ART+TECHNOLOGY LABSJune 30th, 2010
An ON SCREEN Research Report
By Adrian MacDonald
911 Seattle Media Arts Center is reinventing itself as a set of laboratories for innovative projects in media, with 3 distinct components: the Moving Image Lab (film and video), the Next Generation Lab (education), and the Art + Technology Lab/911 Media Arts Gallery. By way of due diligence, we researched 3 more laboratories in Seattle exploring the bleeding edge of art and technology.
University of Washington’s DX Arts
Now in its fifth year of existence after securing a special initiative grant from the University of Washington, DX Arts is arguably the nation’s premiere institution for experiments and research in mixing art and science. With a full-service fabrication shop in Fremont, lavishly fitted classrooms on campus, and course sequences in video, sound, mechatronics, and 3D technology, the program is known for educating students equally to be scientists, technologists, and artists. It has also been one of the first worldwide to pioneer the idea of a PhD not in art history or criticism, but in art creation.
“It’s about creating good art and good science, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do,” says Assistant Professor James Coupe. “The work of scientists is inherently poetic, but their output is not so. It doesn’t translate into an experience. For artists to claim they are mixing art and science, they must take the outcomes of science and translate that into an experience where science ends and the artist begins.”
Faculty projects include director Shawn Brixey’s Altamira (2004), in which he developed a pair of neuro-prosthetic goggles that trigger phosphenes—the little specs we see when we close our eyes—based on radio waves recorded by astronomers from pulsars at the edge of the Universe. The result is a cosmic/biological work of art viewed literally inside the “mind’s eye.”
Coupe, originally educated in Cambridge, England, created (re)collector (2007) for a Cambridge arts festival in which he placed ten video cameras throughout the city programmed to capture street scenes only when they randomly aligned to match scenes in classic old movies like Vertigo and Blow Up. The scenes were then processed through an artificial intelligence engine to create a new composite story based on the images, which he then projected back to the city. Coupe says as the installation continued over the course of a week and people got wise to the locations of the cameras, they began acting out scenes on purpose. “It became this parallel reality,” he says. “Is it reality or is it performance?”
Images from James Coupe’s (re)collector
The artists of DX Arts exhibit worldwide, but have difficulty finding appropriate venues in Seattle for their work. In February, professors Juan Pampin, Eunsu Kang, and Joel Kollin showed the piece Entanglement as a joint exhibition between the 911 Media Arts Gallery and SOIL Gallery in Pioneer Square. The piece connected the two spaces more than a mile apart by an ultrasonic sound beam, enabling sounds from each gallery to intermingle in an audible feedback loop.
“We’ve had our cinema work shown at SIFF, and at the Northwest Film Forum,” Coupe adds, addressing the video aspect of the program. “But a lot of times the appropriate output might not be cinema. It could be Internet, or viral video.”
Best known as a creator of “fire art,” Hazard Factory founder Rusty Oliver is quick to disassociate himself from the ranks of artists who typically show at Burning Man. Oliver began creating art while a student at Evergreen College some 10 years ago, when he started hanging around the metal shop to build components for West African percussion instruments. From there, he picked up welding and metalworking, and found there was no turning back from a certain kind of sculpture-based, do-it-yourself, interactive art that seeks to challenge audiences to be more socially conscious and engaged.
Hazard Factory’s Fire on the Duwamish
Oliver has done several pieces involving the use of fire in various capacities—including Conversation With An Open Flame, a row of pipes that lets off flame in time to music, creating a visual representation of sound in fire. But Hazard Factory is also the creator of Power Tool Races, in which teams of ad-hoc engineers create and race modified Skilsaws, drills, sanders, lawn edgers, and any other potentially hazardous electrically powered object they can get their hands on. All of Hazard Factory’s art relates to danger in some way, though Oliver sees people’s greatest fears being related to social interaction.
“It’s minor chances that you take like saying hello to somebody or responding to a phone call or an email, putting yourself out there—those are the kind of things that we as a society should be doing more of,” he says. “We had one gal come, and she raced a Skilsaw she called ‘Lady Safety,’ which was really legitimately dangerous. I mean it’s a Skilsaw with like rollerblade wheels and it’s going about 30 miles per hour. And it was the best time she’d had I think, perhaps in her entire life. And it’s actually developed something of a cult following, so we’re expecting her back this year.
Hazard Factory’s Georgetown workshop space serves as a hub for a loosely structured group of people interested in creating projects with welders, electronics, and other second hand heavy industrial equipment. Oliver’s active roster includes some 30 people, but he says the network of people his group can consult with and involve in a project is vast.
“I don’t know how it works in other areas,” Oliver says. “But in Seattle if you’ve been doing this kind of stuff, and you’ve got an idea for something you want to do, and there are people you’ve been collaborating with in the past, you can rally a lot of people really quickly for something.”
Last New Year’s, Oliver orchestrated a private show at the Hackabot Labs involving road flares, oil drums, and the singularly spectacular destruction of an old Mercedes.
“When you put a car in front of an audience and they suddenly understand that you’re going to destroy the car?” he says. “All hell breaks loose. Every single time.”
Hazard Factory at the Robodock festival in Amsterdam.
Finding Hackabot Labs, an underground collective devoted to do-it-yourself art and technology projects, is not easy. Founder and organizer Eric Johanson specifically doesn’t want to be found. “We don’t need more people,” he says, and expresses apprehension about speaking to a magazine journalist.
Finding nothing about the group on Google, On Screen asked around at Saturday House, another collective of technology heads with a space on First Avenue South. Finally tracking down the elusive Hackabot Labs location via several phone calls and referrals, we were tentatively welcomed to their non-descript, nearly invisible industrial warehouse in south Seattle, as an amiable crowd of individuals alternately tinkered at bench tops and passed around last week’s experiment – a somewhat foul-tasting jug of severely fruit-infused vodka. When at first we didn’t find Johanson at the space, he later strode up and surprised us. “I heard you were here,” he said, eerily.
911 Media’s ties to the Dorkbot organization may have smoothed matters, as we were treated to demonstrations of Hackabot members’ creations, such as a “compass belt,” a ring of old cell phones set to vibrate in the direction of north. “After wearing this for a while you start to get this weird sense of direction,” the creator told us. In another project, a woman was in the process of teaching herself to solder metal decorations around the outside of eggshells.
The group’s most ambitious collaborative project currently is a self-piloting high-altitude glider and balloon they intend to load with cameras and fly to 100,000 feet, capturing images of blue sky against black space. Their first attempt a year ago made it to 10,000 feet, but lost contact and has yet to be found, residing somewhere in a 40-square mile area somewhere in Washington State with its payload of hi-res digital cameras. While not fully successful, the project was featured in the magazine Make and lasted longer than expected. The new version includes a data transmitter to send images back remotely, as well as a compass and GPS. Like scientists, they are documenting their work to make it open and repeatable, and are freely releasing all the software they write.
“We’re working on the challenges of high altitude,” says one member. “It has to be insulated for minus 60 degrees Celsius.” Testing the glider will involve a homemade liquid nitrogen test chamber.
“The idea is not to publicize the [Hackabot] space,” the member adds. “We just give people the means to do stuff themselves. We have a group mentality, but we also do well on our own.” Leaving the space in the dark of night in a rainstorm, On Screen felt unsure how to return.