Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
George Fifield: Any time you have a technology which can create an expressive medium, artists are some of the first people there after it’s invented.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is George Fifield. He is Director of Boston Cyberarts, and welcome to our program.
George Fifield: Thanks for having me.
Anita Walker: I always love an origin story, and Boston Cyberarts. When did you start that?
George Fifield: In 1998 to put on a festival of art and technology and we called it the Boston Cyberarts Festival so that’s how the name came about, and it was because the MCC had just come out with a brand new grant structure, the CED, the Cultural Economic Development grant, and somebody at the MCC told me about that so I applied for that and that kicked the whole thing off.
Anita Walker: And that program then became the Adams Grant Program, which has now morphed into the Cultural Districts Program, so we are a dynamic agency constantly evolving with our programs. But at that time, first of all the idea of arts and economic development was a whole brand-new idea.
George Fifield: Yeah.
Anita Walker: Those two words had never been put together, and arts and cyber was kind of a new marriage of thinking. What made you come up with that?
George Fifield: Okay, so back in the ‘80s I was trying to be an artist in the field of video art, but I was earning a living as a graphic designer and the field of video art didn’t change very much back then but graphic design changed immensely with Pagemaker and all of these tools. At one time in my life I knew how to cast type, a skill nobody needs anymore, and so that was sort of interesting, watching this evolutionary change in a whole field because of microcomputers and I started to know people who were doing art in this field. So actually, a number of years before at the Space, which was a small gallery run by Stella McGregor on South Street, I got a chance to curate my first show of computer installation art and we called it The Computer Is Not Sorry.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
George Fifield: A name I’m still very proud of, and we had Jennifer Hall. We had a number of really interesting artists from around town who were doing computer installation art. But it was clearly an idea of whose time had come.
Anita Walker: Yeah, and you had it and you brought it right here to Boston and Cambridge and Massachusetts. First of all, what is your favorite first thing that Boston Cyberarts did? When you look back and say, “Nobody would have ever thought. I can’t believe I thought of that,”?
George Fifield: Ooh, tough question. I think it was bringing a whole group of artists who were the first artists working in augmented reality art to the ICA and they had called me up. They had done this before at The Museum of Modern Art but it was surreptitious. They didn’t tell the museum so a whole bunch of people showed up in 2010 just looking around on their phones at things that were floating around the museum and needless to say, the security guards weren’t happy so they called the people to do something about it and they let them keep it up. They called me because I knew all of them and they said, “We want to do the same thing at the 2011 Cyberarts Festival. We want the institution to know about it.” So I wrote a letter, the email to Jill Medvedow and said, “Jill, this is how the ICA can be a part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival and guess what? You don’t have to do anything.” <laughing> And she said, “Great,” and they came and they did tours all around the first floor of the gallery and around the outside showing off their augmented reality.
Anita Walker: And outside, too. I remember the outside. I remember walking around with my phone. So it was kind of like what they’re doing now. Pokémon Go. You started that.
George Fifield: Yes, but much more dramatic. Much more dramatic and beautiful.
Anita Walker: So alright, now here we are all these short years later. None of us have aged a minute since then but boy, technology has taken off. From your vantage point, where do you see the intersection of our technology and science today compared to when you started Boston Cyberarts?
George Fifield: I take a very wide view of this. I mean, I think first of all, all art is technology. Going back to perspective, I like to think of as an architectural software, and so the earliest people using perspective are going through the same process that artists are using artificial intelligence today and you see the pattern happening again and again. So anytime you have a technology which can create an expressive medium, artists are some of the first people there after it’s invented to really explore it and to stretch it and to see what it really can do and that’s a fascinating process to watch, and usually the first people who get there, they do what I like to call Gee Wiz Art. It’s just sort of, “Wow, we can do something cool with this,” and then it takes a couple more generations – and by generations I don’t mean human life generations. I mean artists who then come and start to explore its mode of impact and finally you get a couple of artists who get it and they do something spectacular with it and then people go, “Wow, this is great! Let’s work with this.”
Anita Walker: So I remember that event. Was it 2010 or 2011 with the augmented art?
George Fifield: Mm hmm.
Anita Walker: You also had a concert with computers.
George Fifield: We actually had a concert at the very first Cyberarts Festival in 1999 at Symphony Hall that was done by George Antheil in the ‘20s called the Ballet Mecanique, and one of the things it involved was a whole bunch of player pianos, like nine player pianos, and a professor at Tufts had figured out that he could replace those because that didn’t work very well, with these new devices which made music and recreated the Ballet Mecanique for the first time the way it was supposed to be heard.
Anita Walker: Now these laptops or these computers that I heard subsequently next [ph?], where I’m going with this they made something that was called music but didn’t sound like music to me. So my question is, when artists take technology and do a whiz bang thing with it and make a new kind of art, it may be unfamiliar. We may have to sort of rethink about what we think art is.
George Fifield: Very much so, and that’s really for me, a lot of the fun of it is to see what- I always say artists like to get a hold of a new technology and squeeze it and break it until it shatters and falls into pieces at their feet and then they usually claim that was their original intent. Nam June Paik being a great example. But yes, what can you do with this, what can you do that’s emotive and hopefully what can you do that’s never been done before?
Anita Walker: So now, what’s happening next? What has never been done before that’s about to be done?
George Fifield: There’s actually a lot of people still working in AR art that’s very interesting and there’s a lot of new augmented reality apps that are coming out.
Anita Walker: Define that term for us.
George Fifield: Augmented reality. Okay, virtual reality is when you build an entire virtual environment and you step into it wearing virtual reality goggles. Augmented reality is when you take a virtual object and you place it in real space and you can see it through a device like your phone which has a camera, a processing unit and a screen, and so you can place these things anywhere and so we’re doing a bunch of that this summer and for the whole next year, starting May 15. We’re going to have six augmented reality sculptures on The Greenway, working with The Greenway Conservancy. But another thing that I find really interesting and doing more and more with artists working in it is artificial intelligence. AI is now so sophisticated you can fill an AI structure with examples of what you want it to do and then it will start to produce examples of that.
Anita Walker: You still need the artist in the first place.
George Fifield: Not as much as you might think.
Anita Walker: Oh, don’t tell me that because I’ve always wanted to believe that the only thing robots can’t replace is the artist, the creative mind.
George Fifield: What the artists want to do is look at the stuff and make a decision as to whether they like it or not but they don’t have to touch anything. As a matter of fact, one artist, Alex Reben, just wears brainwave nodules and the AI shows him different things and reads his brain and can tell which ones he likes.
Anita Walker: Alright, for those of you who are not in the room with us right now, George is taking his fingers and applying them to his forehead to demonstrate these nodules that are affixed to the artists head <laughs> that are discussing in his brain.
George Fifield: So one of things he does is before he starts this routine he’ll go and he’ll put these brainwave things on and then he’ll look at things he really likes, pictures and stuff like that, and so the AI will get a sense of, oh, that’s what the brainwaves of something he really likes looks like. We’re going to show him stuff and when we get those patterns then we’ll say okay, those are the good ones.
Anita Walker: Put that idea in the artists head?
George Fifield: Yeah.
Anita Walker: Do you like that?
George Fifield: I find it hysterically funny and wonderful.
Anita Walker: <Laughs>
George Fifield: And then just to finish things off, for his amalGAN, he calls them, `images, he then takes the final image that the AI comes up with and he sends in to a village in China and they paint it in oil paints for him. So he hasn’t touched it at all but he’s got a little oil painting—
Anita Walker: Of what was in his head that was suggested by artificial intelligence.
George Fifield: –of what was presented to him by the artificial intelligence that his head said, “I like.”
Anita Walker: I don’t know, George. <laughs>
George Fifield: Anita, I get that a lot.
Anita Walker: <Laughs> You get, “I don’t know, George,” a lot. I believe that. I believe that. But this is really fascinating, but this is where I go back to what I’m saying. Do we need to rethink what we define as art? Whereas I didn’t like that computer music at all and it didn’t even sound like music, just like a little wailing, screeching computers and it escaped me entirely but everyone else in the room was really transfixed, although they may have been just a bunch of computer people who just were thrilled that somebody had squished those computers and made it do things like that, that then it was called art. So now we’ve got a robot, an artificial intelligence mapping the mind of an artist. Is this still art?
George Fifield: I think we’ve had to rethink art ever since Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down and painted “R. Mutt” on the side of it. Was it Marshall McLuhan who once said, “Art is anything you can get away with,” but I think it’s still art. It’s art because it’s emotive. It’s art because it’s formed of a creative spirit and it’s art that appeals to us for no other reason other than our human sensibilities.
Anita Walker: So it has to have some intersection with humans and humanity? It can’t be totally a box of circuitry without any connection to humans.
George Fifield: Because only humans are viewers of art.
Anita Walker: Well this is true, George.
George Fifield: When you can get artificial intelligence to appreciate the artificial intelligence art, then you can just put that off in a corner and they’ll have a great time all by themselves.
Anita Walker: Whenever I wrap up this segment, I always say the same thing but never has it been more true than when I say it today. George Fifield, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
George Fifield: Thank you, Anita.
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