We sat down with one of our FutureFest 2018 speakers, artist and UCLA Professor Rebecca Allen, to discuss women in the art-tech world and the evolving relationship between our technology and the human form.
You were one of the early pioneers of computer-generated motion capture, working on choreographer Twyla Tharp’s Catherine Wheel, and you’ve also animated using more traditional keyframe animation techniques, working on Kraftwerk’s “Music Non-stop.” What first inspired you to get involved in computer art?
Way back in the 1970s when I was studying film and experimental animation, I was inspired when learning about the art movements of the early 1900s. Those movements were stimulated by the machine age and rapid industrialisation. Artists used new tools from these industries to create art that said something to society about what was going on with industrialisation. As an art student, I wondered, what is going to be the next machine age? I saw the computer start to come to the forefront in tech, and I thought the computer age would be next. I could see neither artists nor women were represented in the invention of this new technology, so I wanted to be a part of this movement from the beginning.
How did you envision bringing an artistic dimension to the world of computers?
As an experimental animator, I wanted to use the computer to push the animation process into a new kind of art form. For example, working in a three-dimensional virtual space was a completely new idea. At that time, computer image making tended to focus on mathematical shapes and I wanted to literally put the human and humanity in the computer, so I began to focus on human forms and motion. The human body has often played a more prominent role in the work of female artists.
Why would you say female artists are more drawn to conveying the human form?
I think as women we have to think about our bodies more, the role of the body, how to represent the body. Politically, symbolically, our bodies are constantly at the front and center. As a young artist, I was naturally drawn to conveying the human form. And as a woman, I considered how to represent a different vision in computer art. I was particularly interested in human motion rather than the static form of the body, as just with subtle movements you can convey so much meaning and behavior.
You’ve often explored the relationship between our bodies and technology. Do you think technology is disassociating us from our bodies?
Technology is evolving, and some people ask, do we really need our bodies? But it is our bodies that make us human. They are our interface to the reality we perceive. If we’re willing to give them up, we’ll lose what makes us human. Both science and religion have struggled with our relationships to our bodies. We have a lot yet to learn about our human bodies so I’m not eager to discard them. Technology has great powers, but we can’t let it stop us from valuing and further understanding our humanity.
But whilst it is glorified, there is a growing fear of the power of AI, robotics and other advancements within the tech world.
It’s interesting how people fear technology, it’s almost like we forget that it was invented by humans.
Technology didn’t just emerge from nothing. Artificial intelligence is just programming created by humans. If AI is going the wrong way, it’s because the humans who programmed it made it that way.
It’s a part of our evolution, creating technology. We need to feel more connected to our technology as we have the power to control the direction that it will take. I see technology very much as an extension of humanity and not as something that’s separate from us.
Your work today crosses over between arts and science, engaged in digital technologies shaping the way we view our bodies, our consciousness and ways of being in the world. How did this scientific element come to influence your work?
The reason my work crosses between arts and sciences is because as an artist working with new technology, I had to work in science and research environments. Art and science are about invention and invention requires creativity. Historically artists have been inspired by the sciences, and sometimes the sciences by the arts. With recent shifts in technology, views of how we should represent our bodies are changing. People are cultured to separate the mind from the body and to view the body as a problematic thing that we’re burdened with. I think that we must very seriously consider the link between consciousness and bodies.
Too much of the tech world is about removing the body, with people sitting and staring at screens all day. That needs to change if we want to retain our humanity.
Our human consciousness will change if we continue to change our relationship with our bodies.
Do you see this arts-science blending of methods and thinking coming to the forefront more in the future?
I can only hope so, I founded an arts department at UCLA where I tried to bring technology and the arts together more. But unfortunately, I don’t see a blending of the arts and sciences as inevitable. One big problem is that nearly all of our current technologies have been primarily designed by a narrow group of people (male, white, computer scientists and engineers). Technological developments are defining where we are going as a species. We need a diverse group of people involved in the invention of technologies which are profoundly affecting every aspect of our lives. Having been at the invention stage, I know technologies that we now live with could have been much better if more diverse perspectives were involved at the beginning.