Collected perspectives on authenticity

Authenticity – Relative, unmeasurable, and ever-changing

Julie Freeman // Artist & TED Fellow

Summary: Julie Freeman is an artist, TED Senior Fellow, and amateur taxidermist. Her work incorporates technology and data to explore the relationship between science and nature.


My art sits within the theme of Translating Nature. It explores how we approach the natural world through a lens of technological intervention, how we can perceive nature by augmenting our sense with digital tools and techniques. Through my work I ask whether the intervention of technology makes our experience of nature more or less authentic. Does it change the meaning of connectedness to nature? I'm also interested in the authenticity of working in this way – of using digital tools to help us re-experience what we think we know, through seeing further, hearing differently, sensing more broadly.

In the biosciences a remarkably authentic behavior can be seen in cellular morphogenesis. A material will self-organize (or self-assemble, or even self-heal) in a dynamic reaction to chemical or thermal change. This behavior is perceived as authentic because it is a pure reaction – we don't imagine that the cells will have been influenced by a contemporary cultural phenomenon!

The artist's intentions and manifestation of those intentions connect us to their subject, and to them, which will determine the authenticity expressed and perceived.

So I'm always considering the question: How can a work of media art be authentic when it does have those external influences (as none of us create in a vacuum)? The level of authenticity comes from the viewer – how they experience the work, what they bring to meet it, and what they know of it and of the artist.

This is illustrated in the stories of two of my works, whose impetus could not be more different – one deeply personal, the other commercial – but within which the authentic compulsion to realize the concepts was identical.

In 1996, shortly after the death of my father, my obsession to see if fish could make music began. My father was an avid fisherman, he owned fishing lakes, he even managed the World Champion. He loved music, the promise of technology and gadgets. Our last conversation shortly before his sudden death had been a heated discussion after which I turned and walked away.

The Lake was a site and time-specific installation which used real-time data from fish movement to create a 42 day durational animation and soundscape – in a mediagenic soundbite, the work allowed fish to compose music. To experience the work visitors were required to come to the lake where the fish lived, in a rural location an hour outside of London. Visitors entered a dark nine meter tall cylindrical tower next to the lakeside and looked up to see a three meter diameter circular projection of a dynamic animation. Sound tumbled down into the viewing area from four concealed speakers, immersing the visitor in a hypnotic "digital lake" experience.

Looking back, it's not complex to work out the genesis of The Lake. At a personal level the concept is a manifestation of grief, love, connection seeking, apology, frustration. Professionally, the work helped me to explore questions around technology and connectedness to nature, environmental and ethical issues, life and death, and to experiment with data as an art material. To me it was inconceivable that my vision would not be realized, it was essential in the truest sense of the word. After an 18 month production period, a generous fellowship from Nesta, and relentless help from friends, family, and others, the installation ran throughout the summer of 2005.

This story is not one that I've told often, as I always felt the work needed to stand in its own right. I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that disclosing the intimate motives of the artist were not important. But clearly those motivations played a key role in the creation of a pioneering and authentic piece of art.

The second work, The Digital Wave, came from a very different place. My company, studiofish, was approached by a public relations firm to create a temporary work for a launch event. We conceived of an idea that was essentially an enlarged and digitized strip of paper which people could walk under and touch – a giant, undulating interactive fabric screen that would rise above the viewers and dominate the environment. It would also cost ten times more than the allocated fee, and was technically highly ambitious, and therefore high risk.

A mix of enthusiasm, passion, raw self-belief, and naivety made sure the project happened. The budget was signed off, and the work exceeded expectations, not just on the night but later on a number of prime-time TV shows, and at a major gallery. The press coverage was what viral marketing campaigners dream of, something that cannot be fabricated from the top down; there must be authenticity within the creative process for the work to be of genuine interest.

These two projects have very different origins but a very similar shape – they were both too important to the creators not to happen. When the desire to see your ideas realized becomes all consuming, there is very little that can get in the way and the challenging voice of "what if" does not understand how to be quiet. It is knowing what is possible, imagining what is possible, and being obsessed to bridge the gap.

Authenticity is expressed not only in tangible ways, but equally in the intangible: Experiences, perceptions, emotional connections, and traversing time to include the past, the present, and the future. One of the many ways we can look at this expression is through the lens of originality – as new technologies are invented at an ever increasing speed, and the internet allows the hive mind to be identified easily, how can we know who is originally authentic?

Authenticity is fundamentally unmeasurable and ever changing. As geographer Professor David Lowenthal commented, "Authenticity is in practice never absolute, always relative." There are layers to authenticity that allow it to become mutated and merged into a new, perhaps richer, definition of what it means to be authentic.

This holds true as the collective memory of humanity infinitely grows via the web. If data was an artifact, how would we see it? How would we experience it? And most importantly, how would we assess the authenticity of it when deciding whether to preserve it?

The answer is found in the tales of my two works – authenticity comes from the bottom up. As more artists become passionate about the use of data as an art material, and our data literacy grows, we'll come to understand the attributes of the materials we are working with – and so, bring our own authentic perspectives to the work.

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Other perspectives

Julie Freeman
// Artist & TED Fellow

Julie Freeman

Authenticity – Relative, unmeasurable, and ever-changing

Julie Freeman is an artist, TED Senior Fellow, and amateur taxidermist. Her work incorporates technology and data to explore the relationship between science and nature.

Read here »

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