in new and unexpected directions with potential for commercial application.
The master apprentice model also operates in relation to the espousal of new technology as demonstrated by an HDR student supervised by Dr Doolan. Successful Master of Fine Arts candidate Susan Chen, took the step of purchasing outright the high tech kit she required to realise her research project. Integral to her conceptual intent Susan bought a 3D printer capable of extruding clay. She then used this equipment to produce a series of ceramic objects exploring identity in the digital age. The resultant sculptures are physical manifestations of social media activity in a range of cities across the globe, that have been built through digital production closely steered and tweaked with the sensibility of the artisan. The careful crafting needed to resolve the extruded forms as artworks has required that the artist monitors all aspects of the digital processing and physical production in a manner that only direct control of the hardware can facilitate.
Californian based artist John Roloffe’s recent residency at Sydney College of the Arts incorporated an ambitious project that required detailed mapping of the Callan Park area. Roloffe’s vision was realised through collaboration with filmmaker Jack McGrath. Roloffe and McGrath used technology in the form of cameras mounted on drones to capture a digital recording of the landscape. While drones do inspire fascination, combining the allure of robotics with aviation, perhaps just as important is the software used to translate the raw data as unshaped information into a form that leads to the desired end result. A step further, arguably the global email communication involved in both setting up the filming and progressing the legal clearances for drone flight were just as significant in terms of successfully bringing the project to fruition. This project as a central component of the New Materialism in Contemporary Art Research Cluster’s Future Stratigraphy colloquium also operated as a workshop and the range of participants no doubt took from this example a template for the artist engaging with technology that they could apply in their own practice.
Sydney College of the Arts has always been associated with experimental and conceptually driven visual art practice - Creative play with technology has been a constant. The associated dynamic and unfettered characteristics of Non Traditional Research Outputs that have emerged have imbued the artist with a maverick mystique in the research arena and long may this continue. Yet to positively sustain these activities and grow their prospects I believe new and improved approaches will be needed. Conceivably a more nuanced, sophisticated and impactful role for the artist as researcher awaits. The future relocation of Sydney College of the Arts to the University of Sydney’s Camperdown Campus will secure this vision by providing the opportunity for additional and more meaningful connections with research activities across the entire institution and beyond. For the artist as researcher this is an invitation to seek even more productive relationships with new technologies.
Oliver Smith is the Undergraduate Studies Coordinator at Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney.. Smith's visual arts practice is informed by his depth of knowledge in the area of silversmithing. This aligns to all processes associated with metal and functions in the sphere of sculpture and broader context of contemporary art. His scholarly interests expand from his practice led research activities to include drawing and model making, creative engagement with new technologies, collaborative and interdisciplinary projects, and tertiary level education that draws upon and applies to visual arts, craft and design.