Introducing Tom Milnes and BA (Hons) Creative Technologies
New to Plymouth College of Art, BA (Hons) Creative Technologies is an exciting, studio practice-based course to explore technology in all its forms as creative artistic expression. Launching next year as part of our School of Arts + Media, we’re currently recruiting students to start in September 2022.
This expansive, future-facing course covers everything from virtual reality, creative coding, data visualisation, projection mapping, interactive installation and 3D scanning and printing. To help you to understand more about experimenting at the intersection of art and technology and some of the possible outcomes of this innovative course, we sat down with artist and curator Tom Milnes, a Lecturer in BA (Hons) Fine Art who’ll be taking a leading role when BA (Hons) Creative Technologies launches.
Your work has exhibited in countries around the world and you’re known as founder of the Digital Artist Residency, but how did you get started as an artist?
When I was still in school, I enjoyed art and music and found that I wanted to pursue both further. My uncle was a graphic designer who got me interested in experimenting with Photoshop and creating small animations on Macs. Alongside that I was very interested in playing around with music and sound equipment, particularly things like the effects that I could achieve with guitar pedals. My uncle advised me to apply for a foundation art course, so that I could experiment more widely and figure out what area I might want to specialise in,
From my art foundation course in South Devon College, I progressed to study BA (Hons) Fine Art at Oxford Brookes University. During my time there, I studied under an artist called Max Eastley, whose work combined kinetic sculpture and sound, and Ray Lee, a sound artist and composer. They were both big influences on the direction of my development, working on kinetic electronic sculptures and dismantling existing technology to play around with motors and create small working machines from existing components.
What was it about technology that interested you so much?
I became fascinated by what makes machines tick. Most of the time you don’t get to see inside computers or everyday appliances. Seeing the guts of this technology is fascinating and liberating in a way, because so often we’re told to be careful with technology in case we break it. Deliberately taking things apart to understand them better and hack appliances to do things that they’re not intended for can lead to incredible places.
Making mistakes is a big motivator for me. When all you need to do is push a button and something works, you don’t really question it, but if you make changes and things go wrong, it illuminates so much, helping you to understand the process. A lot of the work that I create as part of my practice now relates to glitches in machines and technology, scrutinising the things in society that we take for granted.
You’ve also done a lot of work in sound art. How did that come about?
As part of my undergraduate studies I explored kinetic sculptures and installations with moving parts, as well as experimenting with sound arts. There was a period when I unspooled relaxation cassette tapes and wound the tape around a building, so that you could attach a walkman in different locations to play pan pipes and new age music with wolves howling over it!
Progressing the use of sound, my next performance piece, ‘EuroDrummer’, utilised Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform, to connect sensors to ceramics and programme them to speak certain words and phrases in loops when you touched them. It was a project that helped me to think about the hidden language of consumerism
After graduating from my degree, sound played heavily into my work. I applied for a residency in Holland with two other artists who I’d studied with and got Arts Council Funding to help me do that, which was the first time I successfully applied for funding, and a big stepping point in my career. I created a work called ‘21st Century One-Man Band’, in which essentially I was playing techno on city streets around the UK, and in Holland, which led to invitations to perform in Barcelona and even in Xiamen, China.
How did it feel, knowing that such experimental practice was opening doors for you internationally?
Performing in China was such an incredible experience. Xiamen was not a tourist city, so people on the streets there took a real interest in engaging with my work. No holiday would have taken me somewhere like that, it was an excellent example of my creative practice opening doors that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. After successfully receiving funding to take my work overseas, and seeing all the opportunities for residencies internationally, that’s something that I’ve continued doing ever since. My work has taken me all over the world.
I returned to Amsterdam to do an MFA Fine Art, developing an interest in 3D technologies, particularly looking at how to combine two images from stereoscopic cameras to create 3D cinema and the overall technological development leading to 3D. From there I continued exhibiting or doing residences in different places, including an amazing project in India filming manufacturing techniques in quarries with stereoscopic cameras to try to get a real sense of the depth and place. Visiting so many locations, it felt important to begin responding to what was unique about the different places.
Local Area Network at The Glass Tank (2019)
In addition to your own art, you’re also known as a curator. How did that come about?
After Amsterdam I lived in London for a time, where I met and worked with a lot of other artists. The collaborations eventually led me to set up the online platform Digital Artist Residency, which I’ve been running for the past 6 years. It’s a residency platform for digital artists to show their work online, in a way that makes sense to their practice, rather than needing to translate their work for a physical space. I’ve learned a lot as a curator through running the residency and receiving new applications from artists every month.
Does it feel like all the different strands of your career are starting to converge?
You could say that. Everything that I’ve learned up until now has led to the PhD I’m currently working on at Falmouth University, investigating the history of 3D imagery and different methods of viewing and interacting with 3D images. A lot of my professional practice now is based around 3D scanning and virtual worlds. A good example of this is ‘Invisible Cities’, the work that I was commissioned by Plymouth College of Art’s StudioLab for Embodied Media for the 2021 Illuminate light festival in Plymouth.
‘Invisible Cities’ was first created as part of a Wellcome Sanger Institute and Human Cell Atlas art and science exhibition and I’ve developed it further for Illuminate. Visitors to the festival can interact with a game world that I’ve created depicting a speculative version of Venice in which the water is rising quickly, with remnants of our media ecology becoming part of the landscape, strewn around as broken e-waste floating through the flooded canals.
Your work at Illuminate 2021 coincides with you joining us at Plymouth College of Art. What does your role here entail?
I’m currently working as a Lecturer in BA (Hons) Fine Art at Plymouth College of Art and it’s exciting to share some of these experiences and perspectives with students. But one of the other things that I’m most excited about is the launch in September 2022 of our new BA (Hons) Creative Technologies course, which unites so many of my passions and professional interests.
When I recount my career to date, it covers a lot of ground. I really hope that people will hear about my experiences and get a good feel for some of the doors that studying BA (Hons) Creative Technologies can open. Because for me, those skills have taken me all over the world. I’ve received funding to exhibit and attend residencies on almost every continent. I’ve spoken at prestigious international conferences, curated work by artists who I respect and admire from all over the world, all the time opening doors that have allowed me to follow my passions.
Tom Milnes in Oxford
How would you describe BA (Hons) Creative Technologies to someone wondering what the course will cover?
BA (Hons) Creative Technologies is a broad course that will suit people from a lot of different backgrounds and some really diverse interests, covering animation, computing, filmmaking, virtual reality, new media, digital technology and online cultures. And there’s nowhere better to study a course like this. We’re based in a city that recently saw the construction of Market Hall, a state-of-the-art 15m immersive dome that’s the first of its kind in Europe.
You won’t need to have a strong knowledge of coding to get the most out of the course, just an urge to experiment and learn new skills. If you’re fascinated by emerging technologies like VR and 360-degree immersive domes then you’ll really get a lot out of BA (Hons) Creative Technologies.
What kind of careers do you see in store for BA (Hons) Creative Technologies graduates?
The possible career outcomes are incredibly diverse. We’re on the verge as a society of exponential growth in the demand for people with the skills to create content for VR and augmented reality. The sophistication of modern smartphones and tablets hold such potential for new ways of interacting with our environments through apps and filters.
Mixed reality is another potential outcome. Look at the Microsoft HoloLens and the possibilities that it creates for what the wearer sees through that visor. It could be used to provide entertainment or educational content, maybe safety training for dangerous industries. As a society, we have to decide how we’re going to engage with these opportunities. And that’s what BA (Hons) Creative Technologies is for. We’re looking for applicants with a hunger to carve out a place for themselves in pushing forward the development of these opportunities and shaping what they’re used for.
Does this mean there are a lot of rewarding opportunities in store for Creative Technologies students?
The possibilities are endless. Graduates could go on to become artists working kinetically, with video or sound, installation-based practice, or to go into robotics or computing, or even motion capture. These aren’t niche areas, these are professional skills that are going to be in high demand.
Sometimes creative technologies can sound abstract, but let me put it this way. The trillion-dollar social networking parent company behind Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus recently rebranded itself as Meta at an augmented reality and virtual reality-focussed event. This announcement of intent to create a ‘metaverse’ came alongside a commitment to invest $50-million in research for related development and plans to hire 10,000 employees in the EU to build out their metaverse platform.
Facebook isn’t the only company investing heavily in this space. Recent research indicated that tech companies related to the metaverse, covering areas including gaming, online games, virtual worlds, and augmented reality, have raised nearly $10.4 billion in 2021, to invest in those areas, with more funding sure to follow.
There are potentially lucrative career opportunities ahead for people with the right skills and creativity to work in those spaces. But just as importantly, we want to make sure that BA (Hons) Creative Technologies graduates are critical of the commercial element of these announcements. Do we want to see a future where our digital worlds are completely dominated by Facebook? Do we trust them with our digital futures? I believe strongly that the more independent creative minds who engage with those spaces the better, not just to work with those market leaders but also to challenge them and offer thoughtful alternatives. This is our chance to build a better future.
Tom is an artist, curator and AHRC PhD researcher who is founder of the online platform Digital Artist Residency. His work has featured in international exhibitions, including at the Gyeonggi International CeraMIX Biennale, Korea; AND/OR, London; The Centre for Contemporary Art Laznia, Gdansk; and W139, Amsterdam. In addition to taking part in residencies across the world, Milnes was recently the JOYA: arte + ecologia artist-in-residence and was selected for the MOSTYN Open.
Find out more about leading the development of interactive technologies with BA (Hons) Creative Technologies or get in touch with Tom to discuss the new course directly.
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