Time to eliminate the word “neutral” from discussions of art and technology.
I used to be fond of saying that, in art, medium is neutral—it only matters what you do with it. One can make a brilliant painting or utter junk using the same paints, and a similar claim applies to digital art. Except it doesn’t. I proposed this neutrality twenty years ago from a desire to counter the dominance of painting as a form of creative expression, and to advocate instead for a non-hierarchical openness to artists’ chosen media. But, such a premise obscures a fundamental flaw. While you cannot idealize paint, and the history and critiques of painting are well rehearsed, I came to realize that technology is far too implicated in the contentious forces of society for any form of expression that uses it to credibly claim neutrality—in no small part through the work of so many artists.
Digital technology does not arise out of nothing. There is always a root, an origin, a Genesis Block of computational systems. And, beyond that, there’s the writer of the code. Not often is the attempt made to go into the source. I am fascinated by the work of Jon Michael Corbett in developing Indigenous Digital Media Toolkit—a computer program that uses the language and cultural perspective of Cree as the interface by which to make digital artworks with the computer. This small effort to dig into the source of computing and the linguistic structures embodied there is significant. On the other side of the David-Goliath paradigm are the giant, rapacious tech companies, those corporate entities whose main interest is control, dominance and profit.
Algorithms are not neutral, and algorithmic bias is the real thing. Software, platforms, and evolving digital environments embody the values, priorities, and prejudices of their makers. Today, the lightning-speed development of machine learning models, text-to-image generators and sophisticated, net-scraping AI bots present the most recent example of how innovation creates alarmist, confused visions of human creativity being destroyed by machine takeover—missing the opportunity for a more robust discussion about why these are our fears. In nineteenth century Paris, pundits panicked that, due to the exponential growth of horse-drawn carriages, the city would soon be buried under mountains of horseshit. Then the car was invented, and the narrative changed.
There is a position circulating that art is playing into the concentration of benefits in the hands of the people/corporations who control the tech being used. Yet artists have often been creators of new technologies; look at the example of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum, widely perceived as the first art NFT. Artists have typically been early adopters of new technologies. They confront and challenge a technology’s limitations. They offer correctives. At their best, they can even—to be almost language flippant—“neutralize” the existing tools; just as one of many examples, the artist Huntrezz’s face filters resist social media influencers’ use of the same to look “prettier,” a notion steeped in complexities obviating any pretense of neutrality. To neutralize is steeped in political choices. Subversion often stems from a creative impulse.