It Doesn’t Have to be a Tragedy: Arts and Technology in a Digital Era

Though technological change has affected the publishing industry since its inception, many publishers today seem caught off guard by advancements and are struggling to keep up rather than striving for innovation. This, however, does not have to be the case. The shift to digital formats is not a means of alienating those involved in the humanities but rather a significant push towards unifying the arts and technology. Gone are the days of scientists grumbling about the flakey idealism of artists and artists complaining about the staunch conservatism of scientists. Instead we have entered an age of collaboration, unification, and most importantly vast and rapid innovation.

Moving forward in a digital era, it is important not to forget the value of the relationship between the arts and technology. This relationship is a dependent one; technology requires the arts to think in a non-linear fashion while the arts need technology to remain practical in its problem solving approach. That being said, when implementing new technologies in the arts it is important to consider why a technology is being used and how it enhances the audience’s experience. This relates to publishing in that the industry could benefit from a better understanding of and more collaboration with technology. Presently, there is a trend among publishers to convert their materials into electronic formats in a rush to keep up with change. Instead, publishers should consider what technologies are available and how they could be used to identify and expand their audiences, while providing a platform for collaboration and discussion.

By looking outside of their industry, publishers can take a cue from what artists, research centres, and galleries have implemented to encourage collaboration, discussion, and audience participation with their work. Some of these include photographer Andy Adams, who used crowdsourcing to create an online exhibit; the Eyebeam Art and Technology Centre, whose Open(Art) project involves an interactive book that teaches artists about programming through play; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s (SFMOMA) Family app, which enhances the experience of children visiting galleries by encouraging interaction and discussion. Before considering these options, however, it should be noted why it is important to have collaboration between the arts and technology.

As many governments and universities slash funding for the arts in favour of tech industries and programs, leaders in both fields continue to discuss the importance of collaboration among the two. In an interview with The Guardian, John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design suggests that, “innovation doesn’t just come from equations […] it comes from a human place.” He continues to indicate that the structure of the economy consists of convergent and divergent thinkers. Convergent thinkers are those who focus and get work done, such as scientists and engineers, while divergent thinkers are those who consider a greater range of possibilities, such as artists and designers. Maeda believes that superior innovation requires a combination of the two. (Lamont) Steve Jobs also understood the value of the combination of arts and technology. He stated, “it’s the marriage of that [technology] plus the humanities and the liberal arts that distinguishes Apple.” (Tessandier) This relevance is important in moving forward and understanding how the arts can keep up in a digital era.

A study conducted by the Canadian Art Funders (CPAF) Network, looked into what technologies were being implemented by creative industries and what could be done to keep up in a digital era. Focusing on art institutions, artists, and publishers, it was decided that the interactive nature of the digital world could prove beneficial in disseminating work to a wider audience and increasing public engagement. Presently, the most prevalent and helpful technology in use is social media. (Poole, 4) Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have the ability to identify and reach an audience, provide a space for art to be made and discussed, and offer tools for organizations to build public awareness. In the CPAF study it is noted that, “social media provides important tools to help artists reach their audiences […] predicated on the assumption that there is no longer a mass market but rather a collection of niche markets.” (Poole, 16)

Reaching a niche market is important when considering the trend towards the long tail in retail. Former WIRED magazine editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, defined the long tail in relation to culture and economy as, “increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of hits (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve, and moving toward a huge number of riches in the tail.” He continued to state that, “In an era without the constraints of limited shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly targeted goods and services can be as economically viable as mainstream fare.” (Anderson, p.52) Critics of the long tail in online retailing suggest that these niches will generate far less revenue than has been with mainstream items, which reiterates the importance of employing effective social media in promoting products. (Poole, 16)

Publishers could take a cue from the innovative strategies of artists and creative institutions in finding ways to target specific markets and differentiate their products from others. Crowdsourcing is one means, employed successfully by photographer Andy Adams. After being asked by the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art to produce a series of prints for an upcoming exhibition, he placed an open call for submissions online. Through a general request, his intention was to “crowdsource a visual definition of [the] present-day photographic landscape.” (Adams) Adams selected and curated the images into the exhibition Looking at the Land: 21st Century American Views. His intention was to produce an exhibition that documented how others interpret the American landscape, which gave the exhibition more depth than it would have had, had it been solely his view. His audience for the project included individuals who wanted more time to view the exhibit at their own leisure rather than adhering to gallery visiting hours. As a Result, he used responsive web design so that the exhibit could be viewed on any device in any setting. (Quaglieri)

Looking at the Land:21st Century American Views

Looking at the Landscape: 21st Century American Views,

Another source of innovation is emerging from centres that provide a forum for research in art and technology. One of these spaces is the Eyebeam Art + Technology Centre in New York, which was initiated in 1997 as a non-profit with a mandate to expose a wider audience to technology in the arts. The centre offers fellowships and residencies along with education and public programs. (Eyebeam, About) The Open(Art) program is one of their upcoming projects, which was initiated by Eyebeam and Mozilla to encourage collaboration between art and the web. As part of this program, artist and programmer Toby Schachman is creating an interactive book that makes coding accessible to artists by featuring sections where the reader can interact with code to facilitate the learning process. (Eyebeam, Open(Art))

Focusing on a younger demographic, the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (SFMOMA) created the Family app after identifying a need among children and their families to have more interaction with the exhibits in the gallery. The app is structured as a game hosted by characters from Roy de Forest’s painting, Country Dog Gentleman. Though the app was created by the SFMOMA, they considered that as exhibits are often changing and families may also be visiting other galleries, it was important to create an app that was not specific to their institution or to a current exhibition. Instead the app uses questions that prompt the audience to move from one space to another and encourages discussion regardless of the setting. (Night Kitchen Interactive)

Country Dog Gentlemen

Country Dog Gentlemen, SFMOMA

From these three examples, it can be noted that there is a strong consideration in the arts about how technology can be used to target and communicate with a specific audience. Rather than struggling to keep up with change, many artists and creative centres look for ways to employ technologies to their advantage. Publishers could take a cue from these individuals when considering what technologies to involve in their publishing programs. Perhaps, like Adams, crowdsourcing could be used to generate content for a collection of short stories, while simultaneously promoting the project online and, similar to the Eyebeam Art + Technology Centre, how-to books could provide an interactive experience for readers. Therefore, moving forward in a digital era, it is essential to remember the value of collaboration between arts and technology and continue to strive for innovation.



Adams, Andy. “About the Exhibition.” Looking at the Land: 21st Century American Views.

Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail. New York: Hyperion Books, 2006.

Eyebeam Art and Technology Centre. “About.” Eyebeam Art and Technology Centre.

Eyebeam Art and Technology Centre. “Open(Art).” Eyebeam Art and Technology Centre.

Lamont, Tom. “John Maeda: Innovation is Born When Art Meets Science.” The Guardian. November 14, 2010.

Night Kitchen Interactive. “SFMOMA Families.” iTunes Preview.

Poole, David and Le-Phat Ho. “Digital Transitions and the Impact of New Technology and the Arts.” Canadian Public Arts Funders (CPAF) Network. June 2011.

Quaglieri, Elizabeth. “Crowdsourcing a Digital Exhibition: An Interview with Andy Adams.” Technology in the Arts (blog). November 29, 2012.

Tessandier, Axelle. “Mixing Liberal Arts and Technology for Success in Silicon Valley.” The Daily Riff. October 6, 2011.


  1. I have to say Natalie, this is a really great paper. In terms of publishing, I’ve heard wide reactions to new technology, which generally fall into two categories: panic or dismissal. And when they either out-source their backlist conversions to companies who do a poor-quality job, or take on interns who spend hours realizing for themselves that Word is not the best way to convert a file to HTML, well who can blame them?

    But there are so many arguments for why digital technology should be embraced, which you’ve mentioned here. First, the digital revolution is freeing people from content curation; members of niche markets can embrace and enrich those markets, and what’s more, collaborate with with their inception. I’m referring half-specifically to Lean Publishing, which allows readers to act as editors to works in progress.

    I’m so happy you mentioned the long tail, since to me it seems ignored as a source of innovation. It could very well be that an under-marketed publication has fallen off the publisher’s radar, but is perfect for niche markets who pride themselves on discovery. So well-done backlist conversion could be a great boon for any publisher.

    But I suppose I’m looking at this through publishing glasses. And really, it’s not a black-and-white issue to be determined by publishers, galleries, and early adopters of digital arts (both verbal and visual). There will still be artists who refuse to learn how to work with digital media, just as there are still authors who use typewriters. But there will always be a niche market for that, too.

  2. Great article, Natalie. And very thoughtful points from Sophie.

    Part of the problem, as I see it and as I think you’ve demonstrated here, is that we tend to think of “technology” and creativity (art, publishing, etc.) as two completely separate realms. We only do this with new technology – no one has a problem thinking of a pen as a natural component of creativity, and a pen is technically technology.

    Perhaps as we get more comfortable with these new forms of technology, we’ll be able to seamlessly integrate them into the process of creating art. Really, they’re all tools in the artist’s toolbox.

    The best thing to do, as we’ve learned from Monique, is to throw ourselves into new technology and learn by doing. Sure, we’ll make mistakes. But we learn from these and eventually feel comfortable with the new technology: html code, Google Analytics, Photoshop, whatever.

    I think some new technologies will work well for publishers and some won’t. But if we stay stuck to traditional forms without daring to experiment with the new ones, we’ll end up going the way of calligraphy – obsolete.

  3. Great thoughts here Natalie. Interactive museum design, like that done by Aldrich Pears, seems all the more important in terms of the experience museum visitors are expecting. Just as ebooks and iPads have changed reader expectations, I think the prevalence of technology changes our expectations in other areas of the arts as well.

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