Where do the lines blur between art and technology?
Technology has allowed for much broader access to art. It’s also given a platform for many artists to share their work. Historically, it would have been much more difficult to distribute your art, but in the age of YouTube and social media, we have more access to art than ever.
In this Disruption Talks episode, we speak with someone who understands this concept better than most, Harry Yeff, Artist in Residence E.A.T at Nokia Bell Labs. Harry discusses the role of art in society and how technology is key to understanding ourselves.
Filip Sobiecki: Could you give us an introduction to yourself?
Harry Yeff: I guess artists are finding new ways to describe their roles every day. Over the past three years, I founded my own creative studio and use artistic expertise to explore technology.
I’m part of the experiments and technology program at Nokia Bell Labs, which means I work with leading researchers and thinkers to help them use our installations to explore complex ideas.
I think the general public deserves to experience complex ideas, and it has been my mission to fight misinformation and sensationalism.
You’ve been doing this at every level, even at the upper echelon. Tell us a little about Davos 2020.
Yes, I was brought in as a director for the 50th anniversary of Davos in 2020, just before the world stopped. It was for a program they have where they help people understand the importance of arts and culture and explore the art of expression in problem-solving, especially global problem-solving.
What’s fascinating is that many artists don’t have the language, and institutions don’t see the connection between artists and trying to solve global problems.
These are abstract, difficult issues, but artists are the governors of narrative. They are very much key to helping people process an idea, connect, and communicate it. Artistic expertise is more and more important every day.
What does a day in the life look like?
I still push my voice, I write, I compose. As a creative director, I try to develop strategies and find spaces between technologists, artists, programmers, leaders and try to spin the web to create projects that vary day-to-day.
When I’m not writing and composing music or performing, I have a relationship with a number of institutions and individuals who are developing new technologies. With new technology, I come in and write installations and performances. I create works, I develop theory around specific tech, it’s a number of things.
I love to create art full stop, but I’m more interested in how producing an artwork can contribute to the narrative, the Zeitgeist around specific technology. I think that’s really important and often missed.
Artistic expression can directly contribute to research and development. Contrary to popular belief, artists are not just decorative. What we’re seeing is artists being brought into a research role.
What are the biggest benefits of collaborating with bodies such as Nokia Bell Labs or the World Economic Forum?
I think it’s important to acknowledge Bell Labs, specifically, are the absolute pioneers of that kind of relationship.
In the early 1960s, there was something called 9 Evenings where the artist Rauschenberg met some of the top engineers, and they ended up doing the world's first collaboration of its type. This led to artists utilizing the technology of Bell Labs, who were effectively like tech gods back then.
What’s fascinating is this opportunity to interrupt the ways and methods in which people work. I think of artists as interrupters. I like to use the phrase “intelligent interrupter,” which is an artist who brings a fresh perspective.
Can you tell us about ‘Voice Gems’ and ‘See Sound’?
In South by Southwest, I met with a creative director called Rama Allen. We discussed how every single voice on planet Earth is like a jewel. If we think about all the social information and all the nuance that’s stored in every single voice, it can be hard to identify that.
It’s actually proven on an evolutionary level that we have a blind spot when it comes to perceiving our voices. It’s not like when we move our hands, and we’re aware of the space and movement. Our voices are harder to perceive.
We were thinking, how can we acknowledge this and explore it? See Sound is the ability to sing, hum, speak, and see that represented as a visual structure in real-time.
This project was interesting because the voice is a really incredible gateway to thinking about expression. There is a connection between expression and also our sense of self.
When we speak, we're not just connecting with the world around us. We're also defining who we are. The more that we are encouraged to explore our voices, the more we explore ourselves and push our minds.
We had this installation in New York, and several hundred people came to create voice sculptures. There was one day that a timid girl came and walked up to the microphone. She started with small, tiny sounds, but when she saw how her voice was visualized, she flowered. She went from those small sounds to shouts and screams and laughter.
This little story shows how powerful voice can be as a medium to explore, but it also shows that the voice is an opportunity to open someone up to express themselves.
With Voice Gems, this is moving away from performance and is really about collecting voices in the world. We collected the voice of an animal that is critically endangered and created a gemstone using the animal’s voice.
What doors can artists open in an enterprise setting?
That’s a really interesting question. If you have a world-class team, but you don’t have world-class empaths or artists on that team, you have a missing link.
Traditionally, there have been very rigid and traditional ways to communicate important things in an enterprise setting. However, a more experiential approach can help us share new ideas that allow for more engagement and connection.
When we think of big problems, like climate change, for example, that requires huge collective action. Perhaps more importantly, it also requires quite small pieces of information, which need to be internalized by the general public.
The problem is you can have a whole chain of expertise, using the most remarkable tools of reasoning that we've developed to solve a problem. But when it comes to actual action, the general public needs to be a part of that process. What's happening in the gap between the experts and the general public is that we’re losing a connection, which means we lose the message. What artists can do is bridge that gap.
If there is an idea that a company, institution, or nation believes to be important, you need artists to make sure that it connects. The artist doesn’t replace the expertise. They become the catalyst to make sure that the intention and knowledge connect.
Do you think there is a resistance to new technology becoming part of our evolution?
I think that technology is vital for the ability to see oneself. It acts like a mirror and allows you to quantify yourself. I wouldn’t describe it as “resisting evolution” because that suggests a one-dimensional hallway to walk down.
I believe looking into the mirror of technology can be an extremely beautiful thing. There are still narratives circulating that technology is bad, it's unwholesome, there's no way that it can allow us to move forward. In my opinion, technology is much more like an instrument, and we have to train and understand these nuanced, beautiful connections that can be made with tech.
That's where my work comes in, to show those nuanced relationships with technology and explore other modes of connection.
What does your decision-making framework look like?
The most important idea is that you should not judge a system or a process by the process or system itself. It's the outcome.
In almost every project that I've done, we've achieved what we set out to do. The place where there can be a big challenge is when that technology or artwork has a life outside of the spaces that it's most accessible.
Say you have a magic wand and can teach all 12-year-olds in the world a vital skill. What would it be?
My first thought was emotional intelligence, compassion, empathy, intuition. But I have to say a belief in expression.
Every single person has the right to creativity and expression, and I think that through the education system, there is actually an unlearning that occurs. I would like to instill that idea in young people, so it’s never lost.
Expression is so important for your well-being and mental health and for your influence in the world.
What is the future of voice and technology? We’ve already seen an increase in interest from the likes of Clubhouse
I believe that eventually, through network connectivity, we will be able to become immersed in these systems – hopefully to the betterment of society.
It won’t so much be about phones; it'd be about the networks that surround us. I believe that’s the key connection between decision-making and consciousness. It will be about voice and the way we talk to each other.
A conversation is one of the most complex acts in all of nature. It’s so important to embrace the fluidity of conversations to push ideas out into the external world.
Is there any way we can communicate with voice beyond spoken language?
If someone doesn't speak a language, what they're hearing is just noise. During my second residency at Harvard University, I was lecturing at the phonetics department and exploring paralanguage.
Paralanguage is a metaspace. You have the mechanics of musicology channeled through the vehicle of speech. If I think about tone, timbre, and range, this is all communicating information, which is contextualizing the actual semantics, the words that I'm saying. So I think all language that is not text-based has a type of richness to it.
This discussion is part of our Disruption Talks recordings, where we invite experts to share their insights on winning innovation strategies, the next generation of disruptors, and scaling digital products. To get unlimited access to this interview and many more, sign up here: www.netguru.com/disruption/talks