Creative Practice

Exploring future digital arts practices

 A musical performance in the Sussex Humanities Lab

Knowledge takes myriad forms, not all of which is confineable between book covers. SHL's core team of researchers includes musicians, artists, writers, media artists, designers, technologists and programmers, and our wide network of creative collaborators spans many more arts and creative disciplines.

As machines take on more and more tasks once seen as impossible to automate, creativity is often invoked as a kind of haven of ‘the human’: as the lofty activity to which no robots will ever rise. We take a different approach. Our practice research begins from the standpoint that expression, vision, imagination and play have always been implicated with technology, not securely separate from it. 

Practice research in SHL develops upon a long history of interrogating, celebrating and nurturing the rich interactions between art and technology through creative, technical and formal experimentation. Real-time sensors and algorithmic processes, motion capture and live coding, artificial intelligence and artificial life techniques are investigated through creative digital renderings of motion and gesture in sonic and visual arts, extending to haptics and multimodal forms.

Musical assemblages

The Sussex Humanities Lab supports and shares several members with Emute, Sussex's research centre and artist collective for experimental music, music informatics, and performance technology. Music and technology have long been in an intimate relationship (as research by SHL's Thor Magnusson has explored), a history traceable from classical civilisation and earlier to the present day and emerging futurity. Music can be a medium for scientific and technological experimentation, for responding to or anticipating innovations and new cultural forms. At the same time, music is deeply expressive and connective, a space where technology and humanity coevolve.

Music can also be a space where technology encounters its more-than-humanity: music can also be machinic, animal, microbial, climactic, ecological. For example, Alice Eldridge’s expertise as both musician and scientist underpins her ecoacoustic research into human and non-human sonic systems. In addition to cultivating machines capable of listening to biodiversity on land and sea, Alice's research includes exploring the perceptualisation of big data for human interpretation, develops networked notations to support ensemble music making, and designing and building new feedback musical instruments.

A work such as 'TIDES,' by Visiting Fellow Ian Winters, uses site-specific multi-modal installation and performance to explore rising sea levels and the erasure of coastal lands, drawing on citizen science and a range of range of scientific data about the human and more-than-human systems of the San Francisco tidelands area, including NOAA oceanographic data, GIS models of tidal levels and sea level rise, species occurrences, as well as human factors.

Musically Intelligent Machines Interacting Creatively (MIMIC), a groundbreaking collaboration with Durham University and Goldsmiths College, explores how machine learning can support and transform creativity. Researcher-practitioners including Chris Kiefer, Francisco Bernardo, and Thor Magnusson are contributing to the rich tradition of live coding at Sussex, experimenting with the intersection of machine learning and dynamical systems, the creation of user-friendly interfaces, and the nesting of languages within languages within live code ecosystem Sema.  

Generative aesthetics and sound/media installations

The word 'installation' might imply a kind of fixity: something slot firmly into place, something that won't budge. SHL's creative practice tells another story. Not only artworks, but also artists, audiences, and ways of being with art, can be the effects of productive intervention. Artists are continually looking for new ways to make their work fruitfully responsive to accident and contingency. Alex Peverett’s multi-disciplinary generative media art, for example, spans electronic and computer music, audio-video art, multi-media installations, computer graphics, excavating alternative futurities. Alex's practice research also often puts creative practice in a media-archaeological frame, exploring the complex dynamics of layered technological and aesthetic obsolescence and revitalisation. Alex and Andrew Duff, both individually and collaboratively, creatively and critically explore the possibilities of games consoles and other digital and analogue visualisation systems.

Cécile Chevalier's practice research is likewise hybrid, playful, collaborative, and generative, exploring how media installations as ludic environments can be sites for fresh encounters in relation to digital cultural transformation, embodiment, performativity, and self and other. Cécile's interdisciplinary media research integrates installation, sound art, performance, instrument design, and systems art, to investigate the human body and technological forms of augmentation, and enquire into the profound transformation of individual and collective expression through computational technology. Works such as '200.104.200.2' (Chevalier / Duff) and 'Listening Mirrors' (Chevalier / Kiefer) involve sound installations as evolving instruments, capable of blurring and warping the boundaries between expressing and listening, between musicians and non-musicians, and even between the real and the imagined. 

How might aesthetic co-production with machines shine a light on 21st century ways of being human? 'Robotic' is, quite unjustly, often used a synonym for predictability or emotional flatness. Evelyn Ficarra's creative practice takes in music, theatre, installation, multi-modal media practice, dance, film, and other modalities, traditions, and possibilities, and has recently begun to investigate the rich and complex affective implications of robotics in performance. The Robot Opera Research Project explores issues of performance, embodiment and voice, as well as theatrical and musical interaction between humans and robots. Other work by Evelyn explores the agency and expressivity of 'inanimate' objects, tracing 'voice' (or something like it) in the lives and in the deaths of everyday objects.

Data, storytelling, and sense-making

Other threads of practice research explore how data relates to history and cultural heritage, and the novel kinds of performance / performativity emerging via locative and distributed media, and aggregated big data. For example, Alex Butterworth's creative practice includes distributed multimodal narrative, pioneering the use of locative media, data visualisation, and immersive experiences for the interpretation of complex cultural and historical subjects. This research explores how audience attention can be focalised through emerging narrative technologies. How can an audience be invited into processes of meaning-making, in ways that tell complex stories, while at the same time supplying meaningful freedoms, and accommodating the rich and unpredictable narrative resources the audience brings with them? 

Queer Codebreakers, a collaboration between Sharon Webb and Elle Castle, also explores innovative ways of experiencing and interacting with history. Queer Codebreakers uses interactive installation art to uncover the playfulness of history, drawing on the oral history collection of the Queer in Brighton archive.

The relationships of narrative, history, and data are also explored in Jo Lindsay Walton's critical design fiction and digital participatory artworks, which examine the social life of new and emerging technologies. Jo's collaboration with risks scientists and psychologists explore the aesthetic, ludic, and narrative dimensions of visualising and perceptualising uncertainty data to support better decision-making. 

Ultimately, SHL's practice research also seeks to reckon with the conflicted status of ‘creativity’ itself. The celebration of creativity, so pervasive in academic research and far beyond, remains entangled with the very forces which frequently constrain and regulate creators, creations and creatures, conferring an aura of newness to projects which in reality only reinforce entrenched distributions and dynamics of power.