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Fine arts scholars join computer scientists to explore cultural creativity

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


three students looking at a projected image of a line drawing of a figure sitting at a desk with angel wings
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
A summer course at the Siebel Center brought arts, humanities and computer science students together to create a technology-based response to an installation by artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Green Street has long been regarded as more than just a well-traveled, east-west thoroughfare that bisects the 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 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.

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

Jonathon Fineberg, Kevin Hamilton, and Roy Campbell with projection in the background
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
The professors, 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.

With support from the 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.”

several students sitting at a long table looking at a projection screen
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
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. 

Fineberg credits U. of I. 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 U. of I. 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.

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.”

Nikita Sorokin talking with Chancellor Richard Herman
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
For Nikita Sorokin, left, 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. He makes a point with Chancellor Richard Herman, who sat in on the class's final presentation.

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 initiative was envisioned by its primary architects – Chancellor Herman and Mike Ross, director of the U. of I.’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts – as a “project facilitator” for nurturing creativity and transforming the university through the development of a new approach to learning. That approach seeks not only to blend academic disciplines, but to develop more symbiotic means of integrating the institution’s traditional core missions of education, research and public engagement.

The Seedbed is not a physical center, but rather, an incubator for interdisciplinary projects based at “hub sites” – labs, offices, performance spaces and other venues. Seedbed “hub sites” under way include the Intermedia Lab, a collaboration involving the Krannert Art Museum, School of Art and Design, and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology; the CANVAS, a virtual reality CAVE installation space at the museum, created by Beckman’s Integrated Systems Laboratory in collaboration with Art and Design; and a center for computing in humanities, art and social sciences, directed by history professor and NCSA researcher Orville Vernon Burton.

Another Seedbed spin-off is the Cultural Computing Program, co-directed by Campbell and music professor Guy Garnett, and administered by the computer science department. Established last summer, the CCP is the outgrowth of earlier informal collaborations between Campbell and Garnett. The program was created to spark similar collaborations among a broader sector of students and faculty members in computer science, the arts and humanities, with a goal of “creating and transforming culture with computers.”

“Such collaboration will drive innovation better than models wherein either computer science serves the humanities and arts, or humanists and artists must become computer scientists,” said Garnett, who has firsthand knowledge of how this works. He has been working with computers in music since 1981, and before collaborating with Campbell, designed The Virtual Ensemble and The Virtual Score – computer-aided tools for composing and conducting – with support from NCSA and Beckman.

“From the moment I arrived on campus in 1996, I have been looking for ways to connect the music/art community with the science/technology community,” Garnett said.

Campbell’s desire to get right- and left-brain types together on the same bus springs from what he sees as a need to shift the focus from what technology can do to how we use it and why.

“The big thing, really,” Campbell said, “is (to gain a better understanding of) how computer science influences the art world … the social world. Marshall McLuhan was always talking about how the medium was the message. Well, when you look at a computer, it’s a lot more complicated than just looking at your television set. It’s communicating a huge number of things besides just what’s on the screen. And that’s going to affect society immensely.”

Though still in its infancy, the CCP already has generated interest from faculty member’s campuswide. Each semester, the program offers different team-taught courses that provide student access to a lab at the Siebel Center equipped with an Avid video editing suite, motion-tracking system and large displays.

One major theme to emerge from the CCP is the development of gaming as an art form. The Game Research Program, spearheaded by Campbell, Garnett and speech communication professor Dmitri Williams, has evolved in part from some of Campbell’s earlier work. It encompasses the development of new computing technology as well as the study of the cultural impact of gaming and “game reception” – in other words, understanding computer games in cultural, social and psychological contexts.

Campbell and Garnett said a primary goal of the work is “to develop computer games as distinct, and distinctive, art forms.” One way they hope to distinguish the U. of I. work from what’s being done commercially is through the creation of games that focus “less on battles and warfare than on the arts and other aesthetic trajectories.”

Other areas of interest to the CCP team include the design of so-called intelligent instruments and intelligent performance spaces. Last spring, for example, Garnett and Campbell co-taught a course that incorporated video, music, motion-capture and gesture-tracking devices. All of these components were coordinated using multiple computers, projectors and video screens, resulting in a final, live performance.

This fall, Garnett is teaching a course called “Art in Virtual Worlds.” He said the main task of the class would be “to create a persistent, online environment where people working from different computers over the network come together in a virtual 3-D world to make and experience art.

“We will try to create a performance aspect in some way, so it will be somehow making a game-like experience that will be a performance,” he said. “It will be up to the students to define exactly what that is.”