Envisioning the future of art using technology

Panelists watch part of Gabriel Kahane’s song “Sit Shiva,” as part of a broader conversation on how technology and art impact social connections. // Photo by Hope Williams Student Publications

Opera, Steve Jobs, stethoscopes and the 2016 president election — what do all of these have in common?

For three visionary artists, these are just a few of many sources of inspiration for their work, showing that technology, the arts and the world around us are all intertwined. 

On April 3, the Ferst Center for the Arts hosted a panel titled “Community Conversation: Impact, Arts, and Technology” to further discuss these ideas. 

The discussion was moderated by the director of Georgia Tech Arts, Aaron Shackelford, who asked the three panelists a series of questions about the role of art and technology in social interactions. 

The panel began with the artists introducing their work.

Gabriel Kahane is a singer-songwriter and composer whose latest album “Magnificent Bird” was released on March 25, 2022. Tech hosted Kahane on April 4 to perform his album to the Tech and Atlanta community, also in the Ferst Center.

Kahane has had numerous projects in the past that relate music and technology, including setting Craigslist ads to music in 2006. However, it was in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election that he began reflecting on how the internet was posing challenges to human interactions. 

“I decided that I was going to take a trip beginning the morning after the election, and I was going to ride just under 9,000 miles around the continental U.S., and I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen,” said Kahane. “What ended up happening was that I had conversations with about 80 or 90 strangers, primarily in dining cars in Amtrak trains.”

From these conversations, Kahane wrote a piece called “Book of Travelers,” which was later released as an album. 

Inspired partially from his train trip, Kahane then took an entire year off of the internet, starting Nov. 3, 2019, which has greatly influenced his beliefs about technology. He now is more pessimistic about how effective digital activism can truly be and believes that curated feeds can make it more difficult to tolerate differences. 

The second panelist, Noura Howell, is an assistant professor in Tech’s Digital Media program. Her work focuses on biodata and how accessing data about bodies, feelings and behaviors has the potential to change our interactions. 

“These works invite more social, emotional and embodied ways of trying to make sense of biodata. Instead of using biodata and AI to make judgments about ourselves and others, it’s more about listening, paying attention, appreciating, sharing presence respectfully,” said Howell.

Some of Howell’s past projects have included creating shirts with embedded biosensors that can detect excitement, as well as a Heart Sounds Bench, in which strangers listened to their amplified heart sounds together using stethoscopes connected to a bench.

The final panelist, Felipe Barral is a filmmaker, producer, musician, writer and artist whose many collaborations include working with The Atlanta Opera. Barral worked with them to establish The Atlanta Opera Film Studio in 2020, which has made their performances accessible to viewers all around the world. 

“You don’t have to be in Atlanta, or you can use media that you filmed to be part of the shows, or to actually capture the shows in a cinematic way, and then bring people to experience opera in a way that you haven’t experienced it before,” said Barral.

If viewing a production in-person, the most expensive tickets still have the orchestra between them and the stage. 

But, by filming productions, the audience is practically brought on stage. 

The panel was hosted in part to discuss The Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production, “The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs,” which will be shown later this month and next at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. 

The Atlanta Opera Company is using technology to enhance their performance, including using 28 monitors in the stage design. 

The performance looks at Jobs as more than just the founder of Apple.

“The opera is looking into different moments in his life and is told in a very interesting way because it’s not linear,” Barral said. “You go back and forth in time.”

After discussing their works, Shackelford asked the panelists how they have seen technology change how humans relate to each other. 

“A lot of the platforms that are intended to bring us together have instead, not only the effect of tearing us apart, [but also] making it more difficult for us to love each other,” Kahane said. 

Howell sees art is the perfect medium to explore the potential ways technology could change our lives even more than it has already. She mentioned she does not want any of her projects to ever become products.

“I think that they’re meant to be just encouraging us to reflect on how do we want technology to be in the future and how do we want to live with technology in the future?” Howell said. “And trying to kind of debate and discuss and imagine how it could go well, how it could go poorly, potential benefits and harms.”

Shackelford asked Howell if she thinks her works that visualize emotional data have a potential for manipulating how people respond. 

Howell answered that during her work on the shirts with embedded sensors, some participants were concerned if the sensors did not respond to their emotions. They questioned if they were even experiencing their emotions, since the technology did not pick it up.

“To me that was extremely disturbing,” Howell said. 

“… I think it speaks to this more powerful kind of imaginary that we’re all walking around with, that data is a really powerful way of knowing the self and that technology is a really reliable way of producing truth.”

These dangers are ones that artists like Howell will have to balance with the benefits of innovation. Looking to the future, Barral thinks that opera will maintain some of its classical components, but it will also be rich with innovation. 

“If you start thinking about virtual reality and augmented reality, or bring AI into the equation, who knows what opera is going to be in like 20, 50 years from now,” Barral said. “Something is going to be classical still, because you have the power of the human voice and you have the orchestration … but if you combine it and you explore what you can do with it, you are taking really the art form to be something completely different.”

One of the effects of technology is that it has connected the world, and art can be shared thousands of miles away. 

Kahane sees potential dangers in trying to create universality in art. 

“I think when you seek to make something universal, you often lose the specific, and I think the really great, great artists in any medium throughout time are the ones whose observational powers are such that the specific opens up into the universal,” Kahane said. 

To conclude the panel, each of the panelists reflected on what their goals are as artists moving forward.

“Whether it’s with The Atlanta Opera or my own project, I’ve been [on] this sort of never ending quest of beauty in life,” Barral said, who hopes to keep bringing beautiful stories to people that can be inspirational and meaningful.

Howell agreed that she too seeks a sense of beauty in her work, but perhaps through a more social sense of connection between two people. 

Kahane also chimed in, mentioning that his art is inseparable from the people around him. 

“I hope to use my work to teach myself how to love myself and thus the people around me, and in so doing, to model maybe for audiences and listeners how we can all love each other better, because I think that is the great deficit,” Kahane said.