There’s an app for that

“There’s an app for that”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 79, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

The last roll of Kodachrome film was shot by photographer Steve McCurry, and developed in the last place, apparently on Earth that has the equipment, a drug store in Kansas. Kodachrome represented a way of seeing, it was not just film. No more Kodachrome skies, no more trying to figure out what the 1973 song “Kodachrome” by Paul Simon means. But with my smartphone, there’s an app for that.

My rather large CD collection has been reduced to a digital gas in a player the size of my thumb, while the CDs are in the garage; the LPs are long gone but I still have my Rega™ turntable, but ‘just in case’ will never come. With my smartphone, there’s an app for playing my whole collection.

I traded in my square format 6×6 analogue film camera, not even a battery, for a pile of digital kit so I can ‘fix’ them on the computer. A bloodless way to interact with the world. Why bother even take the picture in the first place, as I could probably just download some images, and I’m just a cut-and-paste away from what is probably the nearest thing to digital heaven. But there’s an app for that, too.

I have a 1930s leaky camera with almost no adjustments that takes really moody pictures, and seems to capture the scene at the moment far better than digital manipulation ever will — is that possible? Using film meant the image-taking moment mattered and required what the photographer Freeman Patterson calls ‘the art of seeing’.

We look, but don’t see. Where is the in-the-moment feeling of exuberance when creative juices flow and time stops?

For under a thousand pounds you can now buy a 3D printer, a sort of Star Trek replicator that can literally ‘print’ 3D plastic objects, such as a vase, jewellery or something more abstract. Lose something? Print another. It sits on the corner of your desk.

The question is whether something from an app, or a 3D thingee, will ever be art worthy of note. I feel I want to distinguish between the brute force of the technology as a marvel (gee, look what I did, serendipity wins again!), and something that might have actually passed through a human mind in some mystically moment of creativity. McLuhan spoke of hot and cool media and of the message and medium. When do the tools of creativity become more important than the results?

But all this shall pass. The invention of photography was seen as the end of art, and so far that has proved at least premature. Are you a serious painter if you use acrylics rather than oil on the mandatory linen canvas? Good artists have always embraced new technologies and attained mastery over them to achieve sometimes stunning and sometimes pretty dire results. But today, are artists experimenting and pushing boundaries or just mucking around?

Could painting become a screen capture moment, or could sculpture be done by robots controlled by the artist, in the way that surgeons can use robots to perform precise surgery (yes, Virginia, there is a robot for brain surgery).

So, here I write this article on my computer with some wizzy writing software, and my analogue mind. Despite the software suggesting how to end a particular word, I hope it will never, ever be able to begin a sentence for me. And the same for art.

But perhaps there’s an app for that, too.

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