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Wiring the muse Technology's a stage—and canvas and score—for some Skidmore artists
Artists employ a wide palette of digital tools
Ever since computer technology went user-friendly in the mid-1980s, artists of all stripes have been drawn to it like pixels to a processor. Well, those might not be the right terms, but nowadays you don’t have to know your bytes from your browsers to boot up, log on, and start creating.
Skidmore artists make plentiful use of all the cool hardware and hot software out there, not only to make their art but also to research, organize, present, and archive it. Below are some of the ways they’re harnessing technology to energize their various muses—you can even try your own hand by hunting up their Web sites.
SETTING THE STAGE
At the heart of theater, whether Sophocles or Stoppard, lies the immutably low-tech element that Prof. Carolyn Anderson describes as “the dynamic of a real actor in a real room—that natural current between actor and audience.” So not surprisingly “the actor’s life is very little changed by new technology,” says David Yergan, Bernhard Theater’s manager and technical director. But for designers like him, there’s digital wizardry galore.
Garett Wilson, the theater’s assistant technical director, uses Google Sketchup to rough out his set-design concepts. The program creates a 3-D virtual model whose size, shape, and color scheme Wilson can alter on the spot to suit a director’s input. For the more detailed architectural renderings that Wilson needs to actually build the sets, he turns to a computer-aided design (CAD) program.
Even more dramatic programs are available for lighting and sound. Yergan uses one called Isadora to mix and project still images, sound, recorded video, and live video feeds, and to add nearly limitless special effects. “If an actor is talking about how his house burned down, we can combine a still of a house with a video of fire,” he explains. “We can create the sound of a wind coming from over there, and the sound of children laughing from right here—all automated. The stage manager calls a cue, and the operator hits a button.” It’s just that easy nowadays, says Wilson, because “Isadora lets us digitize and link together very complex sequences of individual cues— such as a video projection, voices, music—so they can all happen at the touch of one button.”
Software can even put tiny actors onstage, as in games like Second Life or The Sims—“but that’s fake,” says Yergan. “You can’t create real light in a virtual world.” Nor can you replace actors or traditional theater tools, he points out; Skidmore
theater students learn SketchUp, but they still have to build scale models of their shows’ sets.
Some directors specialize in particularly inventive uses of technology, among them Elizabeth LeCompte ’67, founding member and director of New York City’s much-acclaimed Wooster Group. For Skidmore’s Carolyn Anderson, the role of technology on stage is “to expand on the text of
a play—to create atmosphere, to punctuate moments and sharpen them.” She adds, “You can create and shape sounds that you couldn’t a few years ago.” Her recent production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood featured audio of “laughing waves.” Poetics by Thomas, sound by Yergan.
DANCERS OPEN UP TO NEW MEDIA
Like actors, dancers are dedicated physical performers who literally embody their art. “When I take a dance class, video is not the first thing in my head,” says Melissa Ross ’10 dryly. But hang onto your warm-ups—new media is booming, both in the international dance world and in the Skidmore dance department. Faculty choreographers like Debra Fernandez mix and mash video, audio, music, and the spoken word to create powerful new dance works, and Skidmore students are following suit.
Last June Skidmore hosted a dance-world first: a new-media course oriented to dancers, conducted by the internationally renowned Martha Graham Dance Company as part of its summer campus
residency. Every day at 4:30 p.m., the workshop’s nearly forty students (including eleven Skidmore dancers like Ross) dashed in their practice sweats from the dance studio to the “media lab” (the Dance Theater’s green room, temporarily fitted out with Macintosh computers, videocams, and other gear) to work with New York City-based media expert Jaki Levy and Graham dancer-turned-video-artist Peter Sparling. Levy taught the apprentices to use software such as Photoshop, iDVD, and Final Cut Pro for editing, production, and display, while Sparling urged them to take ever-bolder risks with the scale, materials, and composition of their creations.
As fast as the dancers could video, Flickr, and blog about their progress, and about the company’s reconstruction of
Graham’s vintage Clytemnestra, their work went up on the ClytemnestraProject .com Web site, which the Graham company plans to use well into the future to educate and entice audiences.
In the workshop’s last days the students gave two showings of their Graham-inspired choreography, each show danced at Skidmore and also streamed live on the Internet. Projected as backdrops, the students’ surprisingly sophisticated videos featured jump cuts, startling color shifts, dancers flashing into and dissolving out of sight, and other heightening effects. (Saratoga Springs resident Christy Williams choreographed, performed, and produced one that’s on YouTube.)
“A dance video is only as good as the dance moves you’re shooting,” Sparling warned his students. But whatever their level of expertise, the new media gave even the beginners some unexpected glimpses of their own beauties, flaws, and possibilities.
NEW LAYERS IN VISUAL ART
“Technology is big in studio art,” says Prof. Kate Leavitt. A printmaker, Leavitt has an office printer that turns out lithographic plates; the fiber-arts studio has a computerized loom; 3-D modeling programs are used in sculpture and jewelry design; and in a space that looks more like a computer-science classroom than an art studio, faculty artist Deb Hall creates digital artworks on a Mac.
Using Adobe Illustrator and InDesign and the ubiquitous Photoshop, Hall can produce 40-by-30-inch artworks as lushly detailed as traditional paintings. But it’s not about painting, she says. “When I was getting my MFA I was told, ‘If you’re going to paint on a computer, just go and paint. If you’re going to use a computer, do what’s new on the computer.’”
What can an artist do with a computer that da Vinci and Picasso could not? Plenty. Hall scans in her own photos and drawings, adds bits of type and found objects, and digitally fuses them using Photoshop “layers,” which she says are “like panes of glass that you can combine, overlay, or use to change colors or to mask portions of another layer.” For a quick demonstration, she sits at a studio computer, pulls up a simple photo of a wire kitchen whisk and masks out half of it. Next she scans in a pencil scribble whose loopy lines suggest the way a whisk works, then pops a photo of a suburban house into the composition. She lightens the photo down to a ghost of itself and turns the sky red—now the photo looks like its own negative. Finally she makes the image really large and slides it behind the whisk, where it functions as a pastel-patterned background. Weirded-out house plus homey domestic tool: It adds up to way more than the sum of its pixels, and that’s just the demo.
THE SOUND, AND SOFTWARE, OF MUSIC
Musicians continue to push the envelope with wave after wave of electronic and digital experimentation, sophisticated recording and synthesizing equipment, innovative musical styles, and a burgeoning industry to boot. Long before the iPod Nano came along, digital technology was doing cool things in the world of sound, such as making music from scratch without a musical instrument in sight.
Such possibilities delight techies like Prof. Anthony Holland, a musician and composer of both traditional and electronic music, and his student Bryan Nielsen ’09. Last summer, with a Skidmore collaborative-research grant, the two revived an early sound-making program and the user-friendly tutorial written for it by Holland and Jon Ryan ’91. The original idea came out of Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics in the late 1980s, when Holland was a visiting composer there. The NeXt computers that ran the application ceased production in the mid-1990s and access was lost, until Holland and Nielsen succeeded at the Herculean task of resuscitating it in Java, a universal, open-source programming language.
Dubbed Bessie 3.0, the revived program can run “on any computer anywhere in the world,” says Holland proudly. (FYI, it’s called “Bessie” in honor of Bessel functions, the mathematical underpinnings of frequency modulation, better known as FM.) Released free on the Web this fall, Bessie is so easy to “play” that amateurs can create funky new notes ranging from bullfrog-deep to nearly dog-whistle highs. Bessie’s updated tutorial contains a sample of electronic music created by the pioneering sound genius John Chowning, who discovered FM synthesis. “I really wanted to get music out of this thing,” explains Nielsen, who is composing a self-determined major in computer-oriented arts from Holland’s music-technology class, computer science courses, and foundation arts like drawing and painting.
Reviving Bessie is an important contribution to the history of computer music, says Holland, who plans to compose some new electronic music on his next sabbatical. Nielsen adds that Bessie can also synthesize human speech: He clicks something and a dulcet female voice coos, “Hello, professor.” He says with a smile, “It’s great getting music from numbers.”
CREATIVITY BEHIND THE TOOLS
As seductive as techno-tools can be for artists, “it’s still the creative aspect that counts,” says Kate Leavitt. She reminds her students, “You can be a master of Photoshop and still make bad work.”
What state-of-the-art software can do brilliantly—besides enhance—is make easier the laborious processes of making music, dance, art, or theater. For instance, a character-animation application called Life Forms “lets you choreograph beyond your ability to dance,” says dance major Carly Goldstein ’10, who took the Graham new-media workshop. Such a program is a boon to aging choreographers like Merce Cunningham and those whose imagination outstrips their bodily ability to demonstrate strong new dance moves. Similarly, Nielsen says, computer programs can create timbres and sound textures never heard by human ears or sing notes that soar beyond the human vocal range—great stuff for composers to play with.
Nifty new tools can set off explosions of fresh creativity—think of medieval painters exploring the startling new glories of lapis-blue pigment or pioneering video artist Bill Viola visually tweaking the human condition. “Artists always ask, ‘What can I do with this new tool?’” says Leavitt. “The answers can be mind-boggling—and we’re just at the beginning.”