The artist as a tool creator

As a live performer who develops his own software tools for real-time interpretation, I find the relationship between tool creation and artistic practice to have a major importance in my work.

The distinction between the artwork and the tool or device used to create it already becomes problematic in the larger context of the Media Arts. This ambiguity appears more clearly when the artist creates her own devices or machines for performance and interaction. If these devices take the form of bodily extension to enhance certain activities or to modify modes of perception, then they have a message of their own about our physical and perceptual abilities and limitations. Rebecca Horn‘s performance/body modifications pieces are far away from the context of software art, but nonetheless they point out clearly to the concept of the art piece as a body (and mind) extension. More directly related to digital audiovisual performance is the lady’s glove built by Laetitia Sonami:

The lady’s glove is a tool that provides new performative possibilities to the artist. Since it was created and built by the artist herself, it is perfectly customized and adapted to her expressive intentions. The first iteration was made with rubber kitchen gloves, and this sole fact conveys additional meaning to the piece.

Device art, particularly important in Japan, also questions how the artistic experience is labeled and where is located: is it in the event that takes place when using the artifacts, in the subsequent documentation, or in the devices themselves? These devices are clearly not just means to an end, either when they are nonsensical or deeply critical (and perhaps even more so in these extremes). However, the other aspects of the experience (performance, documentation, etc.) also claim some part of the prize.

These three references (Rebecca Horn’s bodily extensions, Laetitia Sonami’s gloves and Japanese device art), although more or less removed from live audiovisual performance (and even more specifically, “laptop” performance), illustrate three characteristics that make difficult the separation between tool and artwork in Media Arts in general: extension of the artist’s capabilities, customization (DIY culture) and significant focus on the medium or technology itself.

In the context of laptop audiovisual performance, these three features are somewhat obscured by the widespread presence of personal computers (and the subsequent unawareness of the extensions that these technologies bring to our perceptions), the utilization of prepackaged software tools and implicit acceptance of their conventions, and some lack of self-reflection by the hacker/artist. Creating an algorithmic tool has the risk of trapping the toolmaker in the beauty that results from a system with internal logic and self-coherence.


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