In Wake Of A Pandemic: How Technology Will Shape The Arts

Diving into the existing and future transformation of music and visual arts


An abridged version of this article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.


When the novel coronavirus startled the world earlier this year, San Francisco quickly took action by suspending large, public gatherings in the city. For the more privileged in the Bay Area, this simply meant less international travel, more indoor remote work, and fewer social events. But for many artists and art workers, their livelihoods were upended by the closure of concert venues, art galleries, and museums.


The canvas has switched. Artists are thrown off their usual course. In order to reconnect with their audiences, they are compelled to leverage the internet and adopt creative techniques to continue their work. Surviving organizations and venues are aware they must pivot and prepare for a post-coronavirus society.


As such, the pandemic is accelerating technology’s already rapid transformation of visual arts.


To understand how these areas will be affected, we must first peruse technology's current influences. In the Bay Area, technology has significantly impacted music and visual arts over the past century. Not only has it shaped the creation process in these two areas, it also changed how we discover and experience them.


Technological progress has democratized the creation of music. "Musicians nowadays can use the internet to learn to play an instrument, write lyrics, produce, publish and market their music— all by themselves," said Jeff Byron, Bay Area music composer and sound designer. "The 'industry' isn't as necessary or powerful." Hundreds of music software tools and applications enable artists to ditch expensive studios and create music in their bedrooms. Notes and sounds that usually take multiple instruments or devices can now be produced from a keyboard on an iPhone. Google's Magenta Studio directly connects machine learning with music, allowing artists open software access to generate new beats.


At the turn of the century, the proliferation of smartphones, creation of streaming services, and surge of social media completely altered music discovery and consumption. "Back in the days, we relied on the radio or record labels to guide our taste; but today, we can discover new music all around the world through Instagram, Youtube, and Tiktok directly from creators," Byron explains.


By democratizing access to music, technology enabled cultural cross-pollination and the formation of new music genres. For example, a British songwriter can sample tunes from a Japanese artist, and an American producer can collaborate with an Australian performer. Furthermore, there's a whole world of traditional music that is making headway but has not yet made the mainstream.


Within visual arts, artificial intelligence has redefined who can be an artist. Two years ago, a portrait created by an AI was sold at an auction for $432,000, reaching a new milestone for conceptual and generative art. "Tools under this big umbrella of 'generative art' revisits the discourse around 'What is Art?', the answer to which has implications beyond its historical precedent," said Bay Area artist Vivien Sin.


Technology not only disrupted who can be an artist and how art can be created, but also became the subject of visual arts itself. The DeYoung Museum opened a new exhibit this year, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, which explores the relationship between humans and intelligent machines.


In the era of the smartphone and internet, art has shifted to ground us to our physical world. Multi-sensory and experiential art forms have established a growing presence within visual arts. Rather than simply appealing to the person's visual field, these large-scale installments and immersive experiences combine other modalities — audio, touch, taste, and smell. Even though the SF MoMa still consists mainly of curated static art, there is a stronger emphasis on sound exhibitions and other types of media and digital art as a form of "spatial experience."


Meow Wolf, Pace Gallery, and teamLab all combine art and various modalities to create immersive and interactive experiences. Gray Area, an interdisciplinary technology and art-focused non-profit in the Mission District, has been pioneering immersive art experiences such as End Of You, focused on understanding our personal relationship to a living planet in crisis. Advancements in virtual and augmented reality further enable art audiences to develop an enhanced relationship with art.


With coronavirus shutting down their venues and exhibits, artists are reminded of the importance of the internet. "A lot of artists now can't connect with their fans as easily, they know they have to find new ways," Byron stated, "Eventually if this goes on for long enough, we will see some real innovation." Musicians hosting online concerts are devising new ways to simulate an intimate, virtual experience.


Online galleries and virtual museum tours also gained popularity during shelter-in-place. Gray Area showcased its Spring education program's exhibition in a virtual art space. "We want our audience to have an intimate engagement with our space and community," explained Gray Area Executive Director Barry Threw. Other initiatives, such as Museum from Home, leverage augmented reality to allow users to experience museum artwork in their living room.


Artists are skipping the middleman and directly reaching their audiences. "With less gatekeepers and intermediaries, artists will have more power over their work, a silver lining of the gallery system crisis," explains Bay Area artist Drue Kataoka, who works directly with collectors globally.


The internet has issued a temporary fix. "But while social media has offered many artists a ready-made onramp to port their artwork online, I hope they don't become the defacto form of presentation in the future. For all their convenience, these platforms offer a limited palette for artistic expression," said curator, writer and educator Vanessa Chang. "Music and art are created to be experienced in-person." Listening to a song on Spotify does not compare to the heightened experience of attending a live concert. Looking at a shrunken image on a computer is completely different from standing next to a 15-foot installation. When entered from a webpage, immersive art loses its ability to appeal to people's senses.


Despite the internet commanding much of society's attention for the arts, there is optimism around renewed demand for more interactive and physical experiences in a non socially-distanced world. The current innovation happening in the arts will continue to expand in a post-coronavirus society, and music and art will both extend beyond traditional immersion.


We may see more enhanced visuals and other sensory techniques in live concerts. "I can imagine concerts becoming huge mixed-media experiences, way more than they already are. Not just big light shows, holograms, projections, and VR, but performances that break down what we consider a music show. You can see this happening already with shows like Ramin Djawadi's Game of Thrones tour, a huge film and music experience that challenges expectations," described Byron. "But there's never going to be a replacement for 'the Troubadour'. People will always be entertained by musicians, singers, and songwriters as they have for millennia."


Technology can enable new types of performances, for example, allowing musicians to bring back deceased artists on stage. Algorithms can generate both familiar and novel voices, pitches, and tunes that intermix with traditional music creation. Imagine being able to simulate John Lennon's voice in a song collaboration, where AI writes his lyrics and melody by analyzing thousands of past performances. The world’s greatest musicians can become immortal.


We may see museums convert standard wall spaces to make room for fully immersive and experiential art, catering to a post-pandemic society starved of physical interactions. But in the far future, museums may cease to exist. "Art will be more decentralized and accessible to people of all socio-economic and racial backgrounds," Kataoka remarked. "The disintermediation of the art model will allow art to become much more civically engaged than is currently — confined in its ivory tower."


Virtual and augmented reality will become more commonplace, allowing greater access and amplified experiences to performances and exhibitions all around the world. "In the future, artists will be able to build virtual experiences of the great artworks of the past that will be at least as powerful as the originals," described Kataoka. For instance, imagine being “transported” inside a rendered Matisse painting!


“The art 50 years from now will provide unmatched expression through the visual, aural, olfactory and haptic, encapsulated in compelling virtual reality experiences for lovers of art, wherever they are located,” Kataoka said. “Developments in brain computer interfaces (BCI), bandwidth, and AI will create a new syncretic form of art, generating life-like experiences unlike anything we’ve seen. This art will challenge our brains to re-think everything in our world — from the laws of physics and causality to the fundamentals of human existence.”


With machine learning gaining momentum in art, it prompts a more existential thought. "Tools under this big umbrella of generative art revisit the discourse around ‘what is art?’, the answer to which has implications beyond when Tolstoy asked it in 1897, or when conceptual artists pushed possibilities on what constitutes art,” said Vivien Sin. “As more human work gets replaced by machines, the answer to the aforementioned question has direct implication on what it means to be human.”


Collaborations between technologists, researchers, and artists will grow as AI continues to penetrate the creation process and experiences of both music and visual arts. "Art and technology have been intimately entangled throughout history, but their overspecialization has caused a fragmentation in our ability to think well about the world," Threw said. "In the future we will increasingly recognize the role of artists as full collaborators with technology, science, the humanities to holistically address the existential crises facing us, and San Francisco is uniquely situated to lead this cognitive evolution."


As more creativity and innovation are fostered during this time and extend beyond the pandemic, artists and art audiences alike will come to realize more than ever the inseparability and transcending power of art and technology.