Technology with a human face

Naomi Leake and Carey Young are not your ordinary computer consultants. Milly Jenkins meets two artists who are helping Cap Gemini to paint a picture of the future.
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The first thing visitors notice, walking into the London offices of the IT consultancy Cap Gemini, is "The Messenger" - a massive blue glass angel hanging in the foyer window. People strolling down Shaftesbury Avenue also stop and stare, crossing over the road to have a closer look and read the blurb underneath, explaining that it is "a metaphor for today's communication", a symbol of how "our information networks are now liberated from time and space constraints".

If prospective clients are surprised to find works of art being given such a high profile at a computer consultancy, they are even more taken aback to discover that the sleek-suited consultants who give them presentations on the future of technology are in fact artists.

Naomi Leake, the sculptor who created "The Messenger", and photographer Carey Young, are Cap Gemini's in-house artists. Young's work is also on display around the building: photos from a series called "Wired", which documents the laying down of fibre-optic cables in Britain, showing bundles of multi-coloured wires protruding from dug-up roads .

It is by no means unusual these days for large companies to give residencies to artists, either as a way of sponsoring their work, or bringing them in to teach and inspire staff. (One City law firm has recently installed an in-house poet.) But it is less usual to find artists being given "client- facing" jobs as consultants.

Cap Gemini, which has also hired actors in the past, was looking for anyone who could give clients "a broader picture". Because technology is the main theme of their work, Leake and Young were ideal candidates. They also have a fair amount of technological expertise, and are just as happy chatting code with the anoraks upstairs as they are discussing photographs or sculptures.

Essentially, they are there to humanise technology. They offer "a different perspective", says Michelle Perkins of Cap Gemini. "We have a lot of geeky people here who dream code, but clients don't want to hear about code. They want to know how stuff will work for them, and they want it explained in a language they understand."

Leake and Young are given the run of an area called FutureWorks, a series of rooms designed to give visitors a taste of the future. FutureWorks is rather like a technology toy shop - plusher than Q's laboratory, but with the same gadgets and gizmos. Their job is to show clients exciting new products which haven't yet reached the market and talk about how these technological innovations will benefit them. "We are not selling anything, just trying to get them excited about all the extraordinary things technology can do for them," Young says.

They like to get a "hey, wow" response from the managing directors of client companies - from Virgin to British Steel - who wander about playing with the new Internet phones, with their dinky pull-out keyboards, or trying out the state-of-the-art presentation screens (the very same ones which display art on the walls of Bill Gates' Seattle mansion). "We're showing them how fun technology can be," says Leake.

Surprisingly, art itself plays a low-key role. "Sometimes it is inappropriate for clients to know we are artists," Young says. "But other times account managers like us to wear our artist hats, and the clients want to talk about the work on the walls and what it means."

There is, they say, a growing interest in the digital arts. Both artists, as well as working with sculpture and photography, also work on online projects. "But it's taken people a long time to get interested in art which uses new technology," says Young. "In New York and Europe, there's been a much faster acceptance. But it's difficult, especially on the art market, because digital art has no inherent value."

"A few years ago art on the Internet was pretty mediocre," says Young. "But there's a lot of good work out there now."

They show clients who express an interest some of the better work coming out of the digital art community, like Web Stalker - a browser that functions like any other but is intended as a thought-provoking art piece.

Created by a group of London artists, it maps hyperlinks as you travel through the Web, so if you come to a particularly busy site, with thousands of people linked up to it, it becomes "a ball of light", Young explains. "It makes people think about how the Internet is, in essence, a mass of links, something quite magical and organic."

"For us, it's an incredible thing to meet high-level people who think a lot about technology and the future," says Young. "I'd never meet them in the pub, and I'm always coming across computer concepts and language which spark off ideas."

It also means they get to use cutting-edge technology long before anyone else. "There's a constant cross-fertilisation between my work here and what I do in the studio," agrees Leake. "One is food for the other."

The computing world is slowly emerging as one of the main sponsors of digital, technology-related art. Sun Microsystems recently signed a deal with the Institute of Contemporary Arts to fund a new media art centre, and Cap Gemini is sponsoring a new pounds 10,000 digital art prize this year, Imaginaria.

But while the business world is happy to show off a philanthropic streak, and companies like Cap Gemini keen to incorporate art into their everyday environment, Leake and Young say it is artists who are often the ones dragging their heels, reluctant to be involved in joint ventures.

"When I meet artists wearing my suit, in the pub or at private viewings, and tell them what I do, there is always the same knee-jerk reaction," Leake says. "People assume because you work for a big computer company you must have sold out, and they're quite blunt in telling you so. But we like to think we are the radical ones.