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The Shock of the New – Preparing for the Future

Fellows consider relationship between art, technology, the future and where we head next

From left to right - Clare Shine, Mark Stevenson, and Amy Karle speaking at Salzburg Global Seminar

Oscar Tollast | 20.02.2018

What will our planet look like in 2050 or 2100? Who or what will control our lives? What will it mean to be human? These are some of the questions participants at the Salzburg Global Seminar session, The Shock of the New: Arts, Technology, and Making Sense of the Future, will consider over the next few days at Schloss Leopoldskron, in Salzburg, Austria.

The session will build on previous work focusing on the transformative power of the arts while taking the program portfolio in “new, radically forward-looking directions.” This point was reaffirmed by Susanna Seidl-Fox, program director for culture and the arts at Salzburg Global, as she welcomed artistic and intellectual game-changers from around the world on the first day of the session.

Change can be both frightening and exhilarating. Amy Karle, a transmedia artist, and designer based in California, believes we are at an exciting time in history. Presenting her work on the first evening of the program, she suggested the many technological advancements taking place indicated we were on the “cusp of a new renaissance.”

As a bioartist, Karle uses art and technology to understand who we are and make sense of the future. Technology is neutral, according to Karle, and it has the promise to unlock human potential, particularly in her work, which falls into three categories. This includes bioart, biofeedback, and garments/wearables. 

When creating Regenerative Reliquary, Karle collaborated with bio-nano scientist Chris Venter, and material scientists John Vericella and Brian Adzima. The end product was a bioprinted scaffold in the shape of a human hand 3D-printed in a biodegradable PEGDA-hydrogel that disintegrates over time. This has been installed in a bioreactor, with the intention that human Mesenchymal stem cells “seeded” on will grow into tissue and mineralize into bone on the scaffold. The sculpture featured in Ars Electronica Festival’s 2017 program.

By collaborating with others, we can make bigger advancements than we could by ourselves. This can also apply to working with machines and technology, according to Karle, as they open up a new way of thinking. She said, “Working together with art and technology, we can make sense of the future.”

Mark Stevenson, an author and futurist in residence at the National Theatre of Scotland, is helping others become future literate differently. While he never asked to be called a “futurist,” his bestselling books An Optimist’s Tour of the Future and We Do Things Differently led to that title being afforded.

Speaking after Karle, Stevenson discussed how he helped clients, including artists, investors, academics, and NGOs wake up to the challenges they are facing. He proceeds to adapt each of these organization’s cultures and strategies to face the questions the future is asking them. Among others, he has advised Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, the GSMA, and the Atlas of the Future.

“Everything is fixable,” said Stevenson, in an optimistic tone. He explained it was important to paint a picture of the possible, which is good, but in a tangible way. He highlighted Martin Luther King Jr. as a positive example of a futurist, going as far to say he was his favorite if he had to select one. Stevenson said King used the power of language to show everything that was wrong in a way which couldn’t be unseen. At the same time, he painted a picture of a better future which was tangible.

Stevenson believes the next 25 years will be “messy” and how messy it gets depends on how willing our society is to build something different without leaving people behind.

Both Karle and Stevenson took part in a conversation moderated by Clare Shine, vice president and chief program officer at Salzburg Global. Together they offered their perspectives on “future illiteracy.” Discussing her experience, Karle said she had met people who don’t want to think about the future and turn a blind eye to it. Nevertheless, people are still able to access her work and engage with it. One example of feedback she has received is: “I don’t understand your work, but I love it.”

Stevenson suggested more future literate people will lead to better solutions. This involves speaking to everyone and painting pictures which people and organizations can transition to. Stevenson conceded cultural change takes a long time, but when having a conversation about scaling, we should begin to focus on where the money is and how that’s currently being used. He said, “If we don’t get the money to feel and think differently, we’re on a hiding to nothing.”

The Salzburg Global program The Shock of the New: Arts, Technology and Making Sense of the Future is part of the multi-year Culture, Arts and Society series. The session is supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all of the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.


Oscar Tollast