Opening Keynote Q&A - Gerfried Stocker
TNC17’s Opening Keynote speaker Gerfried Stocker certainly understands the challenges and opportunities offered by technology. Artistic director of Ars Electronica since 1995, Gerfried is a media artist and telecommunications engineer. From his early experiences as an electronic composer in the 1980s to his interdisciplinary research projects involving robotics, telecommunications and other interactive technologies, he has used his dual background to build the link between humans and machines so we become empowered actors of our lives. Described as a visionary person, he has more than a story to tell about the role of creativity in the success of technological developments.
Gerfried, what is Ars Electronica?
What we have built at Ars Electronics is an ecosystem for innovation. This ecosystem allows for pioneering technological developments because it replicates the artistic thinking process from inspiration to experiments on to creation, involving a wide range of disciplines and skills. This ecosystem revolves around three pillars:
At the Ars Festival in September of each year we bring together artists from all over the globe to present their work and visions of the future. It’s a great feast of eclectic, enchanting, intriguing and catching creations.
The Ars Electronica Center focuses on educating people about technologies and how they can change their lives as well as making them take part in the process through interactive displays and experiences.
The obvious third pillar of the ecosystem is the Future Lab, a place where we take inspiration and needs and create answer together, with artists, engineers, developers, all working as a team from the very early stages of commissioned research projects.
Any examples of these research projects?
We worked on a new car navigation system commissioned by Siemens in the early 2000s. Up until then car navigation systems were based on maps, our input was to bring in a more instinctual way of seeing the world, i.e. in three dimensions! Using a camera at the front of the car and video-augmented reality we designed a display which showed the road ahead, with a personal yellow guiding line projected onto the road and integrating future directions and adjusting in real time as the car moved.
Now this feature has been adopted by several car manufacturers but it took the combined efforts of artists and engineers to imagine and develop a solution that is not just technologically advanced but also easy to adopt by the end user.
The Ars Electronica Future Lab also collaborated on research around a self-driving car, specifically on how to enable the interaction of the car with pedestrians. How to recognise that the car is communicating with surrounding human beings, for example how to know that the car is stopping to let you cross the road? Working with developers, artists and technicians again we have come up with ideas such as laser projected zebra crossings, which start moving like a conveyor belt then more quickly before disappearing. Our work was to recreate a language, using technology for what it is, that is a means to tell a story. The story itself has to come from our minds and our experience of the world as human beings in the first place.
Why is art so important in creating technology?
Art is not about pretty things gathered in a museum, nor is it a cool design. Art is a way of dealing with the world and the environment we live in, by critiquing it with an inquisitive eye but also by unlocking its possibilities through projections and experiments. The problem is when you work in a technological field, especially at the speed technology can be developed these days, you need people to be highly specialised. However the more specialised you are, the less able you are to see the wider world with all its possibilities. It becomes difficult to see the world outside of your research and development focus and see opportunities for commercial applications for example. A lot of the technology we use today was invented over a decade ago but it was only used by a few for limited applications. Until someone could see other ways in which the technology could be used in everyday life, calling for adaptations and developments for possible business opportunities. This is what artistic thinking allows you to do, to see and size the possibilities of everyday life.
What is your interest in contributing to TNC17?
Advocating for a more creative approach to develop technology. The product of the future won’t just need to be technologically innovative but it will need to be accepted by people and integrated into society. This is where artists can help because their core work is about people and how society work.
Ultimately it is about empowering individuals to create the products that they actually need rather than be passive consumers of ready-made technology which won’t last and will be expensive to renew… This is also important from an economic point of view because technology is an investment and has a cost.
The other reason is to showcase the potential of collaboration between art and technology. Until recently in history we had always operated machines, i.e. used them as tools. But we have now entered times where we live with technologies, which brings new challenges on the table; it’s not just about designing the shape of an object, it’s also about creating adaptive technology, designing behaviours, a character, maybe even the soul of a machine.
Technologies will continue to develop exponentially in the coming years. However to avoid pitfalls such as privacy breaches or health and safety risks we need to take political responsibility. This is why it is important to raise people’s awareness of what technology can do so they make the most of them and see them as opportunities, not challenges.
How can art influence research and education networking?
In many ways but mostly in creating awareness among communities of people of what they can do with and demand from technologies, as well as developing this “out of the box” or “look beyond the fence” way of thinking which is the artistic way of thinking. My goal is to empower people to better understand and use technology to create a more harmonious and appropriate cohabitation between humans and technology. I believe the goal of research and education networks is the same in the fact that you want to provide a technology that empowers researchers and students to size the opportunities ahead of them, for their benefits and ours combined.