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Sarah on Beyond Productivity

Sarahwatch recoding of  Sarah's presentation

Notes from a Dinosaur

Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity

Ed., William J. Mitchell, Alan S. Inouye, and Marjory S. Blumenthal National Academies Press, 2003

Beyond Productivity is fundamentally, though at times also elegantly, a report of the existing interactions, intersections, and exchanges, among computer science—expanded to encompass “information technology”—and the arts and design, and the potential connections between these two domains.  This report begins with an suggested framework for the intersection between information technology and creativity, broadly defined, and then details how such interactions currently are being realized, and how they might be realized in the future.  The last 4 chapters—fully half the book—are devoted to recommendations for enhancing and supporting the integration of computer science with the arts (always broadly defined) within academia and industry.  Above all, the report is a plea for resources—academic, governmental, and political—to advance the intersections of IT and art.  The creativity of the title is the keyword (to borrow from Raymond Williams) that best advances this argument for increased resources and attention. 

Aware of their predictable structure and rather formal prose style, the committee writing the report notes that “in book form it cannot possibly convey the exciting possibilities at [the] intersection” of IT and art/design (vii).  Despite the obvious limitations of textual, paper-bound literature (I read the report as a PDF, but the entire book is available both in html and bound versions), the report attempts to engage the reader as an interactive subject by noting websites in footnotes, highlighting special projects in boxes, using graphic images as relevant case studies, and including hypertext and live links in the html version (I did this, too, but I have not yet learned to take notes effectively on my computer).  Throughout the book, or more accurately report (as I shall refer to it here), the authorial committee is attempting to justify, encourage, and garner support for a particular synthetic practice; that is, the integration of computer science and the arts, most often defined as visual “stuff”: objects, projections, installations, games.  Although the authors claimed that “the artifacts that…best exemplify the intersections of IT and creative practice…tended to be processes with social and material aspects” (33), it’s awfully hard to put a cool photo of a process in a text, so visual representations of stuff tend to override this preference for processes.  The committee itself (with biographies listed in Appendix A) is a combination of academics, industry researchers, scientists, artists, with a healthy dose of those actively mixing formats, venues, and methodologies.

Perhaps not surprisingly for its stated goals, the report begins with its “Summary and Recommendations.”  At the heart of these recommendations are two essential, though unstated assumptions that guide the entire project: 1) creativity is good; and 2) IT development is inevitable.  I cannot quibble with the first assumption, though its emphasis at the beginning seems a bit overwrought.  The opening statement, “Creativity plays a crucial role in culture” is linked through a bit of tortured prose to nearly inevitable “economic development.”  The second assumption appears similarly unassailable.  Who can argue the rising tide of technological advancement?  This language of inevitability is also one of progression.  For example, in a discussion of “tools needed to support creative work,” the authors note that “There is a great distance from the paintbrush or piano to programming in C++” (67).  An innocuous statement, surely, and their point is well-taken:  to foster true collaboration, artists need to understand and engage with the tools of IT.  Ok, but the progress through this distance is one-way.  We can move from the paintbrush or piano to programming languages, but the report makes little mention in moving the other direction, as if to move from programming to painting is no distance at all.  Indeed, the idea of moving one’s actual practice in this direction is largely absent from the report. 

These assumptions guide the reading of entire project.  The tone of the report often becomes one of warning: the IT boat is leaving, either it will include the arts (perhaps rescuing them from historical oblivion?) or it will go on alone, but without the power of creativity that only the arts can provide.  It’s going to be a long, capital-driven ride.  In the midst of this plea, however, other inevitabilities arise.  As the authors note “information technology now plays a critical role in the formation and ongoing competitiveness of clusters of creative activity—both geographic clusters and more distributed clusters held together by electronic interconnection and interaction” (26).  So, perhaps the boat has already left and we ought to do more to get the artists out of the water and into the boat, lest they be washed away in the tide.  (Too much metaphor?  Ok, I’ll stop, but in the section on “Digital Archiving and Preservation,” the authors recommend stewardship, not just storage.)

I don’t think I’m being paranoid or defensive in my reading of the report.  (Or, perhaps I am, but I think I’m justified.)  Despite numerous calls for cooperative, collective collaborations, the language of competition repeatedly structures the text, if only the competition for resources.  For example, Chapter 1 “Information Technology, Productivity, and Creativity” concludes with a section on the “Race for Creativity in a Networked World.”  This is, according to the authors, a global race in which “the rewards are high” with nothing less at stake than “economic growth,” “enhanced quality of life,” “cultural and political influence” ultimately leading to “soft power” (27).  The consequences for losing are clear.  The losers in this race—those who do not accept the importance of creativity and fail to support and reward the integration of IT and art—will lose (soft) power.  But who is racing?  Toward what are they/we racing?  Are there rules for this race?  Will we know when they’ve/we’ve won?  Given the examples of creative industries, do we even want to win?  My favorite example mentioned twice in this chapter is Michael Jordan.  His first mention is as the product of creative science that results in “creative basketball” (17); the second is in the context of a “progressively interdependent market” (21).  The authors cite the idolization of Jordan by teenagers in “China—or Pakistan” as evidence that creative work in a cultural agenda is a “form of deep, pervasive influence and is as integral to global leadership as trade policy or diplomatic relationships” (21).  So, to summarize: we’re in a global race to enhance/preserve “our” quality of life, economic growth, and political influence.  To lose will mean domination from another more creative, yet unnamed entity; but to win will mean global cultural hegemony. 

To be fair, the actual artistic integrations and collaborations to which the report refers do not imply—many even resist—this kind of cultural infiltration and domination, but I am disturbed by the lack of cultural criticism offered in the report.  I am also surprised by this, given the presence of two cultural theorists in this area—N. Katherine Hayles; and Phoebe Sengers—and a committee of engaged critical practice and theory.  But with the stated purpose of defending this type of creative practice, it may be that internal critique is simply not feasible.  And feasible is absolutely the right word, since this project eventually takes on the aura of a feasibility study with a stated bias.  The list of projects, artists, and developments are clearly intended to prove the good potential outcomes for supporting collaborations between IT and art.  In this sense, all projects are good, if they foster creativity.

But I am reminded of Peggy Phelen’s caution in Unmarked that “Visibility is a trap; it summons surveillance and the law; it provokes voyeurism, fetishism, the colonialist/imperial appetite for possession” (6).  This appears most prominently in the discussion of motion-capture collaboration—“ghostcatching”—with the dancer, Bill T. Jones.  Jones is a dancer with a long repertoire of dynamic dances that directly engage with issues of race, sexuality, and the body.  http://www.billtjones.org/  His famous “Still/Here” (1994) was a reflection on the death of his collaborator and partner, Arne Zane (the company is still Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane), and his own HIV-positive status.  This dance is, in part, about the tension between presence and absence, collaboration, and the loss of a physical body.  In 1994, it placed Jones squarely in the middle of the broiling culture wars, inviting attacks, defenses, and criticisms against the background of the Contract with America and NEA 4 controversies.

I am thus struck uncomfortably by the images of what it means to “capture” Jones and by the uncritical praise for this “collaboration.”  I do not mean to divest Jones of his autonomy or his own critical engagement in the collaboration, though he admits to being ambivalent about the project, and I am not criticizing the enterprise itself.  But I seriously question the representation of this collaboration as emblematic and ideal in the context of this report, as a symptom of the larger questions that the report invites:  namely, the cultural and historical contexts for this intersection of technology and creative work.  In a very self-involved way, I am always interested in and looking for, the body of the performer, so it is from this perspective that I want to consider the images that the report presents.

“Box 3.8” presents two images of Jones: the first clearly engaged in movement, turned at profile to the camera, gaze looking off to the viewer’s left; the second, presents Jones naked, eyes closed, arms and legs spread (vaguely reminiscent of Vitruvian Man), with white dots covering his body.  The images are defined textually much as they are represented visually.  The first is labeled as “Improvising,” the second “Wearing motion-capture markers.”  Thus, the first image reinforces both visually and textually that Jones is an independent artist.  He creates away from the viewer, independent of a script, unconstrained and unregulated, even by our view (though clearly his movement is depicted as a captured image itself).  The second is an image of explicit “capture” and constraint, one that results in the physical erasure of Jones’s physical, Black body; and replaces him with white lines mathematically created by his collaborators.  The second image also carries a distinct sexual connotation, with one sensor attached to his penis.  In the original essay by Zoe Ingalls, one of the media collaborators explains that, “The sensor attachments are fairly standard—wrist, elbows, knees, feet, shoulders,” but that additional sensors were attached to Jones’s back, which “dancers typically articulate more than most people” http://chronicle.com/weekly/v45/i21/21a02901.htm.  So why the addition to his penis?  This goes unremarked upon in Ingall’s essay, but one cannot escape the racial and sexual implications of a naked, muscular, Black male body “captured” and “marked” by white points that appear as light (they apparently resemble ping pong balls in person).  Jones himself re-enters the “performance” through sound described as “chanting, humming, singing, talking, grunting, and more” (91). 

The accompanying text for these images, makes it appear as if the creation of virtual dance—described as “original”—is the most important aspect of the collaboration (90-91).  It is worth quoting at length:

Envisioning a blend of performance, filmmaking, drawing, and computer composition, the artists used light-sensitive sensors attached to 22 key points of Jones’s body and eight cameras to capture his movements. Roughly 40 sequences of Jones’s movement were recorded digitally. The resulting “capture data”—which represented a record of only the movements of the sensors and not of Jones’s body per se—were then used as the raw information for Kaiser and Eshkar’s creative application. See Figure 3.8.1. Jones’s “movements were then manipulated electronically and re-choreographed on a computer screen to make an original virtual performance.”2

The results include an 8-minute digital projection, 13 still images taken from the dance, photographs that describe the artists’ process, and a soundtrack consisting of Jones’s own sounds: “chanting, humming, singing, talking, grunting, and more.”3 Commissioned by the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art,4 the installation opened at the Cooper Union’s Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery in New York City and ran from January 6 to February 13, 1999.

But the larger objective for the work is ignored, namely that this collaboration was an attempt to record dances by performers with HIV, those whose bodies are actively in danger of being literally erased by infected code.  To borrow from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor AIDS as Metaphor, this project of deliberate physical erasure as preservation eerily echoes what I would call the symptomography of viruses, both bodily and digital.  That the report ignores this larger cultural context for the project seems to me deeply troubling and hardly “beyond productivity.”  It is no coincidence, I think, that the report ultimately has to come to terms with the erasure of the digital information due to obsolete formats. 

That the report does not address these fundamental questions of image, representation, race, gender, sexuality, and the problematic history of “capture” is, for me, a serious omission.  While I take seriously the authoring committee’s argument for funding, infrastructure, academic recognition, evolution of public policy, and standards of evaluation that support, encourage, and protect artists and technologists working across disciplines, I am concerned that omitting such critical reflection at the inception of a project will serve to reinforce and repeat existing hierarchies and privileged positions of viewing, creating, and interpreting.  At the beginning, as this report sees itself to be, is the best (only?) time to incorporate considerations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability, and to consider access and representation within the technology itself.  If the project to move beyond productivity, which assumes that every process yield something useful—be it knowledge, innovation, or art object—then a fundamental engagement with those at the margins of representation and access must be at least approached, if not fully integrated into the enterprise.

In a final assessment and with all due respect to those involved—who know far more than I—I would re-title this report, “redefining productivity.”  The goal, as illustrated in both anecdotal and visual illustrations, is not about engaging with aims other than being productive, but seems rather to seek to enlarge notions of productivity such that the gains (in the global race, no less) can be more accurately assessed and perpetuated by including artistic creativity.  If we can redefine our objectives and our tools of creation and assessment, we can “win” the race for global culture influence.  If we remain constricted and under-funded (a drum beat loud and long throughout), then we will restrict the integration of technology and art, and consequently, have to watch the race from the sidelines as others reap the rewards of becoming more imaginatively, more creatively, productive.

References/ Recommended Reading

No references for this section.