A new understanding of what we mean by ‘art’

I have to start this post with a confession; I’ve never been what you’d call an ‘art lover’. There is some art that I love. Some. It tends to be the really ultra dramatic stuff. And by that I don’t mean expressing fearsome emotions or catching a moment of history. I mean stuff that is just physically big. The bigger the better. And ideally made of metal. And if it’s on canvas, it needs to be bright, bold, textured.

I am not a man who appreciates nuance when it comes to art.

This week, as part of Leeds Digital Festival, The Lumen Prize Exhibition came to Leeds Dock, bringing with it seven award-winning pieces of digital art.

This, it turns out, was my kind of art. And it was my kids’ kind of art too.

The highlight, surely, was Portée (captured below in a setting far more grand than a disused building on Leeds Dock, but you get the idea, I’m sure). Blue illuminated wires criss-cross the room. And in a corner, sits a piano. The premise is kind of simple, and kind of wonderful. You shake, touch, bang the giant wires, something triggers in the piano, the keys hit down, and a chord or phrase is played. And repeat.

The theme that starts here and stays with me is agency, interaction and immersion. This is not art you passively observe. This is art that doesn’t just invite you to engage with it, it needs you to engage with it. I’ve always felt something of a passive observer of art. It’s there, I see it, I move on. With this piece. I’m – we’re – in control, and part of the joy and intrigue, is thinking, ‘how have they done this? When I pull this wire, what happens where to play those notes’.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Metamorphy needs you to bang, push and pull at its silk screen to create colours, the illusion of flames and an uncanny sensation like you’re opening some kind of cosmic wormhole.

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Man-A uses a smartphone app to bring a large piece of work to life, flickering and moving on your phone screen. My son was hooked, and Moc – his clear favourite – brought trees and other flora shooting up and flowering to the sound of his voice.

My daughter – younger by a couple of years – was particularly taken by Passages which scans the people in front of its projected screen for movement, captures it, before allow the images it captures to disintegrate. It looks similar – and more brilliant – than it sounds, look:

As a parent, seeing this stuff is so exciting. Firstly because it’s obviously really clever, and well, pretty cool. Secondly, because of what it gives you and your children. A chance to play with art, and to create something by being part of it. It moves art into a new sphere. An infinitely more appealing sphere (well for my family anyway). It’s one where technical ‘fine art’ skills are no-longer the bottom line, where the division between artist and observer begins to blur.

It encourages you to be involved in art. To think about art in a different way. Maybe – who knows – my kids are learning that art is something we all do. Not just something ‘artists’ do. Which means that they feel invited to create and to consider themselves artists themselves.

When they’re a little older, who can imagine what new technology will enable people to do and create under the banner of ‘art’. Maybe they might feel like they want to harness that to do something themselves. Or they may not, whatever. But the important thing for me, right now, is that art isn’t something static, but something involving and exciting that can exist across more than one of your senses, and it’s something we can all be a part of.

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