a complex mathematical formula translated into an intricate metal
object. Or a female athlete’s hormones transformed into an
iridescent frozen slab. Welcome to the brave new world of art.
With recent advances
in technology, visual artists are able to create works that once
lived only in their imaginations. Some advances allow greater precision.
Others enable artists to complete a project in hours rather than
days. And some have led to entirely new art forms. Here’s
a look at several media that have embraced new technology.
More Ambitious Textiles
When most people think
of weaving, they envision a simple wooden loom that produces basic
patterns. Think again. The newest looms, which can weave stunningly
complex designs, are computerized and made of aluminum and steel,”
says Professor Layne Goldsmith, chair of the Fibers
Program. “These looms no longer speak of that down-home
Goldsmith (standing) shows a student how to use software
to create designs for weaving on a computerized dobby loom.
Photo by Mary Levin.
It’s not just looms
that have changed. It is also the process of designing textiles.
Before computers, “designs were drafted by filling in squares
on graph paper to designate which threads would be up or down in
weaving the cloth,” Goldsmith recalls. “It could take
many hours to try out an idea just to see if it was feasible.”
By the mid-1980s, special
software enabled artists to plot their designs in a fraction of
the time. When Goldsmith introduced the software in her classes,
students were able to explore more design ideas, more efficiently.
“I still have my students complete one design the old way,”
she says. “I think it’s important to incorporate traditional
tools so students see where the current processes come from.”
The School of Art also
purchased the first of its two computerized dobby looms in the mid-1980s.
“It was the most advanced loom of its type at the time,”
says Goldsmith. “A black box on the side connects to the computer,
allowing you to design on your software and then activate the loom
from your computer.”
The artist still sits
at the computerized loom and throws the shuttle by hand, but there’s
no need to repeatedly climb underneath the loom to tie and re-tie
treadles to create a complex design. The computer changes the tie-ups
instead. “It facilitates complex weave structures in a way
that had not been possible in an efficient manner before,”
says Goldsmith. “This was an exciting innovation.”
Still, Goldsmith has
wanted students to experience one more tool: the Jacquard loom.
With a Jacquard loom, the artist can select individual threads rather
than groups of threads, allowing an intricacy of design not possible
with other looms. One problem: until recently the only mechanized
Jacquard looms available have been industrial.
“They are huge
and hugely expensive,” Goldsmith says. “We’d have
to knock out a ceiling to put one in. So I looked into ways we could
access the technology without the looms themselves.”
In 2001, Goldsmith found
her solution: software that interfaces with industrial state-of-the-art
looms. The cost of the software was prohibitive, but its owner provided
it to the UW at virtually no cost. “He felt that students
would think about different ways of using the software—different
ways of designing cloth—and that interested him,” explains
Goldsmith, “so he set us up with six stations of this expensive
software, plus a lifetime of upgrades.”
Students can use the
Jacquard software to create their designs, and then send them to
the industrial looms to be realized. Of course this still has its
problems. “It’s difficult to actualize your design without
the loom there to let you test out your work,” admits Goldsmith.
She recently located a smaller computerized Jacquard loom and is
hoping to purchase one for the School in the next few years.
“It is not necessary
to have ‘fancy tools‘ to make good work,” Goldsmith
says, “but they do allow for other ways of thinking. Where
these tools become valuable is in the hands of someone with the
creative and critical thinking skills and passion to find out what
can happen next. This is why I continue to be interested in teaching.”
For Professor Paul Berger,
chair of the Photography
Program, technology is nothing new. After all, he says, photography
has always been technological.
Berger. Photo by Mary Levin.
It was born at the height
of the industrial revolution, when there was a huge onslaught of
ways to record and manipulate events from the actual world,”
he explains. “It has always ridden a strange and uncomfortable
boundary line between art and science.” But Berger readily
admits that digital technology has had a huge impact on photography.
To fully appreciate
the possibilities of digital photography, it helps to understand
traditional analog photography. Photographic film—coated with
an emulsion of chemicals that react to light—is a crucial
ingredient in analog photography. The level of detail within an
analog photograph can be infinite, says Berger, because the film
constitutes a physical object. Digital photography, in contrast,
arbitrarily divides an image into artificial units—pixels—and
jumps from one to the next.
advantage of this,” says Berger, “is that once you divide
the image into those units, it is easy to apply mathematical operations.”
In other words, you can manipulate it in some pretty mind-boggling
Berger first introduced
digital technology into the School of Art in 1985, as individual
computers began making their way to campus. As part of a major Olympus
grant from IBM to the UW, he acquired a Targa board that allowed
images from a videocamera to be translated into pixels that could
be manipulated. “At that time, it was the only way we could
get a digital image,” Berger recalls. “There was no
software for working with these images. We actually wrote some.
We were the only people in the Art Building with computers.”
Now Berger is content
to use popular software programs, which his students use as well.
“We introduce both digital and analog tools right off the
bat,” he says. “It’s important that students know
how to make both traditional analog prints and digital prints. Some
students use digital simply to create a great ‘straight’
print; others use it to change the way we describe the world.”
What can digital do
that analog cannot? “You can do color manipulations that are
extremely sophisticated,” Berger says. “You can make
corrections, like sharpening an image. You can make room-size displays,
which were previously limited by the size of chemical processors.
Even at this mundane level, digital technology has transformed photography.”
But photos can also
be altered or combined to create images that no longer simply record
reality but challenge it. That’s also been true with analog
photography, Berger points out, but “now you can do some extremely
invasive things that alter ‘photographic’ description
Berger says his own work,
which involves assembling photographic images into “big weavings
of imagery,” would be virtually impossible to create without
digital technology. “Even if you start using digital technology
just to make better prints,” he says, “it soon leads
off into new directions.”
No program in the School
of Art has added more high-tech equipment in the past few years
than the Metals
“We tend to work
on a small scale,” says Professor Mary Hu, chair of the Metals
Program. “I talk a lot about precision and craftsmanship.”
With traditional tools, achieving precision on intricate metal pieces
can be challenging. But recently introduced laser and digital technology
is changing that.
Hu and James McMurray with a 3-D scanner and the resulting
computer images. Photo by Karen Orders.
Several years ago, Hu
and instructional technician James McMurray identified and purchased
several high-tech tools—a software program, a three-dimensional
scanner and 3-D printer—thanks to a grant from the UW’s
Student Technology Fee Committee, which funds technology tools for
The software program,
Rhinoceros, enables students to create and manipulate three-dimensional
designs. With the 3-D laser scanner, they can scan three-dimensional
forms and alter them in the computer. A portable three-dimensional
digitizing arm captures larger images.
When the computerized
3-D designs are finalized, the next step is to print them. A regular
printer can’t capture that third dimension, so Hu and McMurray
purchased a three-dimensional printer, the Solidscape Pattern Master.
“You start with a computer model—the design you want,”
explains McMurray. “The pattern master then ‘prints’
a 3-D model in plastic wax, a layer at a time, until it builds up
the entire object. Now you’ve got a three-dimensional representation
of what you had in your computer, in wax.” With the model
completed, a plaster mold can be made to cast the object in metal,
or the wax model can be electroplated to achieve a metal object.
“In the past,
we would carve waxes by hand,” says Hu. “Often we still
do. Depending on what you are doing, sometimes carving the wax is
faster and easier. But the new equipment makes possible such fine
detail, such precision, that you can do things that would be almost
impossible by hand.”
Once they discovered
what their newly acquired equipment could do, McMurray and Hu were
eager to add other advanced tools. They submitted a second request
to the Student Technology Fee Committee in 2002. “We got everything
we asked for,” says McMurray, somewhat astonished. “The
committee members were so excited by what we’d done with the
first grant, they felt good about giving us additional support.”
The second grant funded
a larger 3-D scanner, a three-dimensional printer that makes models
out of more durable plastic, a machine that casts models in titanium,
and a laser welder. “With the laser welder, you look through
a microscope, bring pieces together, and in one shot they are welded
while you are still holding them in your fingers,” says Hu.
“It is much less cumbersome than traditional welding methods.”
Despite her excitement
about these new tools, Hu has no intention of ditching traditional
approaches. It’s all about balance, she says.
“I want my students
to have a traditional understanding of the process, the materials,
and the handwork,” says Hu. “Then they can start adding
on. For those interested in technology, these are wonderful tools
to use when they make sense. They just extend the possibilities.”
All of these technology-savvy
faculty agree that teaching both traditional and new methods is
the best approach. Then there’s Shawn Brixey. “Traditional”
is not even in Brixey’s vocabulary.
Brixey is associate
director of the UW’s new Center
for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (see box, page 10) and
associate professor of art. His work has strong visual elements
but cannot be comfortably pegged as “visual art.” In
fact, categorizing his work as a specific arts genre would be futile.
“I am committed
to the exploration and development of new and experimental art forms,”
Brixey explains. “My art work attempts to soulfully address
the impact of advanced technology on artistic expression and the
creative landscape it is dramatically altering.”
Brixey (left) and crew put final touches on his telerobot,
"chimera obscura," for the exhibition, "Gene(sis):
Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics." Photo
by Shawn Brixey.
with experimental media emerged early. While he was in college,
he became disenchanted with trying to represent what was in his
head through drawings or sculptures. “I wanted to create emulations—the
exact thing that was in my head, not a representation of it,”
he recalls. “I realized that traditional arts approaches and
media would limit me from exploring this. I felt that if I could
understand physics, chemistry, neuroanatomy, and cosmology, I could
build a strategy for achieving this radical form of art emulation.”
That realization led
Brixey to M.I.T. As one of a handful of artists invited there to
make experimental art, he became comfortable working with scientists
and began creating works that combine the physical sciences with
the creative arts.
An example of this approach
is “Alchymeia,” a work done for the 1998 Winter Olympics
in Nagano, Japan. Brixey was invited to create a piece commenting
on the spirit of the Olympics. “I think they thought I would
do ice carvings,” Brixey laughs. Instead he transferred hormones
from Olympic athletes into constantly changing ice crystal—or
snowflake—for-mations that actually contain a tiny piece of
the athlete. “To do this, I had to do science no one had ever
done before,” says Brixey.
new work for which Brixey received a Rockefeller Fellowship, incorporates
the phenomenon of sonolumi-nescence, a process by which sound in
water can be converted directly into light. Visitors to the project—in
person or through the Internet—can send short, poetic emails
that are then converted into text-encoded ultrasound. The ultrasound
modulates a small vessel of ultrapure
water, creating a miniature star-like sonoluminescent light source.
Visitors wearing specially designed headphones can “listen”
to the light source—and to their own text or the voices of
the net-based visitors, which are emitted from the light.
Sound complicated? It
is. Brixey’s complex projects require him to gain mastery
of physics concepts and then translate them in entirely new ways.
Each project takes about five years to complete, including developing
ideas, devising a process, and securing funding.
But even for Brixey,
technology is a means, not an end in itself. “Technology serves
a very particular purpose—it is a lens for observing the culture
and for creating work that is on the extreme boundary of arts knowledge,”
says Brixey. “For me, art is a process of inquiry. However
we execute an artwork is central, but it ’s still really all
about the conceptual framing of it. It’s about the idea.”
Article : Defying Categorization: DXARTS
[Autumn 2003 - Table of Contents]