An introductory essay commissioned in April 2018 by the Institute of Art & Ideas for a research report on the “New Renaissance” in creativity in European cities for Huawei.
What is distinctive about humanity? Is it our capacity to turn abstract thoughts and feelings into concrete expressions and artefacts? Or our capacity to empathise, to imagine ourselves in the situation of others, to perceive and share things from their perspective? These are among the everyday feats of imagination and creativity that should never stop astounding us, never stop inspiring us to keep refashioning our environments and communities for the better. Communicating such experiences is a feature common to societies across time and geography. The history of humanity is also one of technology – our ability to externalise concepts, experiences and skills into pragmatic tools that help us achieve what we desire. From writing to engineering, astronomy to medicine, we continue to devise new technologies to enhance our capabilities and increase our enjoyment of what it is to be alive.
At the heart of contemporary civilisation are our technologies of communication. What we choose to share and how we share it, with whom and when. Technology is, of course, one of the prime outputs of human creativity: it is the practical result of the blending of a range of different knowledge domains, skills and expertise: from scientific theory and discovery, to engineering application combined with social, cultural and economic purpose. Any technological product is thus the child of many different disciplinary parents, all shaping aspects of its evolution from idea to product or service in the hands of its users. Along the way, it is not just the scientists and engineers who invent technologies, it is also the creative visionaries who deal in ideas, dreams and artistic expressions who help define technologies’ purposes, uses and values in the wider arena of society and culture.
The development of digital and networked technologies since the 1940s has been among the most evident demonstration of this creative collaboration between scientists, technologists, thinkers and creative practitioners. Artists have been among the most early and enthusiastic adopters of emerging technologies – often adapting them for purposes far beyond the practical and pragmatic uses which might have triggered their production. In particular, there is a rich history of artists not only adopting new technologies, but being at the heart of their development – helping shape them as they evolve both in research laboratories and in other, less formal, settings. Such collaborations have fuelled and driven not only the technologies themselves but also the public consciousness of the potential of the technologies to enable everyone to be creative and share their creativity. Technology companies have often invited artists to experiment and test their new products as part of this process; meanwhile an artistic ‘underground’ has consistently been at the forefront of developing alternative technologies to the mainstream. Technologies are never neutral, but always the products of the cultures that nurture them.
In this ‘New Renaissance’, our understandings of what it means to be creative and visionary are also changing. For centuries it was people with power and wealth who defined through their patronage who could be creative, and the channels through which their creativity could reach other people. Now distributed networks and communications technologies are opening up the near universal possibility for expression and sharing of creativity. As society engages with the practical implications of Joseph Beuys’ contention that “everyone is an artist”, people are having to question traditional assumptions and to re-define notions of value in creativity. What does it now mean to be ‘creative’, to be an artist, when everyone can express and share their creativity? What is different and valuable to society about those people who choose to make their creativity the core of their life and work? What are the perceptual tools required to cope with and appreciate the abundance of creativity enriching our lives?
Professional artists too are having to re-think and re-define their practices in a dynamically creative society. Such changes encompass social, cultural, economic and political shifts as well as the technological. Being ‘creative’ is no longer seen as an exclusive preserve of privileged individuals, instead it is a challenge to everyone to realise as much of our individual potential as we can. Yet some of the traditional roles that artists play in society nonetheless persist : as visionaries, educators, inspirations, pioneers, provocateurs, critics, storytellers, speakers of truth to power, transformers of the mundane into the extraordinary.
In my own work over the past two decades, I have worked at the intersection of art, emerging technologies and social change, devising projects and collaborations that have sought to peer ahead, to envision new possibilities for people to share what they value about the world we live in. Distributed, networked communication technologies have been crucial to this endeavour – enabling people to achieve personal agency in expressing their individual creativity in ways which, just a generation ago, would have seemed improbable if not unattainable. Whilst it is relatively simple to make predictions of the kind of technological changes that might take place in the near future, what is much more challenging is to make sense of the unfolding social and cultural changes that are happening as a result of an exponential liberation of the means of communicating among ourselves. Where once ideas took generations to circulate and where control of the means of production was almost exclusively from the centre to the margins, now we have the means for each person to amplify and resonate not only within their own local community, but globally. The implications of this profound transformation, both positive and negative, are already being felt in almmost every country and community around the world. Where they lead us is in no way clear as the disruptive forces they have unleashed bring complications and uncertainties into areas of life considered stable and unchanging, or at least resilient to fashion and slow to adapt.
However, such transformations are the fuel of artistic exploration and experiment – they provoke and inspire new visions and possibilities to be created and shared. And the ways in which artists are able to share their ideas is much more participatory and engaged than before, precisely because of the kinds of communication technologies which have become virtually ubiquitous. The landscape of where creative encounters take place has thus broadened dramatically, as have the modes in which people can take an active part in culture. They are civic technologies in that they enable so much more for people to contribute creatively as citizens than just as consumers. What the shapes that civic societies will take in different places will reflect the great diversity of cultures and creativity that make us human.
London, April 2018