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In Living Color

Software that can create whole new worlds of digital art is also enlarging the concept of what constitutes a complete engineering education.

- By Joannie Fischer

For decades, the engineering student and the fine arts major have been viewed as two different breeds of animal, with little in common. In fact, a groundbreaking endeavor initiated by a Bell Laboratories engineer more than 30 years ago called Experiments in Art and Technology is still famous for its highly unusual ambition to bring engineers and artists together to collaborate, something all but unheard of at the time.

But that apparent chasm is closing so much that on many campuses the two specialists are actually one and the same, thanks to the emergence of a whole new type of creative field known as digital art. Alongside the paintbrush and the sketch pad, digital art employs a key tool fast becoming one of the arts' most popular mediums: the computer. Not only is ever-more sophisticated software capability making possible whole new worlds of art never dreamed of in Michelangelo's time—or even a decade ago—but it is also opening up new and exciting areas of endeavor to software engineers, spawning new collaborations on college campuses, and enlarging the concept of what constitutes a complete engineering education.

Digital art is taking its place alongside more traditional works and gaining popularity throughout the creative spectrum. A primary component of most Internet art, computer-generated art is also making its way into magazine ads, television commercials, and movies. Digital musical creations are especially popular: one New York composer recently made news by using a computer to create an “Internet Opera,” that altered currently popular pitches to develop whole new musical scales and tones never before heard. And in Europe, another artist gained fame by turning his car into a musical instrument. The vehicle, outfitted with a global positioning system, generated musical notes that varied depending on where the car was driven and broadcast them via satellite around the globe.

The new art form is inching its way into the hallowed halls of the serious “high” arts. Recently, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City featured the “BitStreams” exhibit, while on the opposite coast, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art showcased “010101.” On display were creations such as “Ecosystm,” a work that employs a software program to convert the tickertape numbers of constantly fluctuating daily financial data into images of nature, such as birds alighting on tree branches. Today, digital art has its own gallery in New York, the “Bitforms” gallery. The art has a regular place to showcase new work, at the annual conference hosted by the Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques, attended by nearly 40,000 technical artists. But perhaps the largest digital arts forum is the Boston Cyberarts Festival, which brings together 75 arts and educational groups offering two weeks of performances and exhibits featuring all things digital, from animation and virtual reality to electronic music.

Reflecting the growing popularity of technically produced art, and thus a rising demand for computer-savvy graduates, are interdisciplinary new programs and curricula surfacing in both art schools and engineering departments. The Cleveland Institute of Art just created a specially-tailored major in Technology and Integrated Media, a five-year course of study that offers specialties in performance art, sound design, animation, multimedia productions, and film and video. Here and across the country, computers have become a mainstay of art classrooms, for the benefit of students and teachers alike. In fact, technology is moving so fast that it is often the instructors who need the most instructing. Special workshops in the latest software are offered to faculty at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., and schools such as The Rhode Island School of Design and the Massachusetts College of Art have faculty computer labs.

And at the famous Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, where some of the most provocative works of digital art are currently being produced, computers are fast filling up the nooks and crannies of classrooms and the hallways in between. The Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University's Tisch School was designed to create technically competent artists and to produce works that provoke awareness of technology in the viewer, and create a better understanding of how emerging technologies shape who we are. Founder of the ITP program Red Burns says the goal is to educate a group of people, from rocket scientists to physicians, who both understand technology and have strong humanistic values and an appreciation for beauty. The results often mix “old-fashioned” materials with the cutting edge of computer know-how. ITP's director of research Daniel Rozin has created a “mirror” made of hundreds of wooden tiles that shift position to reflect light in such a way as to present an image of whatever is moved in front of it. A tiny camera is hooked to a computer behind the mirror that uses software written by Rozin to tell the tiles which position to move into in order to replicate the image. Other works at the Tisch School include a paintbrush that, when brushed across a canvas, creates a moving picture rather than a brush stroke, and a sculpture that plays music depending on the hand movements of the onlooker. Though most creations are designed primarily to open the mind, specific new and valuable uses of technology sometimes emerge. Rozin says this is part of the reason why large corporations such as Microsoft and Intel donate money and computer equipment to the university program, which is always hungry for cutting edge digital tools.


New Hybrids

Some engineering departments are fully embracing digital art by offering degrees that combine traditional engineering course work and standard art instruction with special seminars on new media and the areas where technical skill and artistic ability overlap. For example, the University of Arizona has, with the help of the National Science Foundation, launched a Bachelor of Arts in Engineering (BAE) program that offers specialties in, among other things, software systems and digital art. Now six years old, the program encourages the application of engineering methods to fields in the arts and humanities, and vice versa. One of the founders of the program, professor Suvrajeet Sen, says that although engineering and the fine arts are often seen as worlds apart, the two disciplines have very much in common. “Every movie, concert, and play is the result of a team effort, just as it is in designing and producing modern airplanes, cars, and Internet sites,” he says, adding that both engineering and the arts thrive on attention to detail, and both require a tremendous amount of ingenuity. Jeff Goldberg, director of the Bachelor of Arts in Engineering program, agrees. “Look at projects like Hoover Dam or the space shuttle and you will see true creativity,” says Goldberg. “Look at films like “Monsters Inc.” or “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and you will see similar creativity.” It is no surprise, he says, that great artists like Da Vinci also practiced engineering.

One of the extra benefits of the University of Arizona's BAE program, says Goldberg, is that it keeps students from dropping out of engineering programs when their needs and desires do not fit the traditional mold. “We are trying to keep students that have the creative spark inside engineering programs,” he says, adding that “students want flexibility and options.” Goldberg is taking lessons learned from running the BAE program back to his more traditional engineering courses. “One of the basic things that I learned is that if you let students be creative, they will rise to the occasion. I use more open-ended assignments and projects instead of the typical end-of-chapter problem sets.” The result? “I think that our students will be better equipped for team lead positions than traditionally trained engineers,” he says. “They will be better able to consider, appreciate, and evaluate different points of view.” And although the program is a bachelor of arts rather than of science, Goldberg says that fact should not mislead people into assuming it's an easier degree, because some of the BA students are technically much stronger than traditional engineers in their focus areas. Goldberg says that the digital art students in his program tend to be interested in careers in such areas as Web page development and entertainment companies such as Steven Spielberg's “Dreamworks.”

Of course, graduates of the Arizona program also end up taking more traditional engineering positions at the likes of Motorola and Microsoft. Still, many students say they are pleased that they took the nontraditional route to an engineering degree. Recent graduate Aaron Palazzolo is very happy with his decision to broaden his engineering degree to include computer engineering as well as music. He just accepted a full-time position with IBM. “My career at IBM certainly doesn't involve the music side of my degree,” says Palazzolo, “But I believe the extra art and music classes give me a much broader base to pull from when I'm problem solving.” Like many of his fellow students in the special Arizona program, Palazzolo plans to keep the artistic side of his education alive. “In the future I plan on fully using the music angle of my degree and combining it with my computer skills,” he says. Examples of this would be production of computer-aided music: midi, digital mixing; soundtrack design and composition for multimedia computer applications, movies, or the design of music and sound related hardware and software.

Some of the new art and technology programs are discovering ready-made markets for students' skills even before graduation. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design, for instance, has created a degree called the bachelor of science and visualization, in which most of the projects students take on are actually commissioned pieces of paid work from the business world. Whereas a traditional fine arts major at the college receives more abstract training, science and visualization students get practical work experience, and a taste of a possible career path, by developing relationships with local business clients through completing work such as designing and creating a new corporate Web site.

Syracuse digital art student Dylan Chan knew he was interested in a career “where computer science and visual art overlap.” His interests led him to Syracuse University's digital media fine arts program, which prides itself on encouraging students to push the artistic possibilities of new media in ways that are “free of the paradigmatic constraints of traditional media.” Chan has taken this philosophy to heart. “My current projects deal with trying to find characteristics of computer graphics that are unique and independent from our physical reality,” he says. “So much of computer graphics nowadays attempts to imitate reality, in its appearance and animation physics.” Instead, Chan wants to create objects and spaces in virtual environments that cannot possibly exist in physical reality. “I want to create 3-D models that express an idea rather than describe a form,” he explains. “Through the creation of conceptual objects I hope to discover a new geometry that is unique to the virtual computer environment.” By creating a digital object that exists purely in the computer realm, Chan feels likes he's on the frontier of something very new, working with entities impossible to visualize before the computer age. “To me, the computer is not merely an efficient tool to make special effects, it is a medium completely unique from previous ones.”

Breaking down traditional boundaries between art and science may be the most exciting development in digital art, says Chan. “Whereas traditionally artists were stereotyped as being emotional and scientists were logical,” he explains, “the digital artist must combine the expressive qualities of art with the technical logic of science.” Moreover, he claims, merging the different areas transforms the new art into an endeavor that gathers people from varying backgrounds into one community and infuses the arts and sciences with new vigor. Chan hopes to continue digital art studies in graduate school and to one day become a teacher of the new art form.



Unreal Realities

One of the world's earliest superstars among film studio digital artists, Daniel Sandin, is currently hard at work in the university setting. Sandin is the creator of the Death Star, the evil Empire's headquarters that Luke Skywalker and his scruffy band of rebels manage to destroy in “Star Wars.” Now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Sandin still keeps a prototype of the Death Star hanging in his office, and his love of special effects continues. These days, Sandin is especially interested in creating three-dimensional, virtual reality environments such as a waterfall, created from light, that seems to spray water when the viewer's hand is placed inside. His Electronic Visualization Laboratory, on the cutting edge of digital creativity, is responsible for the ImmersaDesk—a virtual reality system that can provide special 3-D exhibits at museums and other venues that are so advanced the participant won't need to “suit up” with the bulky head gear and other equipment currently required for a virtual reality experience. Sandin says that creating the new art forms indulges his love of technology, science, and nature all at once. Other students of this type of digital art praise it for encouraging an expansive mind-set, where, rather than the object, the entire system of interacting collaborations is the end result.

Perhaps the most well known and well respected of recently reknowned digital artists, John Maeda, has also chosen to work from a university campus. As Director of the Aesthetics and Computation Group at MIT's Media Laboratory, Maeda teaches courses such as “The Fundamentals of Computational Media Design,” and is the author of two books about digital art: “Design by Numbers” and “Maeda@Media.” In creating his artwork over the past 10 years, Maeda has written all of his own software and made some of that software available for free to artists across the globe. Artists, he says, are unfortunately misled by the notion that programming is so difficult that they could never learn to do it themselves. As a result, much of what is called digital art really is using prepackaged software to create unoriginal works. In order to truly produce art, he says, artists need the technical skills to program. To answer that need, he created a new computer language to help artists understand how to engage in computer design and posted it on the Web. Maeda has said that digital technologies represent an end to the concept of art as a single entity that doesn't shift to a work that can change hundreds of times over again. One of Maeda's more famous works, called “The Reactive Square,” actually changes shapes whenever a viewer shouts out. Future artists, Maeda believes, will need to be fluent in technology. Both Maeda and Arizona's Jeff Goldberg believe that engineering will be the humanities degree of the 21st century, essential to every student's education.

At this point, digital art is still such a new genre that professionals, faculty, and students alike have a hard time evaluating the merits of any given work. But many say that it is only a matter of time before standards for high-quality digital productions become clear, just as, for example, photography eventually came into its own as an art form, rather than simply being judged by the same standards as a painting. By that time, engineering itself will likely be humanized to the point that artist engineers and engineer artists will be seen as the norm, rather than an oddity. And works of art that change form at lightning speed may forever replace dried paint on a canvas.


Joannie Fischer is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, Calif.
She can be reached at