A Metavid Moment: DANM researchers Michael Dale and Aphid Stern keep an eye on Big Brother.
UCSC's Digital Arts and New Media program helps a new wave of artists explore the role of the arts in an age of technological proliferation
By Mike Connor
"Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art."--Paul Valéry, 'Le Conquete de l'ubiquite,' 'Pièces sur L'Art,' 1931
A few years ago, James Khazar discovered he had a hole in his brain. It wasn't a big hole--"about the size of an English pea," he says--and it hasn't grown. Still, it exists, and the reason he knows it does is because of a method of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) that his doctors used to map his brain and display it on slides like thinly sliced mortadella.
And as a student in UCSC's 1 1/2-year-old Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) program, Khazar set to work exploring the significance of the images of and knowledge about his living brain, using those images to craft a startling self-portrait. "Lacuna" is a three-dimensional sculpture in which cross-sectional images of his brain are suspended upright and spaced just far enough apart to afford a view of his brain and its mysterious hole, represented by a piece of gold leaf. Khazar replaced the digital pictures of his brain with hand-drawn pen-and-ink images, effectively stripping out the technological component and laying bare the underlying existential conundrum--that, regardless of what magical/technological means through which it was attained, a person can now know their own perforated brain as if it were carefully dissected.
Khazar's "Lacuna" was one of eight student works selected for display during the upcoming Digital Arts and New Media Festival, hosted by the DANM Masters of Fine Arts program. The festival is a four-day town and gown affair filled with exhibitions, symposia, performances and screenings taking place both in the city and on campus, featuring known performers such as Sue Costabile and Laetitia Sonami, a sound installation artist whose "lady's glove" lets her control sounds, lights and mechanical devices in real time (see "That DANM Festival," page 21).
The MFA program itself--an educational experiment 2 years old but more than 10 years in the making--is more complex.
This June, the 12 students who began the program in the fall of 2004 will be the first to complete it, and though they are few, their research is wide. It includes [in no particular scientific order] telematic dance performances, use of the Internet to improve deliberative democracy, digital archiving of C-SPAN's floor proceedings, modeling very large-scale conversations, documenting the stories of BART riders and mapping the public space of homosexual Latino men. It's a wild body of research that only hints of more wildly collaborative research to come.
Granted, it might seem quaint to marvel at an innovative educational experiment just because it exists right here in our own backyard. In this age of technological proliferation, why not marvel instead at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, that most famous and storied interdisciplinary technological playground that hosts research of everything from computerized Legos to quantum computers? After all, programs like MIT's own "OpenCourseWare" offer syllabi, lecture notes and reading materials available to anyone with an Internet connection. In the technology age, we are all MIT students.
But a large corporate endowment does not an ultimate program make, and in recent years the Media Lab at MIT has grown so huge that many researchers reportedly have no idea what the others are working on. And as for all the techno-prophet hype about the power of communication technology to eventually render geographical distance obsolete, the Realtors' refrain about the importance of location remains. Witness the interactive installations at the first ever DANM Festival, a "forum for the investigation of the boundaries and possibilities of digital art and new media," which will take place not in some obscure corner of the Internet, but right here in Santa Cruz.
Collaboration in the Making
A trailer for the DANM might intone, "From the campus that brought you the History of Consciousness Department ... ," if only to point out that UCSC has a history of genre-bending academia. The DANM program is a collaboration between the arts and engineering departments that started out as a conversation to beef up facilities and resources. The conversation grew to include folks from the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences, and eventually turned into a proposal for an MFA program.
"In our universities," reads the original proposal, "video artists are as likely to be in art departments as in film departments, and multimedia art works are likely to come from a considerable array of disciplines. In effect, many of us feel a greater sense of kinship or shared exploration working with colleagues who are doing digital work in other departments than we do with our more immediate colleagues who work using more traditional means."
The structure of the program is based loosely on the collaborative research model pioneered at the Media Lab at MIT, wherein students work together on one of the faculty's research projects--a sort of university apprenticeship. The model has been replicated at engineering schools around the world. Meanwhile, over in the arts, the reigning model of education is to teach the artists theory and skills, which they take with them into a dark cave and independently create their art.
As more and more universities dip their toes in the digital arts program waters, UCSC has distinguished itself by adopting the engineering model for an art program.
Of course they've also got their core courses filled with theory.
"I'm reading a bunch of heavy stuff right now," says Khazar, a self-described "older person coming back to graduate school" and first-year DANM student. "I'm learning to quite enjoy semiotics and postmodernism and deconstructionist and all that kind of theory, even though learning about it is really quite tough."
But given the current makeup of the DANM faculty--which is comprised of about 30 people from various departments--the emphasis is on the collaborative research, which is focused into three research areas: Participatory Culture, Performative Technologies and Mechatronics.
Mind Mapping: James Khazar used MRIs to put his own brain on display.
We the People: Participatory Culture
Nestled within the Participatory Culture area of research is the Social Computing Lab, run by Dr. Warren Sack, a software designer and media theorist whose work explores "theories and designs for online public space and public discussions." One of his grad students, Michella Rivera-Gravage, is working on a project called "Train Tracks" (http://danm.ucsc.edu/~michella/traintracks/), which is a collection of interviews of BART riders organized by route, making it possible to download and listen to stories of the people around you as you ride the train.
Back at the street level, Sack and DANM student Michael Dale are developing a project called "Street Stories" (http:// hybrid.ucsc.edu/SocialComputingLab/Projects/StreetStories/Description/), which employs GPS-enabled cell phones to record "place-based" stories, so that while you walk and talk, your movement is mapped onto a website along with the corresponding audio track. The audience interface is twofold: web surfers can find stories on the website's map and download them, or can use the phone to find stories mapped near its location and play them in much the same way that museums offer automated walking tours.
But so far, the project that's gotten the most media attention is Metavid (www.metavid.org), which is being developed by Michael Dale and Aphid Stern. Metavid takes all the U.S. Senate and House floor footage from C-SPAN, then archives and indexes it in a way that makes it easily searchable and downloadable. Since those proceedings are closed-captioned and Metavid gathers that data too, it's already possible to search, via text query, thousands of hours of lugubrious congressional footage to instantaneously find, say, every last mention of peanut butter, or every mention and appearance by Congressman Sam Farr. And since the software is all open-source, it could easily be appropriated and used to archive Santa Cruz City Council meetings, or any other public domain proceedings.
The open-source focus of the project has already earned Dale and Stern a slot at next month's Creative Commons (www.creativecommons.org) salon, hosted by Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford professor and one of the most influential open-source crusaders.
"We look at it as a process of opening a resource to the public," says Stern. "And while the research opportunities are obvious and compelling, for us it's a tool with which we can make art."
Stern's art could include a game that would use the same kind of processing used to surveil computer and telephone conversations to "Find the Terrorist Infiltrator in the Senate" by tagging words, like, say, "hijack," regardless of their context, to give you a list of likely "suspects"--Stern's way of putting the shoe on the other foot.
"We're looking at having this large collective data pool that we can draw from to produce really complicated ways of looking at what's happening there," says Stern, "and some of those will be provocative--we hope."
Our PCs, Ourselves: Performative Technologies
Ted Warburton is an assistant professor of theater arts and a DANM faculty member. If his latest projects seem ambitious, it's because he planned it that way. He thinks big, and is going to need enough attention to attract the kind of funding necessary to support big thoughts. During his first year teaching on campus, he founded the Dance Theater Telematica (http://telematica.ucsc.edu), a research group that explores "the intersection of performing arts, interactive digital media and telecommunications technology."
The first project of that group, a piece called "Lubricious Transfer," involved dancers at both UCSC and NYU. Using Internet 2 infrastructure, a fiber optic backbone dedicated to research and education institutions across the country, the simultaneous performances in New York and California were filmed, transmitted and projected on giant spandex screens--and sometimes on the dancers themselves--on opposite stages in real time, the result being that audiences in both Santa Cruz and NYC could watch an interactive performance that spanned the continent.
Transferring high quality video being captured by six cameras is a bit more difficult than your standard grainy video conference. Warburton says the project took about 50 people to pull off, with DANM students and IT staff working to resolve the significant technical problems. "Lubricious Transfer" was a kind of proof-of-concept that forced the technical aspect to keep up with the aesthetic side--a situation that assistant professor of computer science James Davis sees as a healthy one. He says the idea is that if artists are exposed to ideas in engineering, they're going to find good uses for them.
"It keeps us honest," says Davis, "so that we make things that people actually want. And it also allows artists to play with tools they're not going to have on their own."
Warburton puts it a bit differently: "The role of the artist," he says, "is to humanize technology."
Warburton and Davis are beginning a collaboration based on motion capture technology--something that both professors have worked with previously in their careers.
"We knew about the kinds of things each other were doing," says Davis, "we realized when we started talking we already had a common vocabulary for what engineers and artists do together. So, for example, say I want to figure out the difference of the statistics between a bad dancer and good dancer--what are underlying functions, how do we map one function to another? The dancers come in the room and say what is the essence of the motion, is it heavy or light. Engineers, we know this angle is 90 degrees and this one is 70; it's sometimes hard to find the same vocabulary."
But the administrative hang-ups are often worse than any "tomayto-tomahto" differences in vocabulary. Collaboration across departments sounds great in theory and is often encouraged by university administrations, but what often becomes apparent is that the reward structures actually discourage it. Why bother with all the complications of a dance performance when you're only getting paid to publish articles in technical journals?
"In the day-to-day world of most professors," says Davis, "the question they get asked at end of the year is, 'You taught your classes, did you produce any journal articles, did you do something that got the outside world to notice in some way?' We're all free to work with anyone anytime. But will I be rewarded for it?"
And then there's the fact that researchers are trying to work at the experimental, bleeding-edge of their respective fields. Davis uses the example of an anthropologist looking to measure skull data. While he might jump at the chance to try to create a new scanner to do it better than anything existing, research projects like that only work out about 50 percent of the time.
"I want to invent something new," says Davis, "but my collaborators are always looking at what I did last time. So finding this boundary that is interesting to both sides is a challenging problem, and this is a big problem with interdisciplinary work."
But even though it may be problematic or even risky, Davis recognizes the potential for the win-win situation.
"If you get something which is really successful in one domain into another," says Davis, "the other gets to leverage it, and sometimes you can get something you can't get at all by yourself. If Ted wants to understand [the dance concept of] weight in some numerical sense, he doesn't have the grad students to do the research. And similarly I can't do it on my own, because I don't have the [dancers]. Sometimes the only way to do the work is to be in these kinds of spaces."
Ultimately, both the faculty and many of the grad students recognize that a program like DANM actually formalizes cross-disciplinary thinking and collaboration. Now if they only had their own building in which to collaborate. ...
Dance Dance Revolution: Fiber optics enable dancers on opposite sides of the country to collaborate in real time.
We Are the Robots: Mechatronics
Professor Ed Osborn's mechatronics project group didn't exactly stick to its mission to build stuff. This being an early project in the DANM program, it quickly became apparent that compiling a list of where to find and how to build stuff would be of more immediate use for everyone in the program, so that's what he and his grad students did. What their research has done, though, is set the stage for future students.
"So if you're going to need some sort of motion detection," says Osborn, "what are the different forms of motion detection? Infrared is the standard method, but maybe we need to get a video camera and do image analysis. So for any particular student that doesn't know much about this on a technical level, the most useful thing to do is [to explain] the technical terms of motion detection and some ways to implement it. That's useful information for everyone in the program."
When it comes time to fabricate, DANM students have access to an electronics lab, the wood shop and machine shop in the art department and another machine shop in the engineering department.
The dream, though, resides in a building that's already been designed, but not yet built.
"The idea," says Osborn, "was that the building incorporate physically some of the ideas about working together across disciplines." To that end, it will have a large media lab and shop area and a large "black box" reconfigurable media theater. The electronic music labs will move into the building, as will Shakespeare Santa Cruz, the hope being to create a critical mass of students and faculty interested in all aspects of digital art and new media.
"The whole idea of this program," says program director Felicia Rice, who also runs a fine art and literary publishing company called Moving Parts Press, "is that you're not an individual working in isolation. We encourage the opportunity to work together, so someone who is stronger in programming and someone stronger in music can work together. Some of our students come from fine art backgrounds; some may have stronger computer science backgrounds."
Such was the case with Metavid collaborators Dale and Stern, but the possibilities don't end with student collaborations.
"The possibility of having paired courses is something that came up during the curriculum development," says Stern. "That kind of collaborative research and production is going to be what makes DANM really interesting. It's the umbrella of what digital arts and new media is, bringing the many disciplines come together in innovative ways, and collaborative research is going to be a strong suit. It certainly worked out for Mike and I."
That DANM Festival
From Laetitia Sonami 'Lady's Glove' to Camille Utterback's interactive installations, a preview of the Digital Arts and New Media Festival
Video game aficionados probably remember when Nintendo's Power Glove, a fancy-looking controller you could wear, hit the game stores back in 1989. Two years later, Laetitia Sonami built her first gloves, made of the latex kitchen variety, for a performance at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, where she used them to play MIDI devices. For her second "Lady's Glove," Sonami actually used a stripped-down Power Glove, to which she added sensors, an ultrasonic transmitter and some golden Lycra. The current glove--now in its fourth incarnation--was completely rebuilt in 1994, sporting five microswitches, four Hall effect transducers, a pressure pad, resistive strips in the fingers, a mercury switch, an accelerometer and two ultrasonic receivers, all of which work to send signals into a laptop running MAX-MSP--the result of which is that Sonami's Lady's Glove allows her to control sounds, mechanical devices and lights in real-time without spatial hindrances or boundaries.
As part of the DANM festival, Sonami and collaborator Sue Costabile will perform along with electronic music performer JOHN BISCHOFF on May 6 at the UCSC Media Theatre (Theater Arts M110) at 8:30pm. Following are some highlights of the upcoming festival.
PHYSICAL / DIGITAL at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, 6-9pm: The festival actually kicks off with a reception for "Physical / Digital," an exhibition of works by video installation artist JIM CAMPBELL, electronic media artist PAUL DEMARINIS and interactive installation artist CAMILLE UTTERBACK.
DIGITAL CARTOGRAPHIES at UCSC Communication Building, Studio C, 12:30- 2:30pm: TED WARBURTON hosts a panel discussion between performing and digital artists.
THE ART OF ALTERNATIVE ENERGY at UCSC Communication Building, Studio C, 12:30- 2:30pm: ELLIOT ANDERSON hosts a panel discussion between arts, alternative energy experts and end users to explore possible solutions to energy needs.
BLINK at UCSC Porter Sesnon Gallery, May 5-7, 5:30-7:30pm: The gallery will be hosting "Blink," an exhibition of DANM student work. Participants include TYLER FREEMANN, BOB GIGES, MICHAEL DALE, JAMES KHAZAR, CYNTHIA PAYNE, MICHELLA RIVERA-GRAVAGE, APHID STERN, and ALAN TOLLEFSON. The reception also includes a performance by GAMELAN PLESETAN.
FILM SCREENING at UCSC Media Theatre, Theater Arts M110, 8:30-10:30pm: A collaboration with the SANTA CRUZ FILM FESTIVAL to present historical and contemporary short films that have influenced the development of digital art.
ALGORITHMIC METHODS AND MODELS IN THE ARTS at UCSC Theater Arts Media Theater, M110, 10am-noon: DAVID COPE hosts a panel discussion about machine creativity, artificial intelligence, and mathematical principles in sound and visual media.
AUDIBLE TERRAIN: SHIFTING GROUND IN CONTEMPORARY SOUND PRACTICE at UCSC Theater Arts Media Theater, M110, 1-3pm: ED OSBORN hosts a panel discussion about the current state of creative sound practice within and across disciplines.
THE ROLE OF VIRTUOSITY IN A TECHNOLOGY-ENHANCED PERFORMANCE at UCSC Theater Arts Media Theater, M110, 3:30-5:30pm: DAVID MERRILL (MIT Media Lab) hosts a panel discussion on digital technology and the live music performer.
MUSIC PERFORMANCES at UCSC Theater Arts Media Theater, M110, 8:30pm: LAETITIA SONAMI, SUE COSTABILE and JOHN BISCHOFF perform collaborative and solo works.
Visit http://danm.ucsc.edu/web/festival for the complete program listings and descriptions.
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