Technology and the Arts: Can They Play Well Together?

The impact of technology on the arts has been a matter of debate at least since we had to be reminded to turn off our cell phones in performance halls.

At Lincoln Center Institute (LCI), we always prided ourselves on espousing the latest technology, but we also insisted on engagements with live performances. This duality was not easy to maintain, especially in a frosty economic climate, and, early on, technology came to the rescue in the form of video. After the students have attended a performance, they need something that will stay with them and be available as long as they study the subject: video allowed us to bring storytellers, chamber ensembles, and Shakespeare to classrooms where being stranded without technology would have meant being stranded without art.

But dance? From that quarter, encroaching technology was monitored with trepidation. After all, dance is by definition movement in space, entirely wed to that space as if it were its primary context. When a dancer leaps, the leap is measured in relation to the space around it. How was this ever going to be conveyed on a screen of any size?

The answer seems to be: imaginative digital artists who love the arts, working with imaginative choreographers willing to lend their bodies to experimentation. This is the crux: technology that does not exploit, but lends its potential to the arts.

We sighed a joint sigh of relief when Ghostcatching came our way. A superb combination of imagination, innovation, and creativity, it brought together Bill T. Jones, one of the finest choreographers of our time, and Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, two pioneering digital artists. Produced in 1999, Ghostcatching proved that a dance didn’t have to be a victim of technology; it could, instead, use it to travel where no dancer had gone before.

And going the road not yet traveled is perhaps one of the major points of technology in the arts. You don’t expect to see a digital Swan Lake; you expect to see something entirely new.

Technology moves at an extraordinary pace: by its calendar, Ghostcatching is now old, yet it remains immensely popular with students and educators alike. It proves that technology need not suffer from obsolescence, provided it supports art that transcends time.

Ghostcatching was followed by Rapid Still, in which dancer/choreographer Brian Brooks used technology to its fullest, editing some 800 jumps in order to create the illusion of 2 minutes of levitation. We recommend that such videos be viewed on a large screen in schools; this requirement is a far cry from the logistic genius needed to pack forty or fifty kids onto the subway and take them from South Bronx to LCI’s Clark Studio for a performance and back In that sense too, technology has been a boon for LCI.

We’ve learned that performance and technology are not necessarily pitted against each other. Instead of killing the performance, technology inspires people to seek out live events. Pop artists spend important amounts of money to produce videos that have just that effect. If we, as an arts-and-education institution, can instill this alone in our students, we’ve won a major battle.

LCI’s forays into technology have also made our teaching artists’ practice easier. When digital camera replaced negatives, it was suddenly a cinch to upload performance pictures that the educators could, in turn, download whenever they pleased. After that, it all went very quickly. Hard-to-find (and expensive to secure) articles serving as contextual reference for study have been replaced by a plethora of such articles, guides, glossaries, timelines (with an embedded video for each historic moment), and filmed materials that are just a link away. A click will take you to the inexhaustible source of information that is Web 2.0. We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation where instead of spending weeks looking for appropriate resources, we have to sift through them to jettison the less-than-excellent ones.

Online courses were an obvious step forward, and relatively small things have transformed LCI and the way it relates to its constituents: for instance, the 2012 International Educator Workshop will offer full registration online, using the “shopping cart” system.

Thirty-five years ago, when we started, the idea of an LCI and NASA collaboration would have lent itself to countless spacey jokes. But it’s a reality today, fraught with possibilities that would have been in the realm of fantasy just years ago. In the previous issue of the e-newsletter, we talked about this collaboration, born out of the fact that many astronauts seek expression in artistic efforts. “Why” is a fascinating study in itself, but for us, the important concept is the connection between technology and art. For an institution that has been refining a teaching methodology that starts with the arts but can be applied to all subjects, including the sciences, this is manna from heaven.

So we now look to the future with eagerness—yet still with some trepidation, because it’s an unpredictable factor completely out of our control. On one hand, we are like kids in a toy store, on the other, we feel responsible for what we give our students. Technology raises as many questions as it answers: Will tomorrow’s social media stimulate students intellectual growth or merely distract them? Technology is increasingly about being able to share experiences, which is how students learn better, but does it then follow that they should be allowed to tweet during a performance?

Nevertheless, it is invaluable to be able to take the arts into schools through the media that the students have grown up with. In a way, it reassures them. A computer presentation tells them that this strange thing we’re bringing to their classrooms—this thing called art—is theirs to own, not a difficult-to-handle monster that lives in an ivory tower. And this is no small feat. Consider that a large number of underserved students we deal with has never seen a modern dance performance—but they have, undoubtedly, all watched YouTube, so seeing Rapid Still is like coming home to what they know, with the difference that when the video is combined with an LCI teaching artist, the students are given something they never had before, offered to them to explore, connect with—and keep.

2 Responses

  1. […] Technology and the Arts: Can They Play Well Together? […]

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