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Creating art with pocket tools


21 December 2009

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An artist from the Chicago Art Department has found a unique way to promote art with new pocket tools. Using iPhones for mixing and overlapping music and pictures, the initiative has helped to bridge the gap between technology and mainstream art.

Like many of us, Mike Nourse is both irritated and entranced by iPhones – their ubiquity, their utility, their unique power to extinguish conversation.

Mike.jpg
Image credits: The New York Times/ Mike Nourse likes the idea that people can create art with something in their pockets

Unlike most of us, Nourse, a co-founder of the Chicago Art Department, is in a position to do something useful with his internal conflict. And so he has, introducing a five-week class called “iPhone Art” at his nonprofit arts education organisation.

“I wanted everyone to shut up already about what their iPhone could do and show me what it actually does,” said Nourse, 37, a video artist and photographer who moved to Chicago in 1996.

Despite Nourse’s mixed feelings about Apple’s latest gold mine, he said the course was an obvious vehicle for the art department, an all-volunteer organisation that describes itself as “dedicated to cultivating new voices, ideas and practices in contemporary art.”

“We’ve always been rooted in accessible art,” Nourse said. “The idea that people could create art with something in their pocket – that seemed like something we needed to tackle.”

The iPhone class has eight students. Each of them are responsible for producing a project, in any medium they choose, for a public exhibition titled “iPhone Therefore iArt.” It opens Jan. 8 in the organisation’s Pilsen gallery.

The course costs $50, but in keeping with the spirit of the Chicago Art Department’s pedagogical mission, anyone who completes the course and shows their work next month will have their tuition refunded.

In an effort to create a kind of high-tech cross-cultural exchange, Nourse has also solicited work from a number of relatively well-known iPhone artists, including Susan Murtaugh, a classically trained portraitist who was recently commissioned to “paint” portraits of five members of a corporation’s executive board.

Murtaugh, who lives in rural Wisconsin, uses an iPod Touch to create her art because she is outside the range of the iPhone’s wireless network.

Nourse is not the first to teach an iPhone art class, and Murtaugh is not the first to use a touch-screen to break into mainstream art. The artist Jorge Colombo used his iPhone and its $5 Brushes application to create a New York City streetscape for the June 1 cover of The New Yorker magazine.

While Colombo’s cover demonstrated the medium’s commercial potential, it was not enough to convince some artists and intellectuals of its legitimacy. They debated questions of artistic merit and the role of the artist vis-a-vis technology: Is iPhone art “real”? Does technology destroy the connection between the artist and the art?

Many members of the Chicago Art Department say this kind of hand-wringing has accompanied every defining moment in the evolution of art. Just as some painters viewed the emergence of cameras – and the physical separation of artists from their work — with great suspicion, a number of film photographers resisted the proliferation of digital cameras.

Even some of the students who enrolled in the iPhone art class went to the first session with reservations about the technique, or at least the iPhone’s legitimacy as an art-making tool. Some have since been converted, but others, like Carl Sweets, are ambivalent.

Sweets, 34, takes photographs using a 4-by-5, bulky, old-fashioned large-format camera – not very handy for everyday use. He said the iPhone served as a passable, and portable, stand-in.
“I take extremely high-resolution photos, which I can’t do with the iPhone,” he said. “But I also can’t carry the 4-by-5 around with me.”

Nathan Peck, a Chicago Art Department co-founder who is taking the iPhone art class, said the phone’s shortcomings — tiny lens, small number of pixels — are part of what makes it a compelling artistic tool.

“It has built-in limitations,” he said. “But you can choose to use the limitations of the tool as part of the art-making process. That limitation – whether it’s using this device, or being asked to make art about a certain city, or shape an idea – it becomes what holds otherwise disparate art together.”

The iPhone class met for the last time on Thursday evening, and only a few weeks remain until the exhibition. Nourse is working on two projects for the show. The first is practical: he is using his iPhone to mix and overlap music, creating the soundtrack for opening night. The second might be described as anthropological: he is snapping photographs of payphones – with his iPhone.

 
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