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Creative Alchemy In

Creative Alchemy
By blending diverse academic disciplines, the Center for Interdisciplinary Art and Technology sets off an explosion of possibilities.

by Kelley J.P. Lindberg

The dancer is swimming in water, bathed in aqua light, floating and tumbling to the music of water splashing. On all sides, clear Mylar curtains cascade from the ceiling, pooling on the floor and sparkling with running water, droplets, shadows and reflections that ripple in a hundred unexpected ways with the swimmer’s every move. The splashing water is real. The prismatic water droplets on the curtains are real. The dancer is a projection.

Brent Schnieder
Brent Schneider experiments with blending art and technology in pieces such as Immergere, which combined a real-time, three-dimensional staging with pre-recorded virtual elements.
Brent Schneider’s performance of Immergere (“to immerse” in Latin) is many things at once. It is a blend of natural elements and synthetic ones. It engages both the aural and the visual senses. It is energetic, yet soothing. It erases barriers of time, combining the real-time setting with previously recorded movement. It toys with the concept of presence, immersing the physical bodies of the audience completely into the piece, while the principal dancer is merely the play of light on a screen.

It is an example of the alchemy that can happen when art and technology merge.

At the University of Utah’s new Center for Interdisciplinary Art and Technology (CIDAT), located in the building that used to house the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, projects that blend art and technology have a new home. For faculty like Schneider, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and associate professor in the Department of Modern Dance, CIDAT represents an opportunity to experiment with art and technology in ways that may have been tantalizingly out of reach until now.

“The arts and technology have been on a collision course for the last 25 years,” says Raymond Tymas-Jones, dean of the College of Fine Arts. “There have been pockets around the country where artists have been investigating the possibility of using technology as a tool for expression,” he says. “Out of that have grown other questions about whether technology can be used in ways where the arts inform science, and science informs art.”

Combining modern technology and art is not necessarily a new concept. After all, the University of Utah was the birthplace of the computer graphics industry in the late 1960s. What’s different now is that technology has become much easier to use, more eclectic in its capabilities, and completely accessible to everyone from kindergartners to grandparents, from engineers to biologists, and from athletes to artists.

Ellen Bromberg, director of CIDAT and associate professor in the Department of Modern Dance, says the accessibility and prevalence of technology is bringing together scientists and artists in new ways. “We’re all using software,” she says. “We all speak the common language of data, using it in new and different ways. We can talk to each other now where before we couldn’t.”

As an example, Bromberg says, “In the Modern Dance Department, not only are students spending hours in the studio, as would be expected, but they are also learning how to shoot and edit video, create their own Web sites, and design video for stage performances and installations.” These skills play an increasingly important role in the creation, performance, and publicizing of art in the 21st century.

But just because artists and scientists are able to speak the same language doesn’t necessarily mean they’re saying the same things. That’s why new forms of collaboration may open up new avenues of expression and research.

“Scientists and artists ask the same questions about the world,” says Bromberg, “but they ask in different ways and get different answers.”

By collaborating with scientists and technologists, artists can create new art forms, explore broader venues such as the Internet, and find more ways to engage audiences as part of the artistic process. “This is a way of creating new dialogues about the way we can give form to ideas,” says Bromberg.

But scientists benefit from the collaboration, too. “Very often, artists drive technology by asking questions through their work that require different solutions than the questions asked by the disciplines for which the technology was originally designed,” notes Bromberg. This fall, at the request of scientists at the University of California at Davis, she will lend her understanding of media in performance to a project involving dance, motion capture, and three-dimensional imaging in virtual reality. “Here are scientists and computer scientists who really want to work with dance,” she says. “They see that they can put that technology to use in new ways. They see the potential in it, and they want to engage with artists in their own realm.”

CIDAT’s role at the University of Utah, according to Tymas-Jones, is as “a research center primarily for collaboration of artists, and for artists collaborating with scientists and theorists who will be looking at different perspectives of the human condition and using technology to investigate areas of concern or curiosity.”

To further that goal, Bromberg and other board members are seeking grant money to support faculty projects that exemplify the interdisciplinary benefits of merging art and technology.

“My belief is that faculty research generates the cultivation of new knowledge,” says Bromberg. “If faculty members are committed to research, their enthusiasm creates a rich learning environment for students.” By raising money to directly support faculty investigators, CIDAT will stimulate and cultivate new and notable research, generating more opportunities for students like Marie Grudzien.

Marie Grudzien enjoys experimenting with traditional music and technology to create unique expressions. “I like the sounds that can be produced,” she says.
Although Grudzien received a degree in traditional classical music composition from the School of Music, she has always enjoyed working with technology and combining it with traditional music to create new expressions. Her musical composition for her senior project last May involved a vocal quartet, a string trio, percussion, and an electronic soundtrack with a video component. “I like the sounds that can be produced, contrasted against acoustic instruments and the human voice,” she says.

This is Grudzien’s second degree; when she earned her first, digital technology was still in the future. “It was hard to achieve results. I was working with reel-to-reel sound tape and one-inch video. Things have really changed,” she says. “More windows are being opened up for composers to use electronics. A lot of software programs are excellent for interactive media.”

Grudzien believes CIDAT will provide “a place for students to visualize doing a whole multimedia piece and see their vision realized.” The traditional degree programs in the College of Fine Arts tend to be very rigorous and heavily scheduled, so while Grudzien praises faculty for being supportive and encouraging, at the same time she notes that students who want to create projects outside the normal scope may simply not have access to funding, space, or time to pursue them. She hopes CIDAT will eventually lead to “a whole setup to do all kinds of alternative works that fall outside of the box.”

For Grudzien, combining art and technology can yield more than interesting multimedia projects. She often works with children in educational settings, and she’s seen firsthand some of the negative effects technology can have on children’s social skills. Cell phones, iPods, PDAs, text messaging, video games, and the Internet can all entertain and educate, but they can also train kids to think of isolation and impersonal interactions as the norm.

“The more we can use technology with arts, the more ways we have of making technology more humane. I believe technology can be a bridge, one that develops universality and community,” she says. Like Grudzien, many artists think technology can be put to better use than teaching kids how to shoot aliens, steal cars, and humiliate each other on Web sites. “Technology is used in so many ways that are not really productive that it’s great for artists to use it in a productive and positive way,” says Grudzien. She feels technology can be used to help “keep kids being creative instead of letting them tune out other kids.”

Ellen Bromberg notes, “[CIDAT] is designed to foster interdisciplinary research... It’s not necessary for research to have an art product as an outcome.”
Bromberg also sees CIDAT’s goals broadening in scope. “The center is designed to foster interdisciplinary research between departments within the College of Fine Arts and between the CFA and all other departments,” she says. “It’s not necessary for research to have an art product as an outcome.”

She envisions more projects like that of Miguel Chuaqui, associate professor in the School of Music. Chuaqui is collaborating with researchers in the School of Medicine on a type of biofeedback project. “We’re creating a system that tracks biological vital signs, which then affect the music [the patients] hear,” he explains. While music is a major component of the research, he points out that “the final product is not artistic, per se.”

Given human beings’ fundamental passion for both exploration and expression, the convergence of art and technology seems logical, bringing new dimensions to both. “We’re beginning to understand that the lines are not as hard and rigid as we perhaps thought they were. There are intersections,” says Tymas-Jones. “The University of Utah, in terms of technology, has an extraordinary reputation,” he adds, citing the Center for High Performance Computing and the Brain Institute as examples. “CIDAT will build on that reputation and extend it.”

From within the New Media Wing of the Arts and Architecture building, CIDAT will bring together art and technology in ways that will expand the definitions of both, and the wing’s large, open spaces will be used for performances, symposia, classes, screenings, and workshops. Already, CIDAT has plans to present a lecture series in the 2007-08 school year with the combined support of the College of Fine Arts, the office of the Associate Vice President for Interdisciplinary Studies, and the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute.

“It’s a place where we envision new media and other technologies joining diverse disciplines,” says Bromberg. “We build bridges, and we break down institutional and conceptual barriers. We hope to create an environment in which, to reference a once-revolutionary technology, light bulbs will go on.”

—Kelley J. P. Lindberg BS’84 is a Layton-based freelance writer.

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