Leonardo Thinks


Historical Article by Stephen Wilson

Stephen Wilson proposes that the Industrial Research Artist is a new player whose work would combine art and industrial research …
Industrial Research Artist: A Proposal

I. Introduction: The Absence of Artists at the Frontier of Culture

Scientific and technological research continuously pushes our cultural frontiers outward. This research shapes everything from our view of the world to our household gadgets. Artists traditionally have stimulated the cultural expansion. But as science and technology increasingly dominate the frontier, artists are failing in their historical function; they are not developing viable ways to join this research effort.

‘Artist’ has many meanings. In the popular mind an artist-a painter or sculptor, perhaps-manipulates materials to produce beautiful or interesting images and objects. My definition of artist looks beyond this surface manipulation to more fundamental qualities. The artist function ideally includes asking unaskable questions, pushing at conceptual limitations, illuminating new holistic perspectives on the commonplace, prophesying, and keeping alive the sense of wonder and play in even the most rigorous quests. This kind of artist can make critical contributions.

In keeping with Leonardo’s mission of testing cultural frontiers, I analyze here some aspects of the problem that results from artist absenteeism. And I propose that the Industrial Research Artist, a new player, should help find solutions. I address these questions: What does culture gain from artist involvement in technological and scientific research processes? What obstacles keep artists from being involved? How can these obstacles be overcome?
II. Analysis of the Problem: The Isolation of Artists From Industrial Research and Development (R&D)

Many artists, on principle, have avoided the world of commerce. They have gloried in their status of ‘outsider’. By staying clear of grimy, mundane activity, they think that they have kept their hands clean, their sensibilities unfettered, and their spirits free. They frown upon their colleagues who, they believe, have compromised their artistic purity by working with industry. The contemporary linkage of scientific and technological research to commerce thus adds to the obstacles preventing artist involvement.

The marriage of industry and technological research has in some ways been fruitful. It has generated unanticipated concepts and applications that are profoundly reshaping the world. Industries are breaking through barriers-in concerns such as image making and sensory exploration-that were once formidable strongholds of artistic investigation. By retreating from the action, where the fires of cultural creativity burn white hot, artists are losing their place in the cultural vanguard. The technological industries’ trade shows outclass contemporary art events in illuminating the cultural future.

In the past, artists have tried to be in the forefront of culture-probing, exploring its meanings, exposing its unseen connections, and redirecting it. Industrial R&D is now culture’s advance guard, and artists are dangerously distant from this essential development. The culture needs artists at the core of industrial research and development, not just to play parasitically with its gadgets and paraphernalia.

The price of artist disinvolvement is increasing across the board. Artists need this involvement to keep their work from being anachronistic and irrelevant. Industry needs this involvement to enrich its development of ideas and products. The culture needs this involvement to ensure that maximum resources will contribute to innovation.
III. The Difficulty of Involving Artists in Industrial R&D

To involve artists in technological research will not be easy. On the one hand, artists need to get over their fears of technology and commerce. On the other, industrial R&D has to expand its concepts of problem solving so that it is able to absorb the artist contributions.

Financial viability is the decisive factor in commercial ventures. Yet analyzing each action for its effect on profits is an obstacle to artist involvement. What profit can there be in this involvement? How can industry, which won’t even support basic scientific research without the guarantee of a short-term payback on investment, be expected to support art research?

Traditionally, industry, because of its ‘responsibility’ to the community, is urged to give money to art. At best, this motive usually results in mere token support. Industry either supplies funds for traditional and entrenched art institutions, such as museums and symphonies, or it purchases inoffensive decoration to beautify corporate headquarters. These approaches do nothing to reduce the isolation of the artist from the R&D process. True incorporation of artists into R&D requires demonstration that artists can concretely benefit the research process.
IV. A Possible Solution: Industrial Research Artists

I mentioned earlier the Industrial Research Artist, who should function as an intrinsic component of the R&D process, not as a temporary intruder. He or she would be a full member of the problem-solving team. Perhaps this functional relationship would help to avert the kind of difficulty that surfaced in previous attempts to foster art/industry cooperation: for example, the Experiments in Art & Technology (EAT) and the Los Angeles County Museum’s Art & Technology project. In these efforts, artists and engineers, for the most part, remained strangers to each other. When they successfully collaborated, they helped and learned from each other; but they did not forge lasting synergistic units.

This new role is not easy to create, for adjustments are required. Artists need to adapt disciplined scientific understandings and work styles where appropriate. To be fully contributing partners, they need expertise in relevant technical areas.
How much technical expertise is adequate? While it is unreasonable to expect artists to bring to a project the same level of technical knowledge and competence as scientists and engineers, the artists’ knowledge needs to be more profound than a dilettante’s. For their part, scientists need to learn to value the open, artistic approach-in themselves and in their new co-workers.
To be useful, artists must maintain their independence, remaining isolated from the team while at the same time being part of it. They must develop empathy for their co-workers, while avoiding seduction by either profit goals or technical biases. Total acceptance of the corporate creed would end their ability to function as artists.
V. Benefits of Artist Involvement in Industrial R&D

Prosperous companies, almost by definition, must look to the future. For example, American Telephone and Telegraph (ATT) and International Business Machines (IBM) encourage their researchers to ask new questions and to find new areas for development rather than just to refine ideas that are clearly and immediately marketable and profitable. This process could be made even more productive if artists participated actively. For example, Bell Labs (the research wing of ATT) brought musicians into electronic sound research. As a result the augmented team generated new ideas about telephone communication and speech synthesis and stimulated the development of new forms of electronic music.

Increasing specialization has added to the cost of technical progress since researchers must often drastically narrow their focus. The artistic temperament can be an antidote to this specialization. Psychologists note that the creative problem-solving process requires participants to be flexible and able to distance themselves from conventional wisdom when dealing with problem identification and the search for alternative solutions. With their free- wheeling, synthetic, holistic views, artists are ideally suited to these creative leaps. Because artist training, attitudes, and experience differ from those of research scientists and corporate executives, artists could productively broaden the group perspective. Benefits would accrue from both the specific ideas artists would generate and from their teaching other members new ways of approaching problems.
VI. Summary: The Challenge

I am proposing a new specialization role for artists. Their work would combine art and industrial research. In the long term, there should be no need for such a specialist; every researcher should be trained to combine the best scientific and artistic attitudes and skills. By bringing these divergent views into focus, the Industrial Research Artist helps move us toward the ideal.

Defining and shaping the role of the Industrial Research Artist is an exciting and difficult challenge-given the realities of artistic and industrial tradition. I believe it is clearly worth the effort, for success will make a difference to the future of the arts and of society.
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: Stephen Wilson Editorial Board Member
Originally published in: Leonardo, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1984), pp. 69-70
Published by: The MIT Press
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online : ISSN 1530-9282, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1574990.
Leonardo is a registered trademark of the ISAST.