Innovation as an art form

If Leonardo da Vinci were alive today, but he could probably talk his way into a job at Nortel.

The Renaissance master knew all about difficult career searches, long before sites like Workopolis.com or Monster.ca were available to help the unemployed. At the age of 25, shortly after his apprenticeship with a leading Florentine painter ended, he wrote a 12-page letter to the Duke of Milan offering his services. There were not the sort of services you might expect from such a great visual artist. He bragged about his ability to design siege weapons, new methods of pouring oil for maximum effect, bridges that could be useful in military situations and other war-oriented hardware. Only at the end of the long list did he add, like a postscript: “Also of value are my statues and paintings that I hope will grace your walls in peace time.”

In the centuries since then the worlds of art and science have maintained their independence, in some cases deliberately distancing themselves from each other. On Thursday, however, the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) launched a program that may foster a closer relationship between these two fields. IT and Art the industry association has created an online gallery of interactive illustrations from artists in Toronto, Victoria and Montreal. My favourite exhibits include the work of Nancy Paterson, who uses ORAD CyberSet Virtual Studio to create a series images that brilliantly capture the juxtaposition of commerce and creation. In “Coppelia,” for example, a young woman in a little black dress appears to be moving like a tightrope walker among a series of PCs at a stock exchange. There are other, less technical examples. Mark Rudolph, for example, creates impressionist-style work that makes me think of what Monet might have done if he’d ever worked at Silicon Graphics.

The gallery also includes a bibliography, background on the artist as innovator and resources for funding.

I spoke with Nichola Feldman-Kiss, an Ottawa-based new media artist who is curating the ITAC gallery. She says she wants the gallery to encourage more cross-industry collaborations.

“The production of stuff comes out of IT is a corporate culture, and the production of art objects are coming out the Canadian new media arts scene,” she said. “These two communities have a whole lot in common and in Canada, they don’t happen to speak a lot to one another,” she says.

Feldman-Kiss wants to bring to Canada the artist-in-residence concept that is already beginning to evolve in the United States. MIT already does this; so does Xerox’s legendary PARC laboratory in California.

“Their program is not about making better products and it is not about Xerox making or owning art,” she said. “It’s about creating better scientists, better engineers and better artists. We’re sort of joining left-right, creating a community brain as opposed to each one of us working in our increasingly narrow specialties.”

There has already been some support from Canada’s National Research Council, which offers an Artist in Residence for Research program in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts. There is also a funding program for interested companies through the Canada Council.

Maybe bringing artists into the R&D lab won’t give us a better PC, but we could all use a little more inspiration in this industry. Great companies are built on great ideas, and those can’t come without deep sources of creativity. Plus, these are artists using today’s technology tools.

This is exactly the kind of leadership an organization like ITAC needs to demonstrate, and they are to be congratulated for coming up with an initiative that doesn’t focus solely on the bottom line. While the industry keeps trying to think outside of the box, these artists are thinking with the box. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

sschick@plesman.com

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