10 Tips for Artists working with Technologists (Engineers, Programmers, Technology Fabricators or Anyone Building your Technical Thing).

I make sonic artworks and music performances with technology. Other people make code or build things for my art, and I make sound/music, code or build things for other people’s art. Being able to design technical solutions and infrastructure for artworks as an artist is an empowering position to be in, but not necessarily something that most artists have experience with. You’re probably too busy theatre making, or sculpting or dancing to understand how to train an AI to appropriately interpret a dataset. If you are an experimental practitioner, you are probably feeling the lure of interactive interfaces, adaptive projection, self-generating works and machine learning, or even more simply hosting or making artwork online. If you want to embrace these kinds of technologies but don’t know how, you might be investigating DIY approaches, or looking about for a technologist to help design and construct your artwork. Collaborations can be extremely fruitful for extending your practice. But they can be stressful and result in this if gone about the wrong way:

The following post was originally presented as part of a ‘Demystifying Technology’ workshop I presented at the 2018 SITUATE: Arts in Festivals Laboratory and is designed to help prevent disasters when first making artwork incorporating technology. These tips are based on real-world interchanges I’ve experienced or witnessed close-hand.

Ten tips for constructive creative technology collaborations:

#1

Seriously. Do this before asking for help. It works a surprising amount of the time.

#2: When working with a technologist, don’t assume that you are the only skilled artist working on the project.

Coding, engineering or building your thing requires artistic/ creative skill and perspective. Your technologist might also have a background in an arts practice like photography or music informing what they do.

#3: Publicly acknowledge/ credit your technologist for their contributions to your project

(unless you are paying them fully commercial rates and have a formal service agreement in place. If in doubt, ask if they want acknowledgement).

#4: If it’s an art-technology collaboration and your technologist says your approach ‘isn’t working’ / ‘isn’t efficient’/ ‘is too complex to achieve’, listen to them.

They are trying to tell you politely that it’s not going to work within the scope and budget of your project. If you have these conversations repeatedly you are probably irritating the hell out of your technologist.

#5: There are two ways you can work with a technologist on a project: hands off, or hands on.

Hands off: Pick an idea, format it and give it to a person to implement it (this means maintaining a limited scope). If you choose this path you can’t keep updating what you want to do. Once you’ve handed over your brief, your technologist will go and make your thing.

Hands On: Work iteratively and collaboratively. Test ideas and scale up sequentially. Document your progress. Reflect and evaluate before trying something new. This is how your technologist will be working as its the easiest way of troubleshooting and growing a tech project collaboratively. Randomly jumping from idea to idea won’t get your project finished when tech is involved.

WARNING: You will actually need to learn about the tech you are using if you want to work iteratively.

Pick one approach, you can’t do both…

#6 Your technologist is likely going to be really good at one thing, say coding.

That doesn’t mean they can (or want to) troubleshoot a hardware issue. They might be able to figure stuff out, but don’t expect them to know everything about every technology. Don’t ask them for tech support unrelated to your project. Unless you pay them. Or know them really well. And gift them beer, or whisky, or cake…

Tip #7: Allow plenty of time for development and testing. Double or triple the amount of time you think you need to realise the project. 

Tip #8: If you’re going to be an early adopter, acknowledge that the tech might explode*.

Don’t blame your technologist for that. 

*In most cases I don’t mean literally :)

Tip #9: If your technologist says the project is finished, listen to them.

You may think you can make it better/ more perfect / do more cool things, but there are probably great reasons why you shouldn’t. If in doubt, ask. 

Tip #10: Keep it simple.

You likely don’t need as much tech as you think. Use an off-the-shelf solution if its available. Refine your concept to keep it manageable if you are building from scratch.