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PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 25, No. 8, Oct. 20, 2005

Arts, technology searching for common space

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

This is the final installment in a series of stories about new campus programs bridging the arts, computing and technology.

(Go to Part 1; Go to Part 2)

Though random collaborations among artists, scientists and technologists have emerged on campus through the years, until recently, few formal structures have been in place to support the development or continuity of such relationships.

David Weightman, the director of the School of Art and Design, is among a handful of campus leaders who have been collaborating administratively to draw up a strategic plan for steering the College of Fine and Applied Arts along a new course – one that will encourage and nurture such hybrid arts-and-technology collaborations in the future. At the center of this ambitious goal is the launch of a proposed new facility known as the Intermedialab.

Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Hank Kaczmarski

Pushing boundaries Rose Marshack demonstrates The CANVAS, a large, portable, immersive virtual-reality CAVE installation space at Krannert Art Museum. Marshack, an artist and programmer, was hired to coordinate CANVAS projects.

The proposed lab is a joint venture involving Art and Design, the Krannert Art Museum and the department of computer science.

“Whilst collaboration has already started and is not dependent on new buildings,” Weightman said, “one exciting possibility is creating a two-story specialist facility spanning the Link Gallery space between the school and the museum. Still in the preliminary phase of development, the Intermedialab development plan involves calls for securing funding for that two-story addition.”

The addition would include new lighting/sound studios, office and project space, small conference facilities, smart classrooms and exhibition space.

Weightman said the lab, one of several hub sites to emerge from the campus’s Seedbed Initiative for Transdomain Creativity: Exploring Human Experience Through Art and Technology, would be a home base for interdisciplinary research within art and design and within FAA. The facility – which would be designed to complement existing facilities on campus, such as the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science, the Siebel Center for Computer Science and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications – could be used to develop curriculum, research and collaborative projects in such areas as new media, interactive multimedia, gaming, animation, media production, media scripting, database architecture and interface design. It also could be used by the art museum “to expand its commitment to digital media, increase and broaden public engagement, and develop a more integrated approach to exhibiting and teaching.”

Click photo to enlarge

New exhibition “Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art,” one of the first exhibitions to emerge from the Intermedialab concept, will be one of the exhibitions featured at an opening reception 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Krannert Art Museum. The main exhibition at the museum and a corresponding satellite installation on view at the Siebel Center are on view through Dec. 31.

“(This campus) is an ideal place to promote linkage between art, design and technology, particularly with the traditional strengths in computing and engineering research,” Weightman wrote in a proposal for the facility. “It is important that the Beckman and Siebel centers in the north campus continue to develop those linkages and house seed activities to input artistic and designerly sensibilities into their work in computing research.

“However,” he noted, “it is equally important that other nodes be established to input and develop technology within art and design practice, and to provide locations in the south campus to complement the northern ones.”

At present, development efforts are being fueled by a $40,000 planning grant from the campus’s Critical Research Initiatives. The grant has provided funding to
support visits by Weightman and others to similar facilities at other institutions, including the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Arts Media and Engineering Program at Arizona State University. Workshops are also planned to share with interested faculty and staff members knowledge gained from these site visits. And Weightman said, grant-writing efforts are under way, aimed at securing research funds for projects through the Intermedialab.

Weightman said there are about six to eight comparable facilities in the United States.

“The Intermedialab would be of a different character from existing centers,” he said, “as befits the differing educational and practice cultures of the School of Art and Design.” For starters, he said, the lab would be “project-oriented, active, and linked to the exhibition facilities of the school and Krannert Art Museum.” Furthermore, projects would be open to all levels of participation, involving everything from undergraduate curriculum development to faculty research. And the facility could be used to build on existing projects, such as the Ninth Letter, a literary arts publication jointly produced by the art school and the UI’s Creative Writing Program, to ongoing work in narrative and electronic media.

Further distinguishing the UI lab from its counterparts elsewhere, Weightman said, would be its emphasis on people.

“Most of what Art and Design does is connect with people – as creators but also as audience, participants and users,” he said. “We’re in the business of making things, which can be interpreted in very broad ways to mean virtual things, too.”

So it follows, he said, that the Intermedialab would focus on “connecting, enabling, educating and entertaining people through digital technology.”
And the presence of such a lab would definitely place the art and design school on the map as a top destination for students interested in all manner of digital art and technology.

“When I first came here,” Weightman said, “I realized that what we did – particularly in our undergraduate curriculum – in the area of digital media wasn’t very visible. We do things – my colleagues Nan Goggin, Joseph Squier and Kevin Hamilton have been active for a number of years in developing research and graduate curriculum – but we have less available, as undergraduate programs, than we should. In the future, when people ring us up and say they want to be game designers, we’ll have a multiplicity of options for them.”

Weightman said plans for developing the Intermedialab are expected to progress in three stages, with phase one already under way. Under phase one, four new faculty and academic staff members with digital-media expertise were appointed this fall. The school also is developing a new program in digital media at the undergraduate level and plans to admit more graduate students interested in this area as well. Weightman said plans also call for integrating with other facilities in the school, such as the Product Interaction and Research Laboratory, along with industrial design’s proposed Empathic Lab, which would be devoted to better defining user needs.

Another part of phase one, he said, involves the enhancement of existing equipment in the school’s media lab, and the recent installation – in the lower level of the Krannert Art Museum – of “The CANVAS,” a large, portable, immersive virtual-reality CAVE installation space.

The CANVAS – short for “Collaborative Advanced Navigation Virtual Art Studio” – was created and installed by Hank Kaczmarski, director of the Beckman Institute’s Integrated Systems Laboratory. The studio is a collaborative venture between the institute and the art school, with funding from the Seedbed Initiative. Based on the UI’s CAVE technology, the CANVAS is intended as an advanced navigation tool/space for virtual art and computer-assisted, multi-dimensional research projects.

Rose Marshack, an artist and programmer hired recently to coordinate CANVAS projects, has been working with Kaczmarski to develop a set of hardware and software tools that make it simple for non-programmers to create applications for the space.

“The goal is to have it set up so anybody can use it – not just ultra-techies,” Marshack said. “Artists can load a simple text file with names of images and locations in the space, click a button, and … poof! … their artwork will be up in The CANVAS.”

So far, interest has been keen.

“For instance, Chris Martens, a sculptor, was really excited by the idea. She said, ‘I’ve been thinking in 3-D all my life,’ ” Marshack said.

A grand opening of The CANVAS, featuring hands-on demonstrations of the technology, will be take place from 5 to 7 p.m. on Oct. 21, during the opening reception for the museum’s current new exhibitions.

Among the new shows is “Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art,” one of the first exhibitions emphasizing the relationship between art and technology to emerge from the Intermedialab concept and closer ties forming between the art museum and the art school.

According to guest curator Michael Rush, the exhibition “examines both the pioneer days of video art and current practices in an attempt to understand the complex relationship between intentional acting for the camera and our involuntary relinquishing of privacy to the cameras of power systems that have an interest in the movement of citizens.”

In addition to the main exhibition at the museum, a corresponding, satellite installation also is on view at the Siebel Center. Both shows run through Dec. 31.

Hamilton, who joined the art and design faculty in 2002, has carved out a niche for himself as a human bridge between the engineering and arts campuses. In addition to co-teaching cultural computing courses at the Siebel Center, he also coordinates an ongoing art-exhibition program at the center.

Though undeniably “plugged in” to both art and technology, Hamilton said, “I don’t find technology itself interesting. I want content.”

Hamilton said the work currently on view at the Siebel Center as part of “Balance & Power” includes plenty of content, much of it video art projected on a large-scale, plasma-screen video wall in the building’s “town square” area and on other screens elsewhere throughout the center.

Hamilton noted that the show’s video art/surveillance theme is of particular interest in the environment of the Siebel Center, since the building is outfitted with “info panels” and its own state-of-the-art surveillance system, used for both security and research purposes.

“There are signs up all over, explicitly designating that surveillance is going on, but people are continually concerned about legal aspects associated with that,” he said.

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