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Where Art Meets Technology

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Imagine 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.

Smarter Looms, 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 aura.” 

Layne Goldsmith (standing) shows a student how to use software to create designs for weaving on a computerized dobby loom.Layne Goldsmith (standing) shows a student how to use software to create designs for weaving on a computerized dobby loom.

Layne Goldsmith (standing) shows a student how to use software to create designs for weaving on a computerized dobby loom. Media credit: 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.”

Photography Transformed—by Pixels

For Professor Paul Berger, chair of the Photography Program, technology is nothing new. After all, he says, photography has always been technological. 

Paul Berger.

Paul Berger. Media credit: 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. 

“The fantastic 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 ways.

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 of reality.” 

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.”

New Methods for Metals

No program in the School of Art has added more high-tech equipment in the past few years than the Metals Program. 

“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. 

Mary Hu and James McMurray with a 3-D scanner and the resulting computer images.

Mary Hu and James McMurray with a 3-D scanner and the resulting computer images. Media credit: 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 student use.

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.”

Beyond Traditional Media

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.” 

Shawn Brixey (left) and crew put final touches on his telerobot, "chimera obscura," for the exhibition, "Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics."

Shawn Brixey (left) and crew put final touches on his telerobot, "chimera obscura," for the exhibition, "Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics."  Media credit: Shawn Brixey

Brixey’s fascination 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.

“Eon,” a 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.”