A hi-tech touch of artistic genius

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It was an unlikely setting for a hi-tech leap into the artistic unknown. This summer a dusty corner of an Edinburgh church played host to the premiere of Alma Mater, the world's first piece of iPad theatre. A 20-minute work for one man, a tablet computer and a pair of headphones, it fused theatre, film, classical music and visual art in such a way as to make the most modish, site-specific, promenade productions look old hat. Created by Fish & Game, Glasgow-based specialists in immersive theatre, the play guides audiences around an empty mock-up of a child's bedroom via a handheld film on an iPad. It sounds gimmicky but the lines of physical reality and virtual performance are so cleverly, eerily blurred that you soon become convinced that the children on the screen are in the room with you.

"We wanted something that was portable, light and robust but could also offer high-quality visuals and sound for the specially composed score," says Eilidh MacAskill, its co-creator. "The iPad induces audience members to interact with the performance. From looking at the footprints on the floor afterwards we could tell that people had been following it around the room."

Alma Mater is just one example of how artists are using the latest tablet technology to reboot their creative processes. The sleek gadgets are now ubiquitous across the art world – and not only in Spooks, where shiny touchscreens crop up every few minutes to remind viewers that this is up-to-the-minute television drama. As it's a BBC series, these gadgets are conspicuously unbranded. In reality, though, it is Apple's version that artists have adopted most enthusiastically. At Frieze Art Fair this month, you couldn't move for gallerists scrolling on glittering handheld screens through the works they couldn't cram on to their stalls. The Fair now has an app for visitors, too, including an interactive map and "Art Finder" to help buyers search the works on sale by media, size or price.

The iPad and its imitators have already changed the way we consume culture, used as miniature personal cinemas, knee-top televisions, lightweight libraries or portable record collections. Now they've become a means of creating culture as well. In the last year, theatre-makers, musicians and artists have joined in, with Björk, David Hockney and Damon Albarn all turning to the tablet as an alternative to the recording studio or sketchpad.

"The extraordinary thing when the iPad came out was that nobody really knew what it was for but everyone wanted one," says technology writer David Phelan. "Apple's genius was to create something that anyone could do anything with. It wasn't done specifically to harness creativity, but the fact that it was a blank canvas made it very appealing for people wanting to make something different."

Last October, some of Hockney's iPad paintings, created using the £4.99 Brushes app, went on show at the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. More will feature in his prestigious landscape exhibition at the Royal Academy in January. "You miss the resistance of paper a little, but you can get a marvellous flow. So much variety is possible," he told The Daily Telegraph. "You can't overwork this, because it's not a real surface. In watercolour, about three layers are the maximum. Beyond that it starts to get muddy. Here you can put anything on anything." His blue-chip endorsement has opened the way for a new generation of internet artists. Brushes, which mimics brushstrokes, blends colours and replays videos of the work in progress, is their app of choice. Kyle Lambert's portrait of Beyoncé was spotted by the singer's label and went viral, attracting half a million views, while David Kassan has demonstrated that computer portraits can be eerily human.

As you might expect from a computer-generated band, Gorillaz spotted the musical possibilities of the iPad first. On Christmas Day last year, they released The Fall, made almost entirely (music and artwork) on two iPads – one used as a synthesiser, the other as a recorder. The album was written in America, and Albarn has likened it to a tour diary, his way of keeping the creative juices flowing while on the road. As a way of music-making, it's not only portable, it's also cost-effective. The technology magazine T3 calculated that the 20 apps used to create The Fall cost £63.23. Add in two iPads and that still leaves change from £1,000. An average chart album, by contrast, can cost upwards of £250,000 to produce.

On the classical front, rising star Tim Fain is touring his multimedia violin recital, "Portals", around America's concert halls. Billed as a "musical exploration of the human longing for connection in the digital age", it blends a programme of contemporary work, most notably the premiere of Philip Glass's "Partita for Solo Violin", with a film produced on an iPad.

While these two projects have the feel of experiments, Björk's album Biophilia, released last week, is the real deal. The world's first "app album", it features an app, or visualisation, for every track, which encourages interaction with the music. Listeners can change the tempo of a song, rearrange its notes or, in the case of "Virus", play along with a computer game. Stop the virus spreading and you also stop the song.

Scott Snibbe, one of the interactive media artists hired to create the apps to Björk's brief, says the app model could also offer a lifeline to the floundering music business. "Apps are now outselling music. Over 95 per cent of music downloads are stolen and the industry is collapsing. But it's more difficult to steal apps in that way. So, from an economic angle, it could reignite some revenues for the music industry."

Björk wrote most of the songs on Biophilia on a Lemur, a touchscreen musical device that preceded the iPad. "To write music on touch screens is a breakthrough for me," she said. "I feel like technology has finally caught up with us, and is able to be sophisticated enough to handle more organic patterns... more sensitive and expressive."

That said, all the apps in the world can't guarantee that you'll ever be able to paint like Hockney or sing like Björk.

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