Creative technologists pioneer thriving careers at the nexus of art and tech

‘The better technology looks, the more we’ll use it’

Dan Gorelick lives many lives.

For one, he splits his time between San Francisco and New York City. But he has several professional endeavors, too. By day, he works in rapid prototyping and quickly drafting front-end software for commercial clients. By night, he’s a musician, blending his childhood training in cello and piano with computer engineering expertise to make ravey, experimental beats.

Gorelick is a so-called “creative technologist” — a title that may strike those outside of the tech industry as an oxymoron. STEM is often seen as the opposite of the arts; one field dominated by people with strong left brains, and the other right.

But Gorelick said his skills and interests are interwoven. They add up to a unique career path that doesn’t feel like he’s simultaneously working many different full-time jobs; rather, he’s bringing one, unique professional offering to the table. He lives the “multi-hyphen life,” he said, a term coined by British media personality Emma Gannon to describe people who work outside the bounds of narrow job descriptions. “I’m like a creative technologist-engineer-artist,” he said.

“Creative technologist” DJs play music programmed with code in real time seen behind them at “Rift in the Matrix Algorave.” (Courtesy QianQian Jin)

“Creative technologist” DJs play music programmed with code in real time seen behind them at “Rift in the Matrix Algorave.” (Courtesy QianQian Jin)

He’s representative of a broader trend toward interdisciplinary career paths in tech. An underground tech and art scene that has long thrived in the Bay Area is becoming more mainstream, and the creative technologists in it are finding that their skills are increasingly in demand.

Wendy Saccuzzo, a career coach who runs hiring services for the recruiting and career counseling company Tech Ladies, said it’s still relatively uncommon to find “creative technologist” as a job title. But she finds the term in job descriptions for product designers and software engineers much more often now than she did a few years ago. In this environment, it’s advantageous for developers and engineers to acquire soft skills, and for those with unconventional tech backgrounds trained in marketing or sales to pick up a bit of code.

The development of artificial intelligence and machine learning, she said, is accelerating the trend. As these technologies grow, they become integral to many roles within a tech company. Designers use AI tools to create interactive user experiences, while recruiters use AI to filter through resumes, for example. It’s advisable for all technologists to learn how to work with artificial intelligence, Saccuzzo argues, and this is driving the industry toward more interdisciplinary job descriptions. “We will all become creative technologists,” she predicted.

Also, the fact that engineers have artistic talent is not new. A thriving underground art and tech scene has existed in San Francisco for at least a decade. The community overlaps heavily with Burning Man regulars because the festival’s large sculptures often include lighting and sound elements.

Created by a couple of San Franciscans and first celebrated at Baker Beach in 1986, Burning Man has moved to Nevada but sustains strong local ties. Now it’s in an isolated area of Black Rock Desert, requiring artist-technologists to come up with innovative ways to generate electricity for their projects and make them durable enough to handle high winds, lots of dust and dirt and interaction with tens of thousands of people.

Caroline Margaux, a creative technologist who typically works with interactive lighting interfaces and has worked on multiple art projects for the festival, calls Burning Man the “ultimate test ground.” Many people she meets at Burning Man become professional contacts.

Caroline Margaux, an interactive lighting designer, works on a piece for the Nocturne X exhibit. (Courtesy Nocturne X)

Caroline Margaux, an interactive lighting designer, works on a piece for the Nocturne X exhibit. (Courtesy Nocturne X)

“Once I worked on a bunch of custom lights for some people camped at Burning Man from the same company,” said Margaux. “The head of the company liked what I did so much he commissioned a sign for the company lobby with the same effects.”

Most events where creative technologists have congregated and shared their artwork for the last two decades have been in underground venues and housing cooperatives. Gorelick, for example, performed a set at a “algorave” (a combination of the words algorithm and rave) earlier this month at a invite-only events space operated by a co-op called SYZYGY.

The California Academy of Sciences, the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and other museums and galleries also have showcased art and tech exhibits. Additionally, the nonprofit Gray Area supports the scene through classes, a media lab, resident-artist program and events programming.

Margaux is now part of a collective of creative technologists and artists called Numina Studio, which has an interactive exhibit, “Nocturne X,” on display at Gray Area’s Mission space. The exhibit looks like a futuristic version of a deep sea coral reef, with winding pathways leading visitors through a network of interactive organic-looking sculptures. These sculptures respond to different kinds of touch, auditory signals like whispering and clapping and even physical triggers, like a group of visitors jumping all at once.

A woman grabs bioluminescent movable flowers at the Nocturne X exhibition at Gray Area in the Mission District on Oct. 6, 2021. (Courtesy Noctune X)

A woman grabs bioluminescent movable flowers at the Nocturne X exhibition at Gray Area in the Mission District on Oct. 6, 2021. (Courtesy Noctune X)

Numina Studio founder Shlomo Zippel says the point of the project is to push this creative tech scene — which has thrived in the Bay Area for years and which the corporate world is beginning to tap into — thoroughly into the mainstream. The first step, he said, is properly rewarding creative technologists for their artistic work as much as their technical work. The lowest paid members of the collective make at least $25 an hour, and many make more. He also wants Numina Studio to have its own space, like Gray Area, to host algo-raves, panels and even events for companies that want host mixers in an exciting venue.

“If you’re one of the 20 million tourists who come to the Bay Area and San Francisco in a non-pandemic year, you see the sea lions at Pier 39, or you go to Alcatraz,” he explains. “You don’t see any of this cool art, even though we’ve been doing it, and immersed in it, and showing it to our own, close-knit community for years.”

As these art projects become more mainstream, so will public awareness grow around creative tech and its commercial uses, said Margaux. When she’s not working on her art, she mostly designs lighting for tech conferences and product exhibitions, for example. The value she brings to those clients is obvious: “The better technology looks, the more we’ll use it.”

virwin@sfexaminer.com

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