Understanding technical infrastructure – in the service of artistic goals

Nowadays artists and designers use the internet in all sorts of ways as part of their practice, for instance creation, publishing, communication, and commerce – but is it necessary or useful for arts practitioners to understand the background technical infrastructure that enables these activities?  Mike Kelly, learning technology specialist at UAL, offers his insights regarding this element of digital literacy.

“I would say that there isn’t a requirement for detailed technical knowledge of the medium – even most computer scientists don’t have insight into every part of how the internet works.

technology shouldn’t get in the way…?

A common line you’ll hear is that technology shouldn’t get in the way – that it should be possible to create content online without having to learn a technical system or interface.

I only go along with that partially. It might hold true for the casual exchange of media, which is a function the internet excels at, but when we are considering the web as a publishing medium in itself, as is often the case with artists’ work, the picture is different.

We’ve moved on a distance from the time when users had to engage with computers on the machine’s terms – i.e. using machine code, and with an in-depth understanding of the physical technology and processing architecture. Now most computing is done through Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), where the information is represented in metaphorical models in an attempt to conceptualise it in ‘human’ (already-learnt) terms. The technicalities of the computer’s processing activities and its architecture are for the most part well hidden, and instead we are presented with familiar concepts such as desktops, folders, windows, toolbars, etc. When people talk about usability they are usually referring to how intuitive these metaphorical models are in practice, and the extent to which the technical operations of the machine or the network are effaced.

Many computer users become experts in the use of these GUIs, without having much sense of the underlying technology – but for artists and content producers in general, I believe it’s highly empowering to have a grasp of the operations underpinning the metaphorical models. In the context of the internet this means an awareness of the way information is formatted for the screen, using HTML and CSS – and of how computers are connected together in a centreless network to make the distribution of content possible. The publishing model, in other words.

There are many web sites and services for publishing work online which are designed to allow non-experts to format their content for the web. Mostly, the mechanisms of this process are hidden from users. However those artists who have learned the basics of how HTML and CSS work will often find opportunities to go beyond the obvious possibilities presented by these sites. This gives them more creative control over the formatting of their content. They will also more easily make sense of confusing interfaces where the logic of the publishing protocol has intruded upon the more intuitive parts of the experience. This is analogous to an artist exploring the origins and limits of any artistic medium. For the film director who has expertise with actors, but then takes time to understand how camera lenses work, the range for artistic expression becomes dramatically widened. Or for the painter who prepares her own canvas and mixes her own colours – or the clothes designer who takes the time to master different stitching and pattern-cutting techniques. These are all instances of acquiring technical knowledge in the service of artistic goals.

Of course, what makes the web such an interesting and powerful medium is that it allows anyone with access to it to become a publisher. So having an understanding of how computers are connected in a network, where the data sits, how it is licenced, and who owns or has access to it, are important for an artist working with an awareness of social/political/economic context. As with the HTML and CSS though, what is useful here is not so much detailed technical knowledge, as a broad understanding of the framework – perhaps made up of another set of metaphorical models – which sets the context for the work. That kind of understanding is within the grasp of all kinds of artists.”