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DevArt: Google's ambitious project to program a new generation of artists

DevArt: Google's ambitious project to program a new generation of artists


You could be the star of a major new exhibition

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Dev Art
Dev Art

Your work could be at the heart of one of the largest digital art exhibitions the world has ever seen, thanks to a collaboration between London’s Barbican Centre and Google.

The exhibition is called Digital Revolution, and from July 3rd to September 14th it will explore the impact of technology on art over the past 40 years. It will feature artists, designers, musicians, architects, and developers to reveal the artistry that's all around us, from the films that we watch to the games that we play. DevArt, its final act, will showcase three large-scale, “magical” works of art from established artists, and one that's yet to be announced. That’s where you come in.

At the core of DevArt is a new website and competition from Google that hopes to inspire coders to get creative, and offers them the platform on which to do so. The winner of the eight-week competition will have the opportunity to exhibit their artwork in the DevArt area at the Barbican. In addition to the main prize, one project will be highlighted on the site’s front page each week — it’s a massive opportunity for some serious exposure.

"Art isn't just the output but the entire development process."

The winning piece will be exhibited alongside artworks from three of the biggest names in digital art, and all of them will be developing their work in public through the DevArt site. “What we're trying to show,” explains Google Creative Lab’s Emma Turpin, “is that art isn't just the output, but the entire development process.” Anyone visiting DevArt will be able to follow the projects, look through each artist's code, and see that code slowly refined and developed into the final exhibit.

Zach Lieberman is one of the artists that will be developing his idea for DevArt. He’s been working in the field for over a decade, regularly creating new artworks, and he also co-authored openFrameworks, an open-source tool kit that helps others to code creatively. His work uses technology to create unexpected experiences, often incorporating gesture, sound, and more than a little showmanship.

Lieberman’s piece for DevArt is tentatively titled Play the world. It will allow visitors to play on a keyboard that samples sounds, in real-time, from hundreds of radio stations around the world. Play a "middle C" on the keyboard, for example, and it may pick up a matching note from a sports radio show in Nigeria, or a bossa nova station in Brazil. The keyboard is surrounded by a circle of speakers, and the sounds will be "geographically oriented" depending on where in the world they've come from. Like most of Lieberman's art, what's going on behind the scenes is highly complex — scanning hundreds of the world's radio stations while simultaneously analyzing pitch is no easy feat — but to the person playing that keyboard, it should feel effortless.

Taking a different approach are Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Carnet, better known as Vavara + Mar. They’ve covered a vast range of topics with their work, but the results are always clever, playful, and leave a lasting impression. In 2012 they turned a São Paulo skyscraper into a giant metronome that beat to the "rhythm of the city" based on social media activity. Their DevArt piece takes the now-everyday occurrence of speech recognition and injects a healthy dose of whimsy.

Titled Wishing Wall, it attempts to reimagine how we share our wishes with the world. Visitors will be invited to tell their wish to the wall, where the words will transform before them into a butterfly. These butterflies will be generated by analyzing speech and determining the sentiments behind the words used, and the result will be a giant wall of wishes represented by butterflies that visitors can then interact with.

The final commissioned piece will come from Karsten Schmidt, whose name will be familiar to many Londoners. His malleable, open source digital identity for the Decode exhibition at the city’s V&A museum captured the public imagination, and his new work will expand on the co-authorship ideas he first introduced years ago.

Co(de)factory (another tentative title) will play out like a performance, and, much like the DevArt competition itself, it gives the public a starring role. Schmidt has created a set of 3D-modeling tools and will invite the public to contribute a small section to a larger work either online or using computers in the DevArt area. When completed, these works will be printed live at the exhibition using a UV 3D printer, an almost theatrical machine that appears to "grow" objects from a photosensitive liquid using UV light. At least one of these collaborative artworks will be printed every day and exhibited in the space, and over 70 will be printed over the duration of the exhibition.

Taken at face value, the three projects couldn’t be more different, but all will be created much in the same way any piece of software is. The message is simple: all you need is an idea, and the ability to code it, and you can create amazing things. Anyone can sign up for the DevArt competition and start coding, regardless of experience; it even connects up with the popular software development site GitHub, so would-be art superstars just need to link up a GitHub project and updates will be pulled into their DevArt page automatically. Through the competition and exhibition, Google and the Barbican hope to encourage creative coding, but more importantly, they’re looking to show that code can be, and often is, art.

Technology is everywhere, and the people that create it and create with it are, and always have been, artists

The Barbican has successfully showcased digital and interactive art for years, notably with 2012's massively popular Rain Room, but Digital Revolution is more than that. It’s a dizzyingly ambitious show that will feature historic pieces like vintage arcade cabinets alongside contemporary work from the special effects teams behind Gravity and Inception; video games from small indies and larger developers like Harmonix, the team behind Rock Band and Dance Central; a multitude of audio exhibits from artists like Philip Glass; and what sounds like a rather special collaboration between and audio artist Yuri Suzuki, who’s currently crowdfunding a synthesizer that can turn anything into a musical instrument.

Through Digital Revolution, and perhaps no more so than with DevArt, the Barbican wants to tell the world that technology is everywhere, and the people that create it and create with it are, and always have been, artists. Digital art is art.

So what’s in it for Google? DevArt is the brainchild of Google Creative Lab, a free-thinking arm of the company that showcases why, before the data collection, and before the privacy scares, so many of us fell in love with the company. It’s an in-house design agency, a brand consultancy dedicated to just one company. It employs top-tier designers, developers, and technologists who are encouraged to create, innovate, and experiment for the good of Google. It was instrumental in the redesign of most of Google’s services that saw aesthetics and usability as equally important qualities, and it’s also quite unique in its willingness to work with other companies to show what’s possible with Google services. As you’d expect, DevArt showcases more than a few of these services, with all of the exhibits tapping into a couple of Google properties like its Cloud Platform or Maps API.

"Developers and coders are the new creatives."

Discussing DevArt with Conrad Bodman, guest curator at the Barbican, and Steve Vranakis, executive creative director at Creative Lab London, it’s clear that they’re far more enthusiastic about the exhibition than the opportunity to promote Google services. Both firmly believe in the idea developers and coders are "the new creatives," and technology is the canvas for that creativity. "What we really wanted to show," says Vranakis, "is that if you give the platform and the opportunity for coders to express themselves creatively they could make something incredible."

As Bodman talks through his plans for Digital Revolution, Vranakis’ face lights up in excitement over the who’s who of artists being name-dropped. Usman Haque, whose company Umbrellium creates massive, interactive urban installations is also involved, and he’s apparently working on a giant interactive exhibit involving lasers that everyone is looking forward to. They’re looking to transfer that excitement to a new generation that has yet to discover digital art, and coding in general.

The timing, in the UK at least, couldn’t be better. As the exhibition ends and begins to move its way across the world, computer programming will, for the first time, be taught to all children in England from elementary school through to high school. The children that come flocking to Digital Revolution this summer might be wowed by the lights and interactive elements, but what they take away to their new programming classes could be far more important. "If a 10-year-old girl [visits DevArt]" says Turpin, "we want her to understand that coding can make butterflies fly and land on her hand, and show her the magic behind what they see. And that magic’s code."