It was an unlikely setting for a high-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 an ingenious way as to make the most modish, site-specific, promenade productions look rather 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, kneetop televisions, lightweight libraries or portable record collections. Now they've become a means of creating culture too. For writers and film-makers, their creative potential was immediately obvious. Budding novelists can now upload their finished manuscripts straight from iPad to iTunes, cutting out the publishing middle-man, while YouTube is full of sophisticated home movies shot and edited on tablets. 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 David Phelan, technology writer for The Independent. "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."
Hockney was a high-profile early adopter. He began sketching on his iPhone in 2008, texting loved ones finger-painted "fresh flowers" every morning. When the iPad came out, he latched on quickly, enthusing about the luminosity of the screen, the lack of mess and the fact that he could capture a sunrise and email it to his gallerist before breakfast. "Picasso or Van Gogh would have snapped one up," he declared.
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."
It's unlikely that Hockney's computer-generated works will ever draw the same affection, or price, as his painted works. The fact that they can be reproduced at the tap of a finger puts paid to that. Nevertheless, his blue-chip endorsement has opened the way for a new generation of internet artists. Brushes, which mimics brushstrokes, blends colours (each red sub-pixel on an iPad2 comes in 256 intensity levels) and replays videos of the work in progress, is their app of choice. Kyle Lambert's portrait of Beyonce 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. As Fain plays, he's accompanied on a big screen by a pianist, dancers (choreographed by Black Swan's Benjamin Millepied), readings of Leonard Cohen poems and quirky home movies. As with Alma Mater, it's a format that tours easily and breaks down boundaries between audience and performer.
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 stop the song too.
Scott Snibbe was one of the interactive media artists hired to create the apps to Björk's brief. "Most musicians are not just creating an invisible stream of sound for their fans. They're creating a full multimedia experience with performance, costumes, lighting, sound and stage", he says. "This is a way to have that experience all the time – in your pocket or on your desk." The app model could also offer a lifeline to the floundering music business, he points out. "Apps are now outselling music. Over 95 per cent of music downloads are stolen and the industry is collapsing because of that. 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."
The touchscreen is key, as it keeps the creative process literally hands-on. "When you're touching a screen, it's a very intimate relationship," says Phelan. "As soon as you introduce intimacy, that takes it away from being technology and allows you to interact in a much more personal and creative way."
At the launch of the iPad2 in March, Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple who died earlier this month, emphasised the creative creed of his company. "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing." 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.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies