By Margarita Venegas
Nearly 10 years before he joined the faculty at the University of North Texas College of Music, Panayiotis Kokoras won a competition that earned him a residency at one of the world’s most distinguished electroacoustic music studios. The options included programs in France, Switzerland, the U.K. — or Denton, Texas.
One of the first college electronic music centers in the United States, UNT’s now-expanded Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013-14. It continues to uphold a distinguished reputation in computer music and interactive/intermedia performance.
“CEMI has a great history and has been at the forefront of the international contemporary and experimental music scene for 50 years now,” says Kokoras, a UNT assistant professor of composition since 2012. “It has excellent facilities, amazing colleagues and talented students.”
UNT has long been known as an incubator for creativity, and the work at CEMI is just one of the ways faculty and students are exploring new media and pushing the boundaries of their fields as they merge art with science and technology.
“Composers have always tried to find new modes of expression,” says CEMI director Andrew May of the appeal of using computers and other media to express sounds and music.
CEMI — which includes faculty in composition and iARTA, UNT’s Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts — was opened in 1963 as the Electronic Music Center by faculty composer Merrill Ellis. Musicians progressed from using magnetic tape for compositions and analog synthesizers for live performances to incorporating dancers, actors and visual projections. Today, CEMI students and faculty produce interactive computer music, immersive video and sound spatialization, physical computing and more.
In the 1980s, the center received worldwide attention when it hosted the seventh annual International Computer Music Conference. It will again host the ICMC in 2015 and this year will host the International Confederation for Electroacoustic Music Festival and Conference.
For Kokoras, the appeal of the world of electroacoustic music is the ability to capture and manipulate sounds in their finest detail. That’s the purpose behind one of his latest works, Sense, for which he developed a device that allows humans to “hear” ultrasound and infrasound frequencies through sound vibrations felt in the skin, bones and nerves.
The device includes a plate that funnels ultrasonic sound upward, so that when a listener places a hand above it, the sound — the kind heard and used by dolphins in communication — can be felt on the palm.
Other pieces are attached beneath the chair of the seated listener to relay infrasound — the kind created by earthquakes and volcanoes — in a rumble that can be felt throughout the body. Headphones relay the music in the composition that is within the range of human hearing.
“This is a more holistic way of listening,” says Kokoras, who will release the plans for the device so that other composers may use it.
In other CEMI research, Jon Christopher Nelson, associate dean of operations and professor of composition, is working on a computer program that will make a virtual instrument that can be modified so it can start off producing a string sound and end up producing a percussion sound.
May, who says he was interested at an early age in programming as well as music performance on violin, is working to find a way to make the computer adapt better in live performances. He creates software that lets the computer “listen” to live performances and make musical decisions emulating those of real musicians.
“I feel fortunate to be part of a program that has this level of experimentation,” May says.
That experimental environment allows composition professor David Stout to incorporate science into his work as he researches the extension of sound through new modes of technology. “Science and art share many of the same tools,” notes Stout, coordinator of iARTA, which brings together faculty researchers from music, dance, film, art and engineering.
Stout’s current projects include the book The Reemergence of Alchemy at the Intersection of Art, Science and Digital Media and continued work as a founding member of the collaborative media performance and installation group NoiseFold.
His most direct collaboration of art and science at UNT is Shadow Box Attractions, a digital media project that uses software he conceived and created with the help of three programmers to form a virtual particle chamber.
Stout can place positively or negatively charged nodes at various locations within the chamber, which features reconfigurable “force fields.” The results are lines or wisps — or sometimes flashes or dots — of black particles that float, fall, rise and tumble around in three white boxes projected onto separate screens.
The sounds associated with the piece range from insect-like buzzes to something resembling shattering glass or static. “The project shares an ‘imaginative corollary’ to historic research in contemporary particle physics,” Stout says, “while being an artwork that seeks to dramatize the dynamic interplay of elemental forces.”
UNT faculty also explore art and technology in fields outside of music. Another core iARTA faculty member, Ruth West, is a new associate professor at UNT whose expertise spans the areas of information science, new media, computer science and biological science.
West, who pioneered cross-resonance research over the past 10 years and is outfitting her xREZ ArtScience Laboratory on campus, works with emerging technologies to find new ways to visualize and uncover interconnections within big data.
“In art and in science, human beings look for or make patterns, then they disturb those patterns,” West says. “It’s the generation of the pattern and the disruption of the pattern that gives us information about the thing underlying it.”
Her previous work includes Atlas in silico, an installation developed at the University of California at San Diego by an interdisciplinary 19-member team.
It features an interactive virtual environment driven by data from the Global Ocean Sampling expedition, a survey of the diversity of microbes in the oceans. Each particle in the installation’s virtual 3-D world represents a data record for a protein sequence that was sampled. The particles’ movements and sounds reveal larger patterns within the data.
“The GOS data collection is basically a snapshot of the micro-organismal biodiversity of the world’s oceans. It changed our view of life on Earth,” West says.
“So for Atlas in silico, we developed this novel visualization of the data, using algorithms to create visual and auditory data signatures as a way to provide the information so that it can be experienced by a broad public and researchers alike.”
With UNT colleagues, West collaborated in fall 2013 on an interactive installation and community engagement project at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas that employed the rePhoto application she helped develop.
The application allows users to align camera images taken from the same perspective at different times to show progress or change over time. It has been used, for instance, in environmental monitoring of tree health and growth.
For the Perot event, West joined fibers faculty members Lesli Robertson and Amie Adelman, Make Art With Purpose director and artist Janeil Engelstad, and three students to invite members of the public to collaborate in creating geometric fiber sculptures and to write their responses to the social interaction as the researchers observed the process. The installation was documented with rePhoto as the piece grew and changed.
The idea was for community members to see how they could work together and possibly translate that to social and environmental concerns. The community engagement angle of the project, West says, spurs interaction as well as observation.
“These are two important aspects of scientific research and two of the elements that drive the rePhoto app,” she says. “Documentation such as this is vital to research.”
Cultural studies of technoscience are a focus for artist Paula Gaetano-Adi, assistant professor of new media at UNT. Funded by a VIDA Art and Artificial Life Awards’ Artistic Production Incentives grant, she found herself in a remote village in the Peruvian Amazon last summer, sifting through a 30-pound box of screws for her project TZ’IJK — the Mayan word for “mud.”
The project, which uses robots to portray the Mayan creation myth, was conceived by Gaetano-Adi and her mentor, Gustavo Crembil, assistant professor of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Constructing 50-inch balls with a robotic mechanism in the middle, they would surround them with a polycarbonate membrane tied with bendable wood and covered in mud using a pre-colonial South American building technique.
But, when they got to the Peruvian village where they were to learn the technique, they realized that procuring screws for the prototype robot was not as easy as going to the local hardware store. The villagers, who live without many technological advances, brought them the box of random screws to sift through.
It was one experience that highlighted that juxtaposition of what Gaetano-Adi portrays in much of her artwork — seeking to understand how Western methods, knowledge and technologies are used and adapted in the local ways of South Americans.
In 2006, she won first prize in the VIDA 9.0 international competition on Art and Artificial Life for Alexitimia, a robotic artwork that looks like a lump of flesh. When the piece is touched, it begins to “sweat,” emitting water through tiny pores. While it appears to be a crude entity with only one way of communication — touch — it is at the same time a complex robot made to interact with viewers.
“Robots raise intriguing cultural questions about our ‘humanness’ that seem to engage philosophers, artists, scientists and technologists,” says Gaetano-Adi, who is particularly interested in creating what she terms “Embodied Artificial Life” artworks.
She and Crembil named the prototype they made for the TZ’IJK project Mestizo. It recalls the Mayan myth that the gods made several false starts in creating man, including making him out of mud, which led to a sightless, bumbling creature.
Once the artists have full funding for the project, they plan to make several mud-covered robotic spheres of varying sizes that will shake, move and rock, once again combining high-tech with low-tech.
TZ’IJK is already getting exposure. Mestizo was one of 10 finalist projects in the fifth Electronic Arts and Video Transitio_MX Festival: Biomediations last fall. Gaetano-Adi and Crembil presented a paper, “Mestizo Robotics,” which describes the work they did to create the prototype, at the Re-New Digital Art Festival in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“The idea of mestizo as a blending of races applies to our approach to robotics in art,” Gaetano-Adi says. “We’re using indigenous processes to create autonomous robots, blending craft and technology, traditional and modern, small-science and big-science.”
On the opposite end of the art-technology spectrum, UNT alumnus Marcus Young, who received Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in ceramics and sculpture, is using technology to evaluate art.
When Young came back to teach at his alma mater in 2012, it was not in the College of Visual Arts and Design, but as an assistant professor of materials science and engineering. A strong interest in fundamentally understanding the materials used in art led Young to pursue a doctorate in materials science and engineering.
While earning his Ph.D. at Northwestern University, he worked in art conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago. When he returned to UNT, he collaborated with Dallas Museum of Art chief conservator Mark Leonard to undertake a similar project.
The museum has more than 400 American silver and silver-plated pieces from the late 19th century and 20th century. The makers often kept their manufacturing processes closely guarded secrets, and many are no longer in business.
To help the museum and current manufacturers know more about these processes, Young and graduate student Matthew Carl developed a novel technique using a focused ion beam system, which allows for the examination of a microscopic cross-section of the object.
The technique — which is being used for the first time on metal museum artifacts — makes it possible to image the plating thickness and the plating and base metal texture of a cross-section about 30 x 30 x 90 microns. A human hair is roughly 50 to 120 microns thick.
“It is not possible with the human eye to see where we took the sample, but it’s enough to get down to the underlying base metal,” Young says.
The FIB system also is equipped with a scanning electron microscope with electron backscattered diffraction and energy dispersive spectroscopy, which enables the researchers to see what materials the artist used to create the object and gives insight into how the base metal was processed and how the plating was applied, Young says.
So far, Young and Carl have completed analysis of about 10 objects, which include service items such as teapots and utensils. The project will take a few years to finish, says Young, whose art background gives him a greater understanding of the need for conservation science.
“In materials science, we can often section objects to make analysis easier. But, in conservation science, because of the value and uniqueness of the objects, analysis is limited to only a handful of non-destructive techniques,” he says. “This FIB technique offers one more powerful tool.”
Art and science often can be used together to help explore complex processes. Such was the idea behind an exhibition conceived by Guido Verbeck, associate professor of chemistry, and Andrew DeCaen, associate professor of art. Verbeck’s study of chemical processes in metabolic disease and DeCaen’s artwork exploring the science of food overlap in addressing the issue of obesity.
From the scientific perspective, obesity can lead to metabolic disease. Educating those with these diseases, such as diabetes, can be difficult since it’s not easy for a layperson to understand the science behind what triggers the diseases and makes them progress.
To help with that, Verbeck and DeCaen proposed a collaboration that educated College of Visual Arts and Design students through a series of lectures about metabolic processes and disorders and invited them to interpret the disease through a juried art exhibition. Verbeck opened up his lab to the art students, who were encouraged to ask questions of chemistry students in order to develop ideas for their artworks.
“It was exciting to see so much exchange of ideas,” DeCaen says. Twenty-nine of 43 artworks submitted were displayed in November 2013 at UNT on the Square. The work varied from prints to sculptures, photographs, drawings and more, and the winning students received UNT scholarships.
While science is objective, art can be more subjective and allows for interpretation of concepts in a variety of ways, says Jon Vogt, a second-year graduate printmaking student. His prints showing the complexity of metabolism in the body and the vast number of intricate information systems at work won one of the Best of Show prizes.
Seeing an exhibition that mixed science and art was a way to start a conversation about a topic that might not otherwise be addressed, says Aaron Flynn, a second-year graduate ceramics student who replicated the process of diabetes in his Best of Show ceramics piece.
For Caitlin Odneal, the Best of Show winner whose photos depict sugar crystals under a microscope, the outreach to the community was important, but she also was grateful for the opportunity to show in the exhibition.
“This is what I want to do in my career — mix science and art, maybe working for a hospital,” says the senior photography student.
The sentiment of uniting the arts with science and technology is one echoed by students and faculty across campus, says CEMI director May.
“Working with technology gives artists a chance to collaborate in more ways than ever before,” he says. “This is a changing environment — and a very exciting place to be.”
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