What We Learned About the Future at Last Night's Art and Technology Lecture at the DMA

I wasn't expecting much walking into last night's State of the Arts: Art and Technology lecture at the DMA. I was worried it might be a little boring -- you know: all circuits, no emotion.

Wrong. So wrong.

What a fascinating panel of art cyborgs humans. We got three speakers:

- Nancy Hairston, President and CEO, of SculptCAD, a company that uses 3D printing to solve a baffling amount of problems, from art to medicine)

- Roger Malina, Chair of Arts and Technology and Professor of Physics at the University of Texas, Dallas, a physicist who now works to improve education in the humanities through technologies like virtual reality)

- Robert Stein , Deputy Director of the DMA, and Nerd I'm Quite Thankful is on Our Side

Art's stewards are currently facing some interesting challenges. Take the matter of preservation: The DMA's vast collection of roughly 22,000 items includes many delicate pieces. The ideal storage for those is a dark, climate-controlled vault -- but that blocks human interaction. So the most fragile specimens are brought out for short-lived rotations and are then given extensive bed rest. The question being posed here, and at museums across the world is this: "Must we show the originals?"

3D printing and ultra high-resolution photography have gotten so advanced that this is up for debate. Stein says that just last week a robot combed the DMA galleries, taking pictures of the paintings at a freakishly high DPI. What resulted was a set of images so meticulously detailed that you can see each canvas fiber. So, what if they hung those renderings instead? With 100 percent accuracy, even the artists' original paint smudges would make the cut. The masterworks could then face a lifetime of perfect preservation.

That question ignited a conversation about reality and interaction across the panel, and Stein -- a philosophical romantic, it turns out -- gave the surprise dissenting opinion. He suggested that adding a layer of artificiality would affect the feeling of presence that comes from being with an original work of art.

Next was a discussion of value. If a replica is exactly that -- in every artful and mathematical nuance - where do we place the distinction? Is it in the time and sweat required to create or in the original idea? What's art's truest commodity? Debatable questions, but Hairston believes we're on the cusp of it all and that soon, you'll see a sculpture you like in a museum catalog, buy a copy, enter a code into your 3D printer to grow a replica at home. Onsite manufacturing of art.

Strangely, nowhere in this conversation -- intriguing as it was -- did the panelists dig into copyright law. Hairston suggested digital watermarks on legally purchased items would limit the reproduction of copies, but what about the inevitable knock-offs? What happens when people begin sharing the three-dimensional coordinates for Ken Price sculptures, or printing perfect high resolution replicas of esteemed works of art, then selling the things on Ebay? Or bastardizing an artist's work for quick, print-at-home marketing ploys - Picasso shower curtains, Cindy Sherman toilet plungers and religious African mask bobble heads? Who will protect our artists' rights in a world of digital clones?

And then, there's the question of whether or not all museums are ready for this challenge. Most are just beginning to explore technology's role in sharing art and have started to make some high resolution images available for scholarly research, which is legal under Fair Use. But what if they can't protect them? Will hacking become the new art heist?

I don't know these answers. Until last night, I didn't realize these were points of concern. What's clear is that we've got some big brains fighting for both art's authenticity and its accessibility, so it will be interesting to see how the boundaries wind up being coded. Oh, and I nominate the DMA to take the leading role. As Stein said last night: "Want to have a hard conversation about a tough problem in the world? Ask it around a piece of art."

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