How Tech is Changing Seattle’s Art Scene

This is a great article about art and tech in Seattle.  Included is an interview I did with Drizl artist Iskra Johnson and work from our data scientist, Aaron Lichtner.  Here's an excerpt from the original post on  Crosscut.  See entire post here.

In Seattle today, we tend to think of tech and art as opposing forces. Recent years — and rising rents — have shown that there often isn’t room for both. New tech start-ups seem to pop up every week, bringing with them new faces, incomes, and interests. And as the techies keep rolling in, the artists roll out, searching for more affordable digs and like-minded folk.
Still, technology, in many ways, has opened up a world of possibilities for artists. Look no further than “Tangerine,” the 2015 film made on an iPhone. The lack of boundaries can be overwhelming, but also has the potential to be freeing, raising the question: What do you create when you can create anything?

Artist Tivon Rice looked at the rapidly changing landscape of his city, with many buildings of old Seattle poised to disappear, and wanted to capture the city in flux.

First, Rice used a drone, funded by 4Culture’s 2015 Tech Specific grant, to capture aerial photos of local buildings and landscapes. Using a process called photogrammetry, he then created new composit images from these photos. The process, which creates 3-D models by analyzing hundreds of two-dimensional photos, has been around for over a century, but the rise of digital photography has increased its popularity.

The images Rice created are of intact façades giving way to a hollow space, disintegrating or being torn away from their environment. They’re reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum, in appearance as well as mood — decaying, haunting, and strangely timeless.

Next, Rice set out to bridge the physical world (Seattle’s rapidly changing landscape) and what’s below the surface (the city’s shifting economic situation).

Artwork by Seattle artist Tivon Rice

Spelunking in the website of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, Rice was able to scour and download some 250,000 files. The files focused on two treasure troves of data: the work of city planners and the wealth of public comments that citizens have made in response to proposed developments.

Technology made accessing these files possible — in previous generations, data like this would have been locked away in file cabinets or could only be accessed during limited library hours — and it also opened a world of possibilities in terms of what he could do with the information.
What did he do? “I trained two computers to speak, “ said Rice, “one in the voice of Seattle City planners and the other in the voice of public comments and protests to current developments.”

Working in collaboration with Google AMI (Artist and Machine Intelligence), he then asked these two models to describe what they saw in his pictures. They automatically generated captions and short stories about each photo, using vocabulary they’d gleaned from the documents.
The resulting conversation between the two computers is a kind of poetry, illuminating an exchange in which neither the public nor the planner is actually conversing.

However, looking at the pieces, it was impossible not to want to talk about them. And this was the case with the work of everyone at the salon — technology, the same thing that can make us feel so closed off, enabled new avenues of physical connection.


For artist and designer Iskra Johnson, Instagram has become an exciting means of learning, and created a community that didn’t even exist a decade ago.

“I’m so inspired,” she said. “I am now communicating, in my daily life, with [creative geniuses] all over the world.” The result has been some remarkable moments of serendipity.

About five years ago, Johnson did a series of paintings of a Northern flicker, a distinguished member of the woodpecker family, that decided “it wanted [her] house.” She posted the paintings on her blog under the title “My House is Not a Tree” and then carried on painting and designing typeface as she has for decades.

Three years later, a woman in eastern Washington who happened to also be playing host to a persistent flicker, stumbled upon Johnson’s paintings online, and bought them. “Now that is a very elaborate way to get someone to buy your paintings,” laughed Johnson.

However, like many artists, Johnson does not see the role of social media as flatly positive. Platforms like Pinterest allow people to look at work and “pin it,” while doing little to tell you about the artist, or even lead you to find more of their work.

“One of my hopes for a place like Seattle, since we’ve got all these people who are experts in technology, is for a platform [that] truly helps an artist continue to make a living,” she said.

The Shipping Lane by Iskra Johnson
The Shipping Lane by Iskra Johnson

This is where Aaron Lichtner’s recent project comes in. A data scientist with a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering, Lichtner’s brain and passion for art combined to create a program called Artorithmia that can recommend artwork that suits your personal taste.
For the project, Lichtner teamed up with, a local company that touts itself as “a better way to find art.” Drizl’s website lets you upload a picture of a room in your home, and then try out pieces of art from its collection.

Lichtner wanted to take this personalization one step further. He catalogued the over 700 pieces currently in Drizl’s collection and set up a system in which viewers can “like” pieces, as you would on Facebook or Instagram.

Then this data is collected for your benefit and use. As you respond to the pieces, the software collects data on what appeals to you, the viewer, across five categories: saturation, composition, technique, price and content.
Lichtner describes it as Pandora for art lovers. In the same way Pandora knows you’ll love the new Pixies album, this program can offer art recommendations based on what you’ve revealed about your visual taste.

“I really enjoyed this project, and love the combination of art and technology,” concluded Lichtner at the salon, whose passion and efforts were apparent. His presentation ended with inviting attendees to come up and try Artorithmia for themselves.
(After only a few minutes on Artorithmia, my aesthetic, which I like to think is so unique and indefinable, had been pinned down. As predictable as grandmas love a delicate doily, Lichtner’s program saw through to my core, where there was a penchant for nature scenes, defined by heavy, pregnant skies. Unfortunately, my taste — oil paintings — ran a bit more expensive than the prized doilies scattered throughout my grandmother’s living room.)

(To try Aaron's app, go to Artorithmia)

Artorithmia app by Aaron Lichtner
Artorithmia app by Aaron Lichtner

Tech has transcended boundaries, not only giving artists new tools to create, but providing viewers with newfound accessibility to art. This openness, to connection and new ways of experiencing the world, was unmistakable throughout the salon.

At Galvanize, beneath the streets, attendees got the opportunity to interact with pieces and projects, and then with the creator standing modestly nearby. When they went above ground, a stone’s throw from a dozen tech start-ups, they pulled up their Uber apps to get a ride home.

Article by Nicole Capozziello who is a former Wisconsinite with a past split between cheesehouse and liberal arts college. She has called Seattle her home since 2009. She currently works at TOPS alternative school, and at Theo Chocolate, where she lives the dream as a chocolate factory tour guide. She enjoys cooking, exploring Seattle’s lovely parks with her dog and wonderful friends and attending author readings.

This story is part of a three-year initiative, funded by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, to elevate coverage of the arts in the Northwest. In 2016, Crosscut curated three Civic Art Salons featuring artists who develop visual, film, or performance art. They explored various topics, including preserving art space in Seattle, the intersection of art and tech, and race and diversity. To be notified of events like these, sign up for our daily newsletter here.

Patricia is CEO & Cofounder of Contact her at

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