Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Difference Between Making Digital Art and Building a Product

First, two definitions from Webster's online dictionary:

art  noun \ˈärt, ərt\ :the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced. 

prod·uct noun \ˈprä-(ˌ)dəkt\ :(1) something producedespecially : commodity 1 (2) :something (as a service) that is marketed or sold as a commodity.

Since my undergrad was in Computers in Fine Art from The CADRE Institute at San Jose State University, and I have been learning Ruby on Rails and what it can do, I came up with an idea for a digital art project: an exploration and social commentary written in Ruby. I've talked about it for a bit, then just started building it. I don't intend it to be anything commercially viable -- though it could be at some point. Why not?

As I have shown it to people in the San Francisco rails community, people occasionally will come up with ideas about things I could do with or to it. I love this aspect of the startup development community! Unfortunately, many times the ideas are things like "You could put it in in a digital frame Golden Gate Bridge gift shop so people can see all the photos!" or "You need a cooler name, like 'Places I've Been'!" Sigh...Firstly, an app with that name already exists. Secondly, they're missing the point of the project and offering ways to make it a product, which it is not.

There is a difference between a product and an art piece. Both have value, and that does not mean that an art piece can not be a product and vice versa. The art community gets this, I think, but the commercial development community seems to be oblivious to the idea that an application could be art. Even one that IS a commercially viable application. I once was describing a very interesting and sophisticated art application that a friend is building to an experienced commercial developer who commented, "Cuuute!" I decided not to explain it further, since programming as an art medium was obviously not interesting or valuable to her. It turns out that my friend will be selling her application to a company that wishes integrate it into one of their products.

I think the difference lies in that digital art is not necessarily intended to be a commodity. Where a product is usually designed with a specific utility in our daily lives -- to connect people, to make tasks easier, to add efficiency. With art, there is an artist's intent perhaps, but not any real practical utility in our day-to-day lives.

That said, making an art application that is -- or appears to be -- a commercially viable application can indeed be art. Art apps can also educate, perturb, frustrate and be senseless fun! Commercial applications can also be moving, innovative, and so well done that they are indeed art.

So why am I even writing about this in a blog post about developing my professional skill set? Because my art background, and making the distinction between the two, forces me to ask the questions: "What is the utility of this application? How would it improve processes that the user may already have in place? Would anyone buy it? How can it positively disrupt the way things are currently done? How can it be monetized? How can it be win-win for everyone involved? What 'holes' can I see where it may help solve problems that people struggle with every day? How can I make people actually feel more intelligent for using my app?" This, I believe, is just one tool in my skill set that would make me valuable on a development -- or product -- team.

If you are a digital artist, you will know where I am coming from. If you are a "product guy" or have been in the trenches building applications for the enterprise, you will most likely want to change the name or add features of my project that make it more marketable. If you have suggestions that make it interesting and fun, I would love to hear about them!

In the mean time, please check out the beginnings of my project "Proof I Was There". It's a social commentary about our need to document our travels with photographs. I'll be adding references in the next week or so to excerpts about art and it's context, as well as examples of the types of digital art I am talking about.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Proof I Was There

Here is the beginnings of a project I have been talking about building for a while, but recently figured out a way to begin. It is just a cluster of small ruby apps to be run separately for now, but it will be integrated into a rails app, then eventually with a mobile interface.

To run it, clone the repo, then follow the directions.