In this episode of the What Happens Next? podcast, we hear from two people who are finding and creating art in places and ways in which wouldn't have been possible, or even imagined, 20 or even 10 years ago. They believe the future of art is bright, as long as we learn to look for and at it differently. Jon McCormack is an artist with a PhD in Computer Science and is a Professor of IT, which might seem an incongruous combination, but he believes the future of art is in human-robot collaboration. Nick McGuigan is an accountant who urges people to look for art where it may not obviously be. His highly successful Artist in Residence program, in the Monash faculty of Business and Economics, embeds art into accounting, pushing back against the ‘boring accountant’ stereotype.
"We need to find something common about being human and I think art plays a really important role in going really deep in ways that other disciplines or other ways of thinking about the world don't."
Susan Carland (SC): In our last episode, we pondered a world without art and in this episode we hear from two people who push the boundaries in fields you wouldn't normally consider creative - accounting and IT. Jon McCormack is an artist and a Professor of IT, which might seem an unusual combination, but he actually believes that the future of art is in human robot collaboration. Nick McGuigan is an accountant. His highly successful artist in residence program in the Monash Faculty of Business and Economics combines art and accounting.
SC: Professor Jon MCCormack, thanks for coming in.
Jon MCCormack (JM): You're welcome. Thanks for having me.
SC: Okay,we have Brexit. We have climate change. We have bushfires. We have Covid19. When humanity seems to be in survival mode, why does art even matter?
JM: It’s a great question, and I think if you look around you, even at what's happening around the world at the moment, in Italy we've seen people making music together as a way of human bonding and finding something that's really core about being human. So I think art has a role to play in times of crisis, and you've seen in things like bushfire crises that we've seen recently. There's been a whole lot of people who have come together and said, well, let's help people. Let's try and understand this at an emotional level, at a human level rather than just a logical or rational level. So I think art is always important. It has different roles to play at different times in human history and depending on events. Of course, when there are emergencies, an urgent situation, sometimes it has to take a more backward role, but we're all human. We're all kind of people who need that kind of camaraderie. We need to find something common about being human and I think art plays a really important role in going really deep in ways that other disciplines or other ways of thinking about the world don't.
SC: Why do you think art is so good at that? At sort of helping untangle the human psyche in ways that other disciplines aren’t?
JM: I think a lot of it's to do with the idea of free thinking, about not being constrained or bound by conventional or typical ways of doing things or questioning those ways, particularly at a societal level, or social level or an individual level.
So it allows a kind of free thought. And, of course, because it’s free, it doesn’t always get it right. It doesn't necessarily mean that it's, you know, a good way to determine policy or anything like that, for example, but I think it is a good way to be able to step back and look at ourselves in a way that resonates, and that allows us to sort of question things that we take for granted. So, yeah, there are a lot of interesting ways that artists sort of probe society and think about society in ways that, perhaps in other disciplines or people who aren't artists don't consider to be normal.
SC: You mentioned the importance of free thinking, which brings me to your area of expertise because you're an artist, but you're also a professor of IT, which I'm guessing is not a discipline most people would immediately think of as being all about no right answer and what does this mean for our souls. How do you combine the two?
JM: That is a really interesting question and it’s something I've struggled with all my life.
I mean, yes, I work in an IT faculty. I have a PhD in computer science. But I have an art practice that I'm probably more well known for than for my computer science research, although the two are very closely connected. I mean, ultimately, I'm curious about the world. I'm curious about ways in which humanity and technology can help us understand that. And I found that through a lot of reading, reading a lot of books about science that that's really helped me understand the world or given it a perspective. But I'm not necessarily doing science for that purpose. I mean I do scientific research. But science informs the artwork that I do. But then the artwork is really a reflection on more about us as people, about the way that we think, the way that we do things, the way that we consider the world. And I don't think those two are actually that incompatible.
SC: So you said that science informs the artwork you do. Does your artwork ever inform your science?
JM: Definitely. Yeah. It's very much a hybridised combination of two things. I grew up at a time that I think that was very fortunate because we were able to experience the Australian bush, Australian nature in a way that perhaps impossible now, and that was the seminal kind of thought for me about what is nature? Where does it come from? How do people relate to it? And being able to understand nature from a scientific and mathematical point of view as this whole other dimension. And where computers come in is that they're fantastic machines for simulating things so you can ask impossible questions. You know, earlier I said about free thought, well, for me they are almost the ultimate free thought machine, if you understand how they work and how to program them. Most people think of computers as the Web and databases and let boring stuff. But actually, for me, the power of computers is that you can ask questions that are impossible to answer with any other tool that humans have ever designed before. And I think that's what makes him powerful.
SC: And exciting?
JM: Yeah, very exciting. So I spent years sitting, trying to work out algorithms for how things work in a way. But then saying, well, if things didn't work the way that I currently work, what if they worked in this impossible way? What would happen then? And of course, you can get answers to that and not just sort of theoretical answers, but answers that emerge on the screen that are tangible and that really makes it fascinating.
SC: So tell us about your art work. And how do you incorporate these two areas or passions of yours? How do they mesh?
JM: So at a fundamental level, I'm interested in human creativity or creativity in general, not just in humans, but in the world. So where creativity comes from. So my personal art practice has really been a combination of trying to make computer programs that enhance a person's creativity, so that make you more creative than you could be without that tool. So, of course, you know, a violinist without a violin is not as creative as a violinist with the violin, but I think the difference between something being a tool and something actually being a co-creator is the real point of interest. So when the machine actually starts originating ideas, it doesn't just become a tool that you play with, that you manipulate, it becomes a kind of co-creator that gives you ideas, that inspires you, that asks questions that you wouldn't have normally asked. So I began with the idea of sort of replicating nature and natural processes but in a completely abstract form. And then, more recently, of course, with the rise in artificial intelligence have been looking at the ways that I I can actually become a kind of co creator and make you more creative than you could be as an individual without those tools
SC: So the AI becomes a co-collaborator?
SC: So if I write a song, I need to credit them in the shownotes?
JM: Now, yes, that is a good question and that's a big challenge at the moment because there's a lot of music that's starting to be created with AI. I guess the one point that is really interesting to think about is when the co-creator is not human because the only people that we've co-created with as creative people, as artists, are usually humans. It's very rare to co-create with animals, although people have done that, and animals have intelligence and animals are creative, but this is a completely foreign intelligence to us, and it's not like people. So that's the first thing to get your head around when you are co-creating with them. And so what does authorship mean for an author or a combination of a human author and a nonhuman author? I think that's a really interesting question. There's no answer to that, no definitive answer to that yet.
SC: So give us some examples of the things that you have come up with where AI does help ask questions to make things more creative. Is it in music? Is it in painting? Tell us about the forms.
JM: It's in a whole range of things. So personally, my artwork is largely visual practice through using computers to generate fictitious environments that could never have existed or fictitious ideas that could never have existed and trying to make them look real, feel real, sound real.
SC: So like another planet?
JM: Kind of. So a lot of the early work I did was really inspired by Australian native flora. So I investigated all these algorithms that actually simulated the growth and development of plants. And it works in the same way that real plants work, at a metaphorical level. So there's a kind of DNA, equivalent of DNA, so a series of coded instructions, that code for the creation of something. So rather than directly making something manually by hand or in the case of real plants, you would sort of plant the seed and grow them and so on. This system allows you to create the digital equivalent of DNA and to evolve plants that could never have existed. So all my early work was based around this idea of evolving things that were impossible in nature, that didn't exist, that couldn't exist but yet somehow resonated with people. So most people, when they see it, they say it reminds me of something I've never seen before. It's kind of strange and yet familiar. So that whole thing about your original question about art, what does art do - it allows you to propose that thing - so imagine if plants will like this. I mean, part of it was also a kind of social and political commentary about the destruction of nature which, at the moment, we're destroying nature at a rate that we’ve never destroyed nature before as a species. So to me, that's extremely concerning. And I think something that we really do need to address urgently. And so part of the artwork was also to say, well, if you got rid of all of the real nature and we're only left with this synthetic nature, would it really be an adequate replacement for the kind of emotional and almost sort of intangible phenomenological experience that we have of the natural world?
SC: And I love the historicity of using Australian flora in particular because we know when Captain Cook and his people came here for the first time 200 years ago, they couldn't believe some of the things they were seeing, certainly with our animals - no one believed the platypus was real, for example, they were confused about why do our trees keep their leaves, but lose their bark, for example, It was seen as quite fantastical. So there's something, there's a sort of a delicious historical aspect to what you're doing with your creations while using Australian stuff to go creating something like you said - ‘I haven't seen this before, but it seems very familiar.’
JM: Well, for me, it was kind of like that when all these incredible, weird, sort of zoological ideas were emerging on the computer it was like being an explorer, coming across this foreign landscape for the first time and trying to make sense of it and saying, well, how does this how does this work? But at a level that's not natural, that's completely digital so it adds this other dimension of thinking that perhaps for early explorers, when they're just encountering real nature, you know, it's just the sheer phenomenon of something that's so foreign and so strange. And how do you reconcile that with what you know. So that was a similar experience for me.
SC: You said we can use AI to help stretch humans' creativity. Do you think there's any danger in us losing an aspect of our creative creativity in that if a machine or robots or AI is helping us, are we losing our own ability to stretch ourselves in a way? Is there a loss with the game?
JM: There is. It's up to us. So, a common example I use, something like - on a digital camera, these days. all of them have smile detection. So that's a codified algorithm that someone has determined that okay, we only want to take pictures of people when they're smiling, which is a cultural thing, right? But if you look at great photography, that's not necessarily about people smiling. So it's kind of subjugating the idea of what makes a good photograph to a machine, and that's just a very simple example. But if you take that a step further and say, well, what happens if the decision-making becomes more from the AI and it becomes culturally ingrained, or someone's idea of what culturally is important in a particular area - it could be photography, it could be art, it could be music, it could be anything - then where does that leave us? It's really a lot of people in Silicon Valley, for example, deciding what constitutes culture, which does have the potential to do. So yes, there's a danger, but it's really up to the people who write that software and the people who use that software to say what they want and to make it transparent about how it's making those decisions, I think.
SC: What do you think can be done to help remind people that art does matter, that it is a necessary inclusion for society, that it's not highfalutin as you said or irrelevant or something we do if we have a bit of spare cash in society, but otherwise it's peripheral. How do we keep it front of mind?
JM: At the moment I think that we are in an interesting time in human history where there's a big emphasis on economies on capitalism, on markets, rationality, even this - well, even though that's contested - people are often looking for some kind of meaning beyond that. And maybe traditionally, they might have turned to religion for that, for example. But I think art gives us the ability, as I said earlier, it gives us the ability to reflect on things that the rest of society, or the rest of the structures of society perhaps don't accommodate or don't allow as part of what they do. I think that's really important for our mental well being and our social well being, I think.
I mean, humans are social animals, without society, we’re nothing and so the quality of that society is really important. I think art has this really fantastic role to both cement society, but also to question norms about society that might be problematic, and I don't think there's anything else that does that in a way that can actually be also entertaining, enlightening, inspire curiosity, inspire - even if it inspires kind of puzzlement or rejection. If you think about what? why don't I like that? Or why can't I understand that or why is it evoking this feeling that I can't necessarily articulate? That's a fantastic experience and it makes you more human and I don't think any other discipline or human activity does that. Often we think of music as separate from visual art, for example. But I kind of think of these things as a continuum and I think there’s no human society that doesn't have music. There's no human society that doesn't have art in terms of rituals that make things special. And it is that thing that makes special that actually really makes life worth living.
SC: Jon that was so interesting, really interesting,thank you so much!
JM: Thanks for inviting me.
SC: Nick McGuigan is an accountant who urges people to look for art where it may not obviously be. His highly successful artist in residence program in the Monash Faculty of Business and Economics, embeds art into accounting, pushing back against the boring accountant stereotype.
Nick McGuigan (NG): Hi everyone, I'm Nick McGuigan and I work as an Associate Professor of Accounting at the Monash Business School, as well as their new Director of Equity, Diversity and Social Inclusion.
SC: Nick McGuigan, thanks for coming in.
NM: Thanks for having me.
SC: Tell me about your work.
NM: I'm curious about taking what I think are two kind of polar opposites, that is, art and accounting. I'm not necessarily a trained artist, but I'm interested in art, and I see how art can vision different futures and ways of moving us towards, I guess, more positive or optimistic, futures. Things around climate change and the future. In business, we have this idea of digital disruption and technology, and it's driving us, I think, maybe towards much more of a linear, logical approach. And I think that's kind of dangerous. And so if we’re going to solve major problems like climate change, art is a really useful way to vision that future for people.
SC: And what can they become?
NM: That's just it. I think they can be... There's no one way. So in accounting we have these accounting standards and they're rigid and they’re moving globally to position us in reporting in a particular way and my vision of the future, how I see accounting transforming, again to solve these problems like climate change, is much more holistic and diverse, so there won't be one way of accounting. There'll be multiple ways of accounting where accounting becomes a dialogue in a conversation, not necessarily a standard, rigid product.
So to me art is fundamentally humanity. It's a product or an outcome of process, of humanity. It's creative and it brings those human interplays, I think together in a particular way, and so I see art being able to do that by creating experiences for people. So it's that idea of curation. You go into an exhibition and it's curated for you to feel a particular way. Of course, that can't be controlled. I'll never forget this one moment when I went to this art exhibition in Sydney. We were living in Sydney and my partner and I went to the Marina Abramovich in Residence exhibition in Walsh Bay. She had taken over one of the wharves there and she kind of created this experience where you're completely - all technology is taken off you and you have earmuffs and you walk into this particular space and as soon as you get there, this individual in black comes up to you and they hold your hand. And they walk you over to a particular exercise that you're to do as part of her creative art work. And so I did this exercise and it was interesting. And then I went to move away to look at another exercise and another person a different one, but all in black, came up to me and held my hand and escorted me over to a row of beds, which was another exercise. And they lay me, like I got into bed and then they tucked me in. And that had never happened, obviously since I was a child, and I thought this is so interesting. And so, I felt it was this human connection, I felt at peace or at ease with humanity in some way. And I got lost, completely lost with time. So I was there for about two hours, I think, and I came out and I came out onto the harbor and my partner said to me ‘oh thank goodness you’re out, I've been waiting for ages’. And he had gone into that exhibition and left within 15 minutes. From his German background, he thought it was very controlled. It was like a Nazi concentration camp. And that was the kind of these two polar opposites in the way that art made us feel, in particular. And that kind of transition does get me really thinking about how art can shift minds and play with minds and experience in different ways. And so I saw how powerful that could be in transforming a mindset.
SC: Tell us about the artist in residence program at the Monash Business School. I don't think there's another business school around the world that has an artist in residence program. Is that correct?
NM: We’re the only one that has an artist in residence program where we bring the artist into the business school, host them like a visiting professor for a particular period of time and ask them to make an artwork.
SC: Yeah, I was gonna ask how the artists feel about this because I imagine it's a very different environment where they would normally be working?
NM: So we offer one of the most traditional, I guess, spaces for an artist. They don't normally have access to business schools, they don’t have access to our staff, they don’t have access to our students, they don’t know - they work in these areas around economics, accounting and business in general, but they don't necessarily have inside access into those spaces. And we really, I wanted to create that space to have inside access for the artist, and they love it. They love having their own office like a traditional workplace would do, and they're really interested and curious about learning more from us about that particular industry. But they're also very fascinated with how we think and how we behave in their industry. And so it gives them the opportunity to explore.
SC: With the artist in residence program you have at the Monash Business School, what were some of the outcomes or experiences that your colleagues had? How did it change them?
NM: So I think part of it is that what we're doing the artist in residence program is hold space, transdisciplinary space, for our staff, and so it enables conversations that would never have occurred before, and with those conversations they're able to rethink or re-look at their own practice, both in teaching students, like the way we engage with students, and also our research methodologies. So we're able to think about art methodologies and how they might be appropriate to be used to, I guess, maybe investigate business issues at much deeper levels. So the types of questions we might be asking during our interviews with professionals out in practice become deeper because of this art practice.
SC: You've had two artists in residence so far at the Monash Business school. What did they create?
NM: Our first artist came from Sydney. She’s New South Wales based artists called Bek Conroy and she came to us with a project called Dating an Accountant. The idea was to have a conversation about how we account for or measure love. We often position accounting as very objective and scientific when really it's as subjective as art is. It is a social construction we created as humans for a way of organising in our particular world. So she came in and she dated six accountants.
SC: Paints us a picture, what were the dates like? Was it a meal? What did they do on the date?
NM: Right, So we hired a makeup artist, we hired an actor who waited on them. They were given a kind of a cheese platter, if you like, with a glass of wine. And then the waiter would bring out plates of food. Which the food was a question that the artist would ask the accountant. Each of those dates were then cut short into a 10 minute block, and that became a 60 minute film. That film was then launched by our accounting professional bodies. So the professional body CPA Australia, found out we had the artist in resident program and they leapt on it straight away, they printed I love accounting bags for the launch and then we launched that to 150 business professionals and Southbank in Melbourne. So that was the big launch. And then that became part of an art exhibition called Art, Labour and Working Life, and that was held in the Melbourne Docklands. And so that was open to the general public. They could watch that film at any point in time. We had radio interviews with ABC Canberra. We then took that artwork over to the U.S, to Europe and to the UK and presented aspects of that to others in our profession. And now the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales as well as the Aspen Institute, New York are profiling that work.
SC: So that is phenomenal, and I am so intrigued by what happened with the Dating an Accountant art practice. It's gonna be hard for you to top that, I want you to know, but I'd like to hear what the second artist in residence program was?
NM: So our second Artist in Residence program was the Accounting Comedy Club. So we wanted to use humour to poke fun at accountants in a way that may transition them into different ways of thinking. And so we turned the area we have on level eight of the business school, we have a kind of a conference venue, we turned that into an underground New York jazz bar type style event, and so we created this kind of comedy club that people would go into, and it was kind of quite a formalised space at the beginning when they were networking. So we had, I think about 150 to 200 people turn up, and they were networking in a quite a traditional space. And then they were put into this kind of New York comedy jazz club style environment. And then we had our artist who performed a comedy show about accountants. And so what she had done was she had done preparation. We actually flew her over from Copenhagen, so she was a Danish-based artist. And then that comedy show went live. And that was filmed. And then that event was then exhibited, in February this year, at the Art Gallery of Finance in Hamburg.
SC: Can you please invite me to your next exhibitions, because they sound brilliant?
NM: Absolutely would be more happy to
SC: I'm going to remind you of this - I know where to find you now! Nick, you have been an absolute dream. Thank you so much for coming in.
NM: Thank you so much. Susan, for having me much appreciated.
SC: Thanks to our guests today, John McCormack and Nick McGuigan on the next episode will be back with practical tips for finding, supporting and embracing art in different ways and places. More information on what we discussed today can be found in the show notes.
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