Culture Crossover: Imaginary Cities at the British Library

In our Culture Crossover series we pick up examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture. We'll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting the best techy art.

To read more instalments of the Culture Crossover series click here.

Imaginary Cities, an exhibition currently showing at the British Library, transforms digitised archives of 19th Century cityscapes into glittering, shifting and evolving artworks built on top of complex technological foundations.

One of the pieces traces luminescent trails into a highly intricate design recognisable as the sprawling grid formation of a city, etched into a thick block of wood. The raw image material for the piece was created by an underlying server application from a map of urban 1870s Chicago, which was laser engraved into sapele hardwood.

Another piece is a virtual reality installation, where, upon donning an Oculus headset, you are immersed in an eerily deserted cityscape. Located at street level, you glide forward at a mesmeric pace while precipitous skyscrapers loom above, scattered with glowing, purple windows. The environment is algorithmically regenerated each day from a two dimensional map that is constantly refreshed by the underlying online server application.

These are just some of the works created by Michael Takeo Magruder, a conceptual artist specialising in the use of digital and computer technologies. The works were created using the British Library’s online collection of urban maps from the 19th Century, catalogued in the One Million Images From Scanned Books collection on Flickr Commons. But they also meld elements of ancient craftsmanship such as precious metal guilding and woodcraft, in a beguiling mesh of old and new.

“It's focused on what happens when you take an analogue collection and make it digital," says Magruder, "you start layering in the sort of things that only modern computer-based technologies can provide."

Born in 1974, Magruder was growing up when the first iterations of computers and video games were hitting the market. He remembers heading to the arcade to play Pacman and building his first computer back in the day. "The 386 [a 32-bit microprocessor introduced in 1985], back when computer parts like motherboards and chips were just appearing on the grey market.”

Although he never received formal training in art - coming instead from a biology and sciences background - while growing up in Washington DC, he enjoyed visiting galleries and museums. Aged 23, he moved to Coventry in the UK with his then partner. He immediately became entangled with a local community of artists based in Leamington Spa working with what he terms ‘traditional forms’: painting and sculpture.

He was put in touch with the head of the art school at Coventry University who, upon visiting his studio, offered him his first solo show in 1998. At this early point in his career he was working with some digital technologies but says he was more concerned with the final effect of the finished piece. For this show, discontinuance (elements I - iv), these took the form of stained glass windows made up of coloured panels.

“Each pane of glass had multiple layers, with glass on the front and back and a collage of materials in between, some of which were scanned digital elements on tracing papers and transparency film, and mixed also with some of my painting,” says Magruder. Each are comprised of text, schematics and numbers that are intentionally unintelligible and constrained by the rigid edges of the panes to represent the inherently limiting nature of the information overload symptomatic of the internet age.

The show was picked up by the Guardian as one of the best things to do in the area, and Magruder's career went from there. Since then he’s shown his work in over 280 exhibitions in 35 countries including the Circulo de Bellas Artes, Madrid, the Georges Pompidou Center, the Nam June Paik Art Center, Seoul and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

During this time, cultural perceptions of his art have shifted. He says that one of his first shows, Addressable Memory, examined the way we capture and remix memories. He said that one of the comments made to the curator after the show stuck in his mind. “Somebody said: 'it's very beautiful and interesting, but it's not art'.”

However, eight years later when he returned to the same space with a different exhibition, there were no comments like these. Magruder says he sees this as representative of an evolution in the perspective of the older art crowd. “If you think about the history of art and work where it's first coming online,” he says. “If something is bleeding edge, by definition, most people don't quite get it or won’t see it as art - they’ll see it as something else.”

He doesn’t feel his work is distinct from that of more traditional artists, but says he is not driven purely by aesthetics. “For me, art is not just about making an attractive or pretty thing. It's about making something that is relevant, that dialogues with the history of art - what's gone before me, and then hopefully, what will come after me?”

He says that he might wake up with ideas for beautiful pieces of art, but instead feel compelled to focus on pieces that are grounded in this time. This is reflected in his more political pieces. For example, an 2018 work titled Zero Tolerance, a media installation that examines the separation and mass incarceration of migrant families attempting to cross the US southern border.

“I like to think that everything I do is a hardcore conceptual piece of work,” he says. “But it happens to use technology and of course, aesthetics are important to me.” He strives to create works where, “the technology, the concept, and the aesthetics are working together, in equal unison,” saying that the best pieces will embody “a dialogue between those three points.”

In fact, he says the strict distinction between art and science that exists in cultural consciousness is a fairly new phenomenon. Rather than a digital artist, Magrduder considers himself simply a visual artist that chooses to work with digital technologies.

“All process is technology: paint is a technology; steel, wood, that’s technology as well. If you think about virtual reality as a concept, it’s about using technology to explore ideas of immersion and illusion,” he says. “People have successfully argued that something like, Roman fresco wall painting, was that VR for that time? It's a performative, painted, scenographic space, which is about the projection of a mental space.”

He points to the example of Leonardo Da Vinci, he was working with cutting edge technologies for his time, and blurring the line between the role of artist and technologist. "And if he had lived today, would he be working in the same materials? Absolutely not," says Magruder. "I think he would be working at the cutting edge of whatever time period he happened to be born in.”

Magruder says that although artists aren’t the ones creating new technologies, “We are often some of the primary adopters of technology and pushing to see what a new piece of technology can do,” he said, adding that artists are frequently at the forefront of examining the social and ethical ramifications of technology too.

Despite his interest in working with technology, he denies that he’s a tech evangelist. His exhibition at the British Library, he says, highlights the beautiful potential of technology. “I think we're already, as a society, a bit too negative about technology when it comes to cultural heritage, and we need to embrace the beauty of it,” he says.

Some objected to this, with one critic complaining that the exhibition portrayed technology too positively. Magruder advised the critic to go and look at some of his other works. “There are a lot of times when a lot of my projects are actually looking at the darker side of data and technology,” he says.

Magruder is careful to separate the danger of some technology with its intention of use. “One of the things that modern computational technology has done is distributed agency,” he says. “I hate when people say something like, ‘the drone killed someone’. No, the drone hasn't killed someone, an operator has killed someone - a commander, a government official.” He points out that the technology itself has no agency.

Does he ever become impatient with the limitations the pace of technological progress imposes on his work? “I think you always get dissatisfied," he says, "if you're pushing the boundaries - you're always dissatisfied with what is available." However, the focus of his exasperation has shifted over time.

“I mean, if you had asked me 20 years ago, 15 years ago, or even 10 years ago, the computational speed - CPU, GPU, network processing - was often the bottleneck,” he explains. Around 2000, he was working to create large scale digital murals and had to custom build a workstation (a computer specialised for a particular technical or scientific application) just to do the photoshop processing. “At that time, I was thinking, God, wouldn't it be so much better to have more memory, more CPU or GPU power?"

When the first iterations of VR came out he says he wasn't enamoured. “I just wasn't interested because the technology was just so poor, so unusable. So at that time, I created large projections and built sort of hybrid cave systems, because I thought that was a better way to create immersion.” It wasn’t until a 2014 exhibition at Somerset House in London that he experimented with Oculus DK2 for his first headset piece.

He says of the endlessly regenerating VR piece that forms part of the Imaginary Cities exhibition, that the aesthetics had to be cut down to allow it to run smoothly. However, this is something he’s become accustomed to in his line of work. “I think there is always this lag between, as an artist, what's possible with the technology," he says. "If you're working at that bleeding edge, it's always going to be a little rough around the edges, right?”

This story, "Culture Crossover: Imaginary Cities at the British Library" was originally published by

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