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CATEGORY Science&Technology

Art is an activator of innovation – here is how

Natacha Duviquet-Seignolles / Founder, Decalab / 2017-11-15

What does it mean for a company to work with artists? Art can be an activator of innovation, allowing to anticipate future uses in order to reflect on and invent new services, new products, new experiences.

Collaborations with artists are becoming a general practice within innovating companies. It can prove crucial for companies confronted with breakthrough products or services. Examples from Google, carmaker PSA and telephone company Orange show how collaborating with artists allows to experiment with emerging practices and to invent new cooperative models, by exploring the resources and constraints of multidisciplinary work. The active monitoring of artistic practices also allows us to anticipate future uses in order to reflect on and invent new services, for example.

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Collaborations with artists are becoming a general practice within companies. There are many reasons for this. These collaboration have a long history, in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the United States… A little less in France, where the world of the art is strongly supported by public policies. But the artistic community has begun seeking private funding to compensate for the lack of public funding. Collaborations are more common today. They are also easier because since the beginning of the twenty-first century, technological innovation has significantly decompartmentalized fields, and this has also impacted the art world.


The organization Ars Electronica, in Linz, Austria, is a new reference in the field of art, technology and society. Their first festival was held in 1979 and they created a prize that was immediately recognized as an international benchmark. In 1996, they created an Ars Electronica Center as well as a FutureLab. Since then, they have been closely following trends in innovation and new media artistic creation.

The European Union, for its part, has launched a program for “Future and Emerging Technologies” (FET). This program aims at exploring new areas of high-level multidisciplinary research i.e. cutting-edge research that can lead to disruptive technologies in areas such as robotics and biology. It strives to extend the boundaries of human knowledge by using unconventional ways of thought and creativity in order to open innovative and visionary fields of research. The possibility of integrating artists into this process, in order to make them collaborate with researchers, soon arose. The challenge was not only to stimulate creativity, but also to anticipate the meeting between these innovations and the public: artists explore, engage, communicate, open discussions and raise awareness.

Following on this, a program of artist residencies was launched under the FET research programs: FEAT, Future Emerging Art and Technology. The starting point was to organize “match meetings”, where industry players (mostly consortia and large research labs) offer research programs to artists. Some projects emerged the opposite way: artists went towards companies.

For example, the Ion Hole art project, designed by Dmitry Gelfand and Emelina Domnitch and based on immersive sensory environments, offered an installation that showed extremely small particles that are not visible to the naked eye under normal conditions. This project echoed and reflected on current research in quantum physics… all the components of an aesthetic experience that is of great interest for both scientists and companies.

Other projects have harnessed universities and design studios to work on the links between digital technology and organic matter using computer biotechnology and synthetic biotechnology. The main objective is to think outside the box, to foster innovation and the fusion of thought. Crossing art and science is a radical form of interdisciplinary approach that is needed in many areas today.

Artists within companies?

How do artists find their place within companies? There is no general answer to this question: it can only be treated based on concrete cases. There is, however, a central concept, that of representation.

The artist James Bridle works, for example, on the visualization of our geolocations, showing (and playing with) all the errors generated by Google and produced by our smartphones.

The Slovenian artist Robertina Sebjanic, with whom I work, is interested in jellyfish. Innovation and jellyfish? The link is all the more stimulating that it isn’t obvious out at first sight. The challenge is to go beyond the Anthropocene. Today, there is a strong tendency to stop putting human beings at the heart of our lives and to focus (our collective attention) on the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms. The jellyfish is on the edges of our world, yet it stands out with its troubling presence… and finally, it is used a lot in cosmetics, because some of the proteins it secretes contain powerful anti-aging factors. It is interesting to play with these different aspects.

 “Collaborating with artists can prove crucial for companies dealing with breakthrough products or services.”

On the subject of biological research, artist Gina Czarnecki has made living portraits of her daughters by collecting cells from their mouth, which she then cultivated in a laboratory, thereby creating living “portraits”, literally: portraits which keep on growing and living. This approach is extremely important for the research work because the focus shifts from the scientific experiment (on simple cells) to the human factor.

All of these practices are outside the scope of what can be done in terms of innovation within companies.

But why is these gaps so important? First of all, for the shock they produce in our representations. The artist represents reality or more precisely, another version of reality, which enriches, refocuses on or even shatters our former representations. This is crucial to put into perspective the scientific project, service or product that is being developed.

This diversion, or gap, allows a change of perspective. Artists turn technology away from its original use. They gradually develop and find new uses. Their approach creatively and surprisingly widens the potential of the technique. Their challenge, even provocation, offers another world view.

Most importantly, the artist can help anticipate, prefigure uses or objects that don’t exist today. The 20th century cultivated the concept of “avant-garde” which still keeps a certain relevance today, despite its references to a somewhat outdated vision of history. Some artists have the ability to stay “ahead”: they are capable – it is the heart of their activity – of making new proposals emerge.

And this creativity is precisely what companies are looking for in an industrial world where everything happens via innovation. Art is not only intended to produce a common sense, an expected logic: it also offers original proposals. Artists invent or reinvent our world, they have the ability to build other representations of the world, other types of relations. Hence, art can be considered as a true catalyst for innovation.

Google, PSA, Orange

Collaborating with artists can prove crucial for companies confronted with breakthrough products or services. Below are three very different examples.

I worked with Google on methods to create open lectures for semi-professional audiences (innovation specialists, designers): scientists, engineers and artists gathered to discuss topics such as big data or virtual reality. Google implements artist residencies at the heart of their design work: they have a small lab that brings together artists who collaborate with them, as well as workshops. For example, choreographer Rocio Berenguer, whose work includes body dramaturgy and new media, was involved in Tilt Brush, with the support of Décalab.

In her shows, Rocio Berenguer works on issues such as artificial intelligence, the body and its hybridizations: what is the body, today? What is a connected body?


(image from www.tiltbrush.com)

She also works on space and its territories. These very broad issues open to very concrete challenges, concerning ergonomics, the relation to space and even self-presentation, all of which are of direct relevance for digital businesses. With the Tilt Brush software, Rocio Berenguer created an immersive environment that allows to graph in virtual reality. We subsequently documented the relation between the tool and the artist. We found ways of inventing new notation systems for dance. An uncertain lead to follow, but for which Google has displayed an enormous interest that boils down to a simple question: what can Tilt Brush be used for, aide from entertainment? Rocio used it as a notation tool for dance, but many other uses can still be explored.

Second example, I worked with strategic marketing teams from PSA, in workshops over 2-3 days, on topics that would impact them: cockpits, autonomous vehicles… We invited artists, digital artists and bio-art artists to these workshops and studied the movements of bacteria to reflect on the movement of autonomous vehicles: do we need a central brain, or one brain on each autonomous car? We reflected on all these questions with the artists. This led us very far, for example, by questioning the relationship between the organic and the vehicle itself: can a vehicle become organic? The automotive industry, which has long been reduced to incremental innovation, is now at the heart of several breakthrough innovations, and the collaboration with artists helps imagine the world of tomorrow.

Third example, a residence model, a long-term collaboration within the innovation campus, Orange Gardens (Châtillon), which brings together all of Orange’s innovation teams. We set up a project with a protocol, a charter, calls for projects to artists based on innovation themes. During the pilot season, we tested the materiality of the network, the LoRa network – the network dedicated to connected objects supported by Orange. The issue is to determine how artists will be able to poach, what they will be able to do with the network and tell us about their discoveries. For example, we have experimented on geolocation with artist Agnès de Cayeux whom we geolocated continuously for over a week on an island in Brittany to develop a study of all of her movements. But we have also worked on the issues of indoor geolocation for LoRa with Fabien Zocco.

New practices are developing on the LoRA network, because it is a new, decentralized network, like the main network of Orange. This young artist worked on connected objects and behavioral objects, inspired by cybernetics. We will see what he will be able to use in the LoRA network, and what he will not: a way, for Orange, to represent the constraints and potentialities of this new type of network. We also have a topic on connected trees: as we know, trees “talk” to each other, share information. With the help of a team of biologists, this information can be captured and transformed into art. This type of project brings together several players. In the case of connected trees, with LoRa, we are looking at a threefold collaboration with a biology lab – the INRA –, a company and an artist, Olga Kisseleva.

Within the company, several sectors may be involved: in the case of Orange, for example, it is a transversal project, which mixes corporate communication, the management of cultural projects, as well as innovation from the Orange Labs, sponsors from the marketing department and the director of basic research of Orange Labs, Nicolas Demassieux. There are several sponsors within the company. In other cases, only one sector will be involved, for instance, strategic marketing. Within PSA, the strategic marketing department allowed the collaboration between artists and PSA by inviting PSA research to participate in our workshops. This model of residence is promising in terms of innovation and multidisciplinary research.


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