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03/28/2003 08:00:00

Art, Science, Engineering Unite in Art Exhibit

PASADENA, Calif. —Art, science, and engineering are intersecting in a unique art exhibit by the California Institute of Technology and Art Center College of Design. The NEURO project artworks are on display at both campuses April 15 to June 29.

Organized by Caltech's National Science Foundation-funded Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering (CNSE) and Art Center's Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, the project connects six contemporary artists with the science, technology and people of CNSE.

The artists and researchers have been involved in a year-long collaboration and the fruits of their labor can be seen at the Caltech Athenaeum, 551 S. Hill Ave., Pasadena, a private club that is welcoming the public to its lobby for this special exhibit, and the Williamson Gallery, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena. An opening reception will be Sunday, April 13, from 4 to 7 p.m. A free shuttle will connect the two venues. The public is invited.

At CNSE, scientists and engineers work to translate our understanding of biologic systems into a new class of electronic devices that imitate the ways humans and animals sense and make sense of the world. The goal is to enable the machines of the future to interact with, learn from, and adapt to their environment with flexibility equivalent to that of living creatures. The center's work is cross-fertilized by researchers in a wide variety of fields, including systems neurophysiology, psychophysics, computational neurobiology, microelectronics and micromachining, optoelectronics, learning theory and pattern recognition, control, locomotion, sensory-driven autonomous behavior and systems. The main testbeds of the center are human-machine interfaces, autonomous vehicles, and neuroprosthetics.

"The National Science Foundation encourages us to make our science and technology accessible to everyone," said Pietro Perona, director of the center and professor of electrical engineering. "Through the work of talented artists we can reach people who may feel intimidated by our scientific lingo. We also hope to be able to look at our work with new eyes: artists can provide us with fresh insight into the meaning of what we do." Perona, whose investigations are in human vision, has studied the way in which artists organize visual material.

At Art Center, Williamson Gallery director Stephen Nowlin has emphasized the common borderlines of art and science through a decade-long series of crossover exhibitions. Artists who use digital and interactive technology in their work have been featured in such shows as "Digital Mediations" (1995), "Telematic Connections" (2001), and "GHz: The Post-Analog Object in L.A." (2002), while the subject of mathematics was surveyed in Charles and Ray Eames' "Mathematica" (2000) and astronomical observations by artist/astronomer Russell Crotty formed the gallery's contribution to the 2001 citywide "Universe" festival.

Says Nowlin, "Science and technology are undermining many of our established social and intellectual conventions, and as a result human culture is moving toward new definitions, opportunities, and dilemmas. Such a nexus of change always beckons artists, and the collaborative nature of this project combines contemporary science and art into works that are uniquely about and of this new century."

The artists and scientists participating in NEURO include Perona and Nowlin; Ken Goldberg, artist and professor of industrial engineering and computer science, UC Berkeley; John Bender, a graduate student in the bioengineering lab of Michael Dickinson, Caltech; Ilan Lobel and Karl Chen, undergraduates in industrial engineering and operations research, and electrical engineering and computer science, respectively, UC Berkeley; Martin Kersels, artist and co-director of the art program at California Institute of the Arts; Peter Schröder, professor of computer science and applied and computational mathematics, Caltech; Jennifer Steinkamp, media artist and UCLA faculty; Al Seckel, researcher in illusions, perception, and cognitive science; Simon Penny, professor of arts and engineering, and director of the arts, computation and engineering graduate program, UC Irvine; mechanical engineering postdoctoral scholar Malcolm MacIver from Joel Burdick's robotics and bioengineering lab, Caltech; Jeffrey Ridenour, graduate student in artificial intelligence, School of Information and Computer Science, UC Irvine; Jessica Bronson, video artist and California Institute of the Arts faculty; Bill Bell, light artist; artist/architect Christian Möller, UCLA department of design/media arts; Sean Crowe, software engineer; Pierre Moreels, Caltech graduate student in electrical engineering; Javier Movellan and Marni Bartlett, the Machine Perception Laboratory at the UC San Diego's Institute for Neural Computation; Shinsuke Shimojo, biology professor, Caltech, and Luis Goncalves, idealab!

A series of NEURO artists' presentations and discussions will take place at Caltech. On May 27, artists Steinkamp, Bronson, and Möller will present their work. On June 3, a panel discussion, "Issues at the Intersection of Art and Science," will include Penny; MacIver; Jill Andrews, assistant to the provost for educational outreach, Caltech; Nowlin; David Kremers, presentation artist in biology, Caltech; and others. Each presentation will take place at the Beckman Institute Auditorium at Caltech, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. For event details, call (626) 395-8522.

Worldwide, a number of institutions are embracing the work of artists whose departure from the tenets of 20th-century modernism is marked by their use of computer-based technology that allows spectators and artworks to interact.

Some of this "media art" received support from computer trade-shows, and was slowly acknowledged in art museums and educational institutions. Now, a number of museums and galleries recognize that as art changed in response to the industrial revolution and scientific discoveries at the end of the 19th century, art is changing as a function of the developments leading from the late 20th-century's digital revolution to 21st-century science. Beyond technology itself, artists are engaging with newly emerging social and intellectual implications as science questions many of humankind's fundamental perceptions and conventions of thought.

To accommodate this new art, hybrid institutions have begun to emerge such as ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, ARS Electronica Museum, in Linz, Austria, the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo, Eyebeam in New York, and Hexagram in Montreal, all institutions that merge the study of culture and technology with new developments in art and science. And, as noted in the March/April 2002 issue of Museum News, the journal of the American Association of Museums, Art Center's Williamson Gallery is among a handful of "early adopter" institutions that have embraced the enterprise of art/science/technology, including also New York's Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

While largely the product of affordable computer-based technologies that are also affecting worldwide change, the current art/science interface is preceded by a longer history, one extending at least to the late 1960s and the worldwide Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) movement originated by artist Robert Rauschenberg and engineer Billy Kluver. Caltech had its own version of E.A.T. in the early 70s, and was host to a number of artist/scientist pairings. In a sense, the NEURO project is a return to that moment of inspiration from over thirty years ago, when it was acknowledged that a spark of unexpected creativity can result for both art and science if each discipline is encouraged to stimulate the other.

NEURO is supported in part by the Engineering Research Centers Program of the NSF, through CNSE at Caltech. Williamson Gallery exhibitions are funded in part by grants from the Pasadena Art Alliance and the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation.

Williamson Gallery, Art Center, is open Tuesday-Sunday, 12 to 5 p.m., Friday, 12 to 9 p.m. Closed Mondays, holidays. Installations by the Bronson, Goldberg/Perona, Kersels/Shröder, Möller, and Penny/MacIver teams. Details: (626) 396-2446. The Athenaeum lobby, Caltech, is open Monday-Friday, 12 to 5 p.m. Closed weekends and holidays. The Steinkamp team is installed there. For details, call CNSE, (626) 395-8522. The NEURO website is at

MEDIA CONTACT: Jill Perry, Media Relations Director (626) 395-3226

Written by Jill Perry