SSHRC Grant: The Technology of Art and the Art of Technology

Problem or issue to be addressed: Large scale computing infrastructures (referred to as cyberinfrastructures in the U.S. and e-science initiatives elsewhere) frequently fall far short of articulated goals and expectations. In spite of ample literature about the development and implementation of information technology (IT) in the information science, computing and business domains, stories of cost over-runs and failed systems abound. Several recent studies have suggested that only 1 in 3 IT projects succeed, where success is defined in terms of projects delivered on time, on budget and with promised features.

Research outlined here seeks to develop new insights to guide the development and implementation of cyberinfrastructures by looking in a new direction -- at how visual artists understand and interact with the technologies they use in their daily art practices.

The purpose of this project is to learn about the material characteristics of technology to inform the development of a typology to guide system design and implementation. Visual artists work with a variety of technologies in their daily art practice. For example, photographers use cameras, lenses and papers; acrylic painters use paints (in varying pigmentation strength and thickness), mediums and gels, brushes, palette knives and other technologies. As they work, artists develop knowledge of the affordances and constraints of the technologies with which they work, which they often exploit for creative effect. Artistic practices have given rise to insights about the nature of technology that may be applicable to the use of technology in other contexts-- for example that context matters (e.g., in perception of color), that altering the scale of a piece of art can change how viewers see or read it, etc.

This project seeks to develop new strategies to guide cyberinfrastructural development by focusing on the material aspects of technology. Research outlined here is rooted in science, technology and society studies, and is part of a 'new sociology of art' which seeks to apply the insights from the sociology of art to "non-art 'stuff'" and frames questions so they are compatible with social constructionism. This research addresses theoretical gaps in science, technology and society studies and information sciences literatures by focusing on the material aspects of technology. It responds to calls for bold new approaches to studying the materiality of technology and calls to compare radically different technologies by exploring the materiality of technology by investigating how visual artists think about technology, and using insights generated to develop a typology of technology affordances and constraints, which will be applied to cyberinfrastructures.

Potential Contribution of Research to the Advancement of Knowledge: This research has the potential to yield new insights about the nature of technology, which can help guide development and implementation of computing infrastructures in the future, and will contribute to the development of new theoretical models in science, technology and society studies. The resulting typology will help those involved in the design and implementation of technology in general and cyberinfrastructures in particular by serving as a means through which the complexity of technologies can be made more transparent. Developing a better understanding of the characteristics and properties of technology can help us develop strategies and mechanisms for anticipating and responding to the complexities of contemporary technological systems. This work will help build a dialogue between artists and technologists, both of whom serve to benefit from greater interaction across what is often perceived as an art/ technology divide.