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PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 25, No. 5, Sept. 1, 2005

Fine arts scholars join computer scientists to explore cultural creativity

By Melissa Mitchell, News Bureau Staff Writer
217-333-5491; melissa@illinois.edu

Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross

Creative collaboration
From left, Jonathan Fineberg, the Gutgsell Professor of Art History, art and design professor Kevin Hamilton and Roy Campbell, the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Professor of Computer Science, team-taught the summer course at the Siebel Center. The teaching team was particularly proud of the intellectual exchange that the course prompted among students in the arts, humanities and computer science.

Editor’s Note: Interdisciplinary collaborations involving faculty members in the College of Fine and Applied Arts and other campus units are nothing new. Likewise, FAA faculty members are no strangers to technology. UI composers laid the foundation for computer music here in the 1950s, and beginning in the 1980s, visual artists, dancers, architects, urban planners and others have continued to push the boundaries of their creative processes – in part, through collaborations with scientists at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Technology. The following is the first in a series of articles showcasing current academic initiatives that are redefining relationships between computing and the arts in the 21st century.

Green Street has long been regarded as more than just a well-traveled, east-west thoroughfare that bisects the UI campus. Historically, it’s been the unofficial line of demarcation that separated the slide-rule-and-pocket-protector set from those more inclined to pack piccolos, paintbrushes or portfolios.

But that imaginary border is fast becoming obsolete as faculty members and students from both sides of the street are forming alliances, sharing tools, learning each others’ languages, combining methodologies and forging new paradigms.

Many of these emerging kinships are the outgrowth of good, old-fashioned intellectual curiosity.

“I just started looking around the university, trying to figure out where my most interesting colleagues were,” said Jonathan Fineberg, the Gutgsell Professor of Art History. “I’ve always been interested in creativity more than just art. So I went up to the Siebel Center for Computer Science and started asking people what they do.

Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross

Team-project approach
The students were challenged to create a technology-based response to “Palace of Projects,” an installation by Russian-born artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. The students’ proposed installation, which they titled “Project 66,” incorporated plans for a Web-based, animation interface that could be built and exhibited in galleries in New York and London.

“What I found was really amazing,” Fineberg said. “They are inventing the 21st century up there, and I wanted to be part of that.”

With support from Marc Snir, head of the department of computer science; David Weightman, director of the School of Art and Design; and the central campus administration, Fineberg and art and design professor Kevin Hamilton joined forces this past summer with Roy Campbell, the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Professor of Computer Science, to teach a course at the Siebel Center. The course brought arts, humanities and computer science students together to create a technology-based response to an installation by artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

The Kabakovs, a Russian-born husband-and-wife team, are known for their complex, intellectually challenging text- and object-rich installations.

The students were challenged to create a project-based response to the Kabakovs’ “Palace of Projects,” a commissioned structure created to house 65 unfinished, thought-provoking projects.

“The idea was to create a project that would be finished at the end of the summer, in which we all contributed, and we all contributed in a way that really pushed the kinds of work the students were doing in their labs,” Fineberg said. “So it was not just trying to enlist computer sciences to illustrate an art project, but rather, to do something that really pushed the perimeters of the science.”

About half of the undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the seminar-style class had computer science backgrounds; the other half were from art history, painting, sculpture and graphic design. One had just graduated with a degree in finance. The male-female ratio was just about even.

“This is the first course I know of that has successfully brought the range of disciplines – and genders – together in a way that didn’t water down the science problems,” Fineberg said. “It challenged everyone, and its team-project approach really opened up people to different ways of thinking about what they did.”

Fineberg credits UI President Joseph White and Urbana-Champaign campus Chancellor Richard Herman for supporting such efforts to tear down more traditional academic walls in order to stimulate new ways of thinking, teaching and conducting research.

“This chancellor has a vision for the UI that is really new,” he said, “and this course is an experiment at fitting that vision of a university with much more fluid, open exchanges across campus. We were able to do this course because he had that kind of innovative agenda. He and President White are determined to make Illinois the No. 1 public university in the country, and I think they have a good shot at succeeding by shaping a really fresh vision built on this kind of interdisciplinarity.”

The final results produced by the summer class – which the students titled “Project 66” – incorporated plans for their own installation, which could actually be built and exhibited in an art gallery or museum.

Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross

Start a dialogue Chancellor Richard Herman, right, who sat in on the class’s final presentation, listens as Nikita Sorokin, a junior in graphic design from Bloomington, Ill., shares his thoughts on the project. “The experience taught me to be less afraid of engaging people and trying to start a dialogue,” Sorokin said.

The proposed installation includes a computer-based, animated interface featuring information about the “The Palace of Projects,” the Kabakovs and their work, and information on the class. The final product also is Web-based to allow for off-site investigation.

Fineberg is engaged in negotiations with galleries in New York and London, where the students’ work will be exhibited.

While the prospect of finding a wider audience for the work is exciting and validating, he said, the teaching team is perhaps most proud of another result of the students’ work: “the intellectual exchange with one another and with the group as a whole.”

“The course stimulated people to work in a broader context than they’d been working in the past,” Fineberg said. “The CS (computer science) students were way ahead in the sense of understanding intuitively what you can do with the computer, but the art people and the graphic designers had a better sense of how to handle the visualization, and the art historians contributed as well. Everybody was involved.”

The professors weren’t the only ones encouraged by the results.

“I have never taken an art class and then all of a sudden I am thrust full tilt into the world of abstract ideas and left-brain activity,” said Abel Valdivia, a senior from Chicago majoring in computer science. “In the end, there was a good amount of cross-fertilization.”

For Nikita Sorokin, a junior in graphic design from Bloomington, Ill., the class underscored the importance of keeping an open mind and not being afraid to interact with individuals from different backgrounds.

“There were all these people from different walks of life, yet we were able to find a common language,” he said. “The experience taught me to be less afraid of engaging people and trying to start a dialogue.”
The Kabakov class is just one example of the imaginative, cross-discipline dialogues taking place campuswide today – thanks, in part, to the Seedbed Initiative for Transdomain Creativity, launched in 2002.

The next installment in the series focuses on goals of the “Seedbed Initiative” and takes a closer look at projects growing out of it.

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