Technology

Is This Good? The eclectic, electric geek artist collective

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Media captionSee three digital installations in action, by Neil Mendoza and Anthony Goh

2014 is being hailed as the year that digital art came of age. The movement is attracting digital natives who are as likely to have degrees in Computer Science as Fine Art. Has a new breed of artist been born?

From robotic lasers to interactive 3D-printed sculptures - the public was brought face to face with a wide range of digital art this summer at the Barbican's landmark Digital Revolution exhibition in London.

Appropriately, the revolution of summer 2014 also happened online. The Arts Council launched online platforms to showcase digital art commissions, The Space and Opening Times.

Modern art salons aren't held in ornate buildings: they have URLs.

Some critics have labelled it "a new aesthetic". It certainly requires a new skill set: an ability to code, to manipulate software - sometimes to solder.

But what are these new artists like? How do they live and work? An answer might lie in a dilapidated warehouse in Hackney, east London.

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Image caption SPACE studios in Hackney, east London, are teeming with creative types

Hackney bound

Strange music draws us closer to our destination, further into what appears to be an abandoned warehouse in the middle of a council estate.

There's no doorman, no signs, no carpets and the rooms in this dark warren appear to be partitioned by sheets of balsa wood.

We've come to meet a technology collective, but have we mistakenly wandered into a squat?

An assault on the ears marks my arrival into the room - a full blast of ukulele accompanied by the raspy electronic sound of a Stylophone keyboard, played by two people on the sofa, doubled up with laughter.

"Welcome to our world," shouts our host Chris Cairns, with a grin.

Home sweet home

Cairns is creative director of Is This Good?, a group of four digital creative types, who devote their time to building weird and wonderful electronic contraptions.

Image caption The team at work and play: Marek Bereza, Neil Mendoza and Anthony Goh

First impressions suggest that Chris Cairns's world is one colonised by feral geeks.

Components and kit are strewn across the space: Arduino boards, Raspberry Pi computers, circuit boards, capacitors, soldering kits. The stuff of electronics aficionados.

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Image caption A digital parrot made by the team

But there is also plenty of the digital litter that everyday people leave behind: smartphones, Bluetooth sets, Sim cards.

Look carefully and there is an animal theme among the digital detritus.

Bits of plastic mobile-phone casing woven into the shape of birds' wings. A butterfly made of mobile-phone parts that makes a constant fizzing noise - and occasionally twitches.

The digital birds have become something of a signature for the group, explains Chris Cairns.

Team members Neil Mendoza and Anthony Goh decided on pure artistic impulse to make a flock of birds out of old smartphones, to highlight the way that discarded electronics could be kept out of landfill, explains Cairns.

They ended up being shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where mobile phone firm O2 spotted them, and commissioned the men to turn them into interactive butterflies.

The project then migrated to the Barbican's Digital Revolution exhibition.

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Media captionThe digital butterflies were shown at the Natural History Museum

On closer inspection, some of the objects in the room seem a little more twisted, the product of a darker imagination.

A complete shaved-off beard is fixed to the wall festooned to a circuit board - this is apparently the result of a project about making music from old computer peripherals.

The facial hair used to belong to Neil Mendoza - he is present, bearded once more, and keen to show off his Barbie and Action Man piece, a commentary on gender stereotyping.

The toys have been forced into a radical body swap and sit on top of a simple wooden box - not unlike the ones that rotate ballerinas although this one contains an Arduino board and is rigged to a laptop.

Image caption "It's a commentary on gender stereotyping in toys", says creator Neil Mendoza

The deformed dolls begin to thump out the theme tune from Beverly Hills Cop.

Does this collective of like-minded individuals consider themselves to be artists? Neil Mendoza considers the question.

"Our role changes depending on the project we're working on. However, we definitely prefer projects where we are commissioned as artists.

"If you think of art from the viewpoint of craft, then coding is similar to skills such as painting in that it requires many years of time investment to attain a level of mastery. If you look at it from the viewpoint of expressing ideas and aesthetics, then they are all just tools in your toolbox.

"A lot of the work we create is fairly physical so sculptors are definitely influential, especially people who create mechanical works such as Jean Tinguely and Paul Spooner."

The warehouse in which the collective members work is one of many dilapidated, industrial properties run by SPACE studios, a charity for artists set up in the 1960s.

Their neighbours in this building are a motley crew of furniture designers, oil painters, sculptors, print-makers and photographers. The location seems to reflect their mindset.

The team say they have found artists as individuals to be very accepting - but not everyone else.

"When it comes to the art world, there is a some scepticism," says Mendoza. "However, this is more due to the fact that they haven't worked out how digital art fits into the curatorial and business model that's deeply ingrained in the art world."

Digital beatniks

The "business model" of the art world means that Is This Good? is a limited company.

"We had to do this," explains Cairns a little sheepishly, "so we could enter contracts with commercial clients."

"I would love to do just art to my own brief,", he adds, "but that is not a reality for any of us."

Is another way to think of the collective as a kind of technology start-up, a commercial creative agency, rather than a group of struggling artists in a garret?

This doesn't seem right either. This may be east London, but it is certainly not Tech City. The curiosities in this place lack the forced wackiness of Hoxton's ping pong tables, pristine bean bags and boiled-sweet dispensers.

You can't imagine Boris Johnson or Joanna Shields (Chair of Tech City) popping in for a photo-op.

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Media captionWatch three pioneering British artists who use code talk about their work

And unlike many of the start-ups of Silicon Roundabout they don't have their eye on an exit strategy, or impressing an angel investor.

Instead, like their digital butterflies, they just want to flutter from commission to commission.

"Interesting projects can come from different patrons," says Cairns. "But our motivation is making interesting work, not making money."

And with that the Stylophone starts playing a duet with the ukulele again - it's time for these digital beatniks to get back to work.

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