"Singapore is playing catch-up": MeshMinds' chief connecting officer Kay Vasey on the adoption of emerging technologies
You were previously a technology lawyer and head of arts at the British Council. What sort of lessons did you take away from those experiences that you have now applied at MeshMinds?
As Head of Arts at the British Council in 2010, I was fortunate to take part in a digital art symposium in Tokyo where I met Rhizomatiks, a Japanese company dedicated to creating large scale commercial and artistic projects using both the arts and technology. On that same trip, I was able to attend the Tokyo Media Arts Festival and was blown away by a game using eye-tracking technology and an animated city created using shadows and projection mapping. At that moment, my interest was forever sparked in how technology could be applied to the arts to form new ways of creating and sharing art. Later, as a technology lawyer, I discovered that the most progressive and innovative technology companies in the world, such as Google, Facebook, and Autodesk were investing heavily in creative-in-residence programmes. Finally, as I have volunteered on a number of environmental projects in Spain, Mexico and Israel, and offered pro bono legal advice throughout my previous career, I am committed to the sustainable development of people and our planet. The focus of MeshMinds on bringing together art and technology as a force for good is the culmination of my skills, experience and network to date.
MeshMinds is probably the first of its kind in Singapore. The art and tech mash-up is a pretty new concept here as well. What were some of the growing pains early on?
We find that artists can suffer from the high cost of living in Singapore combined with a self-censoring approach to innovation. If the drive to think critically, challenge popular thought and turn everything upside down is lacking, then new ways of creating and sharing art can become somewhat stifled. We have come across some artists who turn down the opportunity to join our transformative journey from visual artist to a digital artist because they are afraid of stepping into the unknown as they think they do not have enough time to dedicate to learning something new. Time is money and opportunities to deep dive into emerging technologies are few and far between.
In the UK, Japan, the US and Australia, ground-up initiatives and government-funded organisations have been bringing together artists and technologists for over 25 years. Singapore is playing catch-up but I believe that it will take less than five years to develop a new generation of creative technologists. Policymakers should consider offering opportunities for rapid prototyping in VR, AR, 3D printing, IoT and AI technologies applied to the arts via Singapore's robust education system, world-class infrastructure and access to finance through public-private partnerships.
Collaboration is a key part of the process. In your experience, how different/similar do artists and technologists approach and solve problems?
I find that technologists often have a linear "if this then that" approach to development. Conversely, artists often have a non-linear progression to their work. They will often create things "just because". A doodle one day could become the next masterpiece but perhaps not for months in the future. Technologists, on the other hand, develop towards an end goal and each line of code written is one step closer to that goal. Combining the two, the unique skillset of a creative technologist is someone who can bridge the gap between creative and code and is willing to experiment, fail, and iterate fast.
In terms of art and tech appreciation, how would you characterise the audience here in Singapore?
Singapore's smartphone penetration is over 75% across the whole population. This means that the majority of people are early tech adopters have access to QR codes, chatbots, augmented reality, and 360 virtual reality from the palm of their hand. That said, most people still cannot accurately share the differences between virtual, augmented or mixed reality. To that end, we always offer facilitators for our experiences who are, for example, armed with an iPad Pro to educate people via the large screen the augmented reality effect so that people feel more curious and empowered to try it out for themselves on their own smartphone.
We have also experienced a lot of caution in terms of virtual reality. When we were offering our virtual reality experiences for free in shopping malls, people were almost running in the opposite direction of the headset. Meanwhile, in China, malls are installing unmanned pay-as-you-go VR experience zones, so Singapore has a little way to go in terms of the unbridled acceptance of these emerging technologies into daily life.
Whether it's the pollution of single-use plastics in the ocean or rising sea levels, the artworks you've presented tackle a variety of urgent environmental issues. Have there been any artists/artworks that have surprised you?
I remain constantly in awe of the creative brilliance of Andre Wee. We have been working on a number of projects with Andre since our first show in 2018. We have seen him transform from visual artist to VR artist and now AR artist. Different from many other artists in approach and thinking, Andre was the only one to look at Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Consumption. This year, the focus for World Environment Day is air pollution and it is through, for example, green buildings and investing in zero or low emission transport systems, as depicted in Andre's work, 'A Better Tomorrow' that we can achieve action towards improving air quality in our cities and regions across the world.
Secondly, I have loved witnessing the transformation of the Malay collective, DPLMT. With five members, all with full-time day jobs, these forward-thinking and fast-learning artists picked up very quickly how to create AR effects to overlay onto their large 'trash triptych' which comes to life in a series of moving mandalas made out of waste. Putting the Malay goddess of nature at the heart of their communication on Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, captured the minds of many of the visitors and I am so glad to have minority voices spearheading this important message. Armed with new skills, we hope that they can enjoy a new revenue stream for impactful AR artwork.
Does MeshMinds see potential in working around the region and what/who do you have your eye on?
In our third year, we will likely focus on finding international opportunities to showcase the work of the artists we have incubated in 2017 and 2018. Thanks to our partnership with UN Environment, for example, Hold My Gaze by Andrew Loh will be showcased at the Global Landscapes Forum 2019 in Kyoto; and Water Bodies by Mightyellow and Our Ocean Life by Warrior9 VR have already been shown at the Asia Pacific Forum for Sustainable Development in Bangkok. Further, we are looking at incubating artists in Shanghai to learn VR and in Bangkok to learn AR.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists and technologists?
There are a plethora of 'teach-yourself' online courses and forums where questions can be asked and answered. For example, Spark AR Studio has a Quick Start Guide as well as a helpful and engaged community. Further, apps like Artivive are a straightforward way of getting started with AR too. Being open to collaborate and locating a creative technologist or two to experiment with is key and that's why we are trying to create a community of creative technologists who want to work on projects focused on mobilising action towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Find your tribe, make stuff, break stuff, and possibly change the world for the better.