25, No. 5, Sept. 1, 2005
arts scholars join computer scientists to explore cultural creativity
Melissa Mitchell, News Bureau Staff Writer
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.
photo to enlarge
by Kwame Ross
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.
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
“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
photo to enlarge
by Kwame Ross
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.
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
“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
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.
photo to enlarge
by Kwame Ross
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.
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
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