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February 9, 2004

Turning sound into art, DeMarinis brings to life 'hybrids of past and present'

By Theresa Johnston

Leave it to Paul DeMarinis to make a parking garage fun.

Ever since his interactive artwork Rebus was installed last fall at the entrance to Stanford Hospital's new underground lot on Pasteur Drive, the unusual piece has been eliciting both puzzled expressions and delighted smiles. Created in tandem with Stanford painter and printmaker Enrique Chagoya, Rebus consists of 20 square glass panels cross-stitched together and etched with pictures of things one might see on campus: ducks, birds, a bike, a cat, a horse, a frog, a bumblebee, a tennis racquet and a basketball, among others. When visitors enter or exit the garage at ground level on foot, they trigger sensor-activated recordings of the sounds the images would produce: the squeak of shoes on a court, the sound of a horse galloping or a cat's meow.

A similar DeMarinis work, Wavescape, recently was installed on the pedestrian bridge at Terminal 1 of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida. It plays sounds of ocean waves, people at the beach, seabirds, boats, a plane and other modes of transportation. The idea behind these works, DeMarinis says, is to wake people out of their normal thought patterns and get them to notice the space around them. "I really like making that connection with people," the award-winning electronic media artist explains as he sits in his campus studio, a cluttered old wooden shed near Campus Drive West. "If it brings them wonder, surprise and delight, I think it's a successful effort."

DeMarinis, who recently was promoted to associate professor of art, has been teaching studio courses on interactive and media art at Stanford since the spring of 2000. His love affair with sound goes all the way back to his boyhood in Cleveland, Ohio. The son of university-educated Italian immigrants, DeMarinis studied piano as a kid, but most of all he loved to tinker. The family attic, with its dusty collection of old shortwave radios and phonographs, was like a treasure trove to him.

"My mom showed me my baby book," the dark-eyed artist recalls, "and there was one entry that read: 'Only wants to play with electric switches and light bulbs.'" Fortunately, he adds, "she didn't try to inhibit it. I guest that's the most parents can do -- not mess up their children's interests."

DeMarinis started college in Ohio in the early 1970s as a music student, and then switched briefly to neuroscience before settling on an interdisciplinary major in electronic music and film at Mills College. After graduating with a Master of Fine Arts degree, he taught at Wesleyan University and served as an artist-in-residence at San Francisco's Exploratorium and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Between art gigs, he taught himself computer assembly language and worked as a programmer writing sound code for such pioneering video games as Looney Toons Hotel and Electric Yo-Yo.

Over the years, DeMarinis' public artworks have included large-scale interactive pieces at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and Expo 1998 in Lisbon. The Expo piece consisted of 20 falling streams of water that created music and sound when intercepted by visitors' umbrellas. His smaller installations have been featured in galleries and museums from Tokyo to New York. Perhaps his most famous work is The Edison Effect, in which lasers scanned old phonograph records, wax cylinders and holograms to produce music "at once familiar and distant," he explains, "like some faintly remembered melody running through the head."

Works by DeMarinis exhibited at Stanford in recent years have included Moondust Memories, a dimly lit piece that featured small lunar rovers accompanied by outer-space sounds, and Walls in the Air, which used an old Polish radio to intercept Cold War radio signals. One of DeMarinis' most elaborate works, The Messenger, was shown at the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts during the fall of 2001. It received e-mail and read it, one letter at a time, through some unusual alphabetic telegraph receivers: 26 talking wash basins, 26 dancing skeletons and 26 electronic jars with metal electrodes in the forms of letters.

"Paul works in a vein that other artists are not exploring," observes Shannon Trimble, assistant director of San Francisco's Braunstein/Quay Gallery, which is planning a spring exhibition of his work. She says DeMarinis reminds her of a scientist from a Hollywood movie. "He tinkers with things that most people hardly think about, bringing to life hybrids of past and present."

Hilarie Faberman, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Cantor Arts Center, agrees. "I've only heard wonderful things about him and his work from dealers and cognoscenti," she notes. "Stanford is very lucky to have him since I know he's been wooed by other universities."

This winter in the Department of Art and Art History, DeMarinis is teaching students how to make computer-based pieces that involve sensors, motors, video projection and sound. In the spring, he'll be teaching a course titled Media Archaeologies, in which students will create artworks based on Victorian-era inventions. He particularly enjoys the diversity of students who enroll in his classes -- not only art majors but students from product design and computer science as well. "When people are interested in technology," he observes, "they're not just interested in a steady paycheck. They have a real passion and a real depth of interest. They want to know how they can make something else besides more soon-to-be-obsolete products."

In addition to his teaching duties, DeMarinis is hard at work on his newest creation, Firebirds, in which the recorded voices of dictators from the mid-1930s -- Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini -- emanate from gas flames trapped in a collection of birdcages. It and numerous other DeMarinis works -- both puzzling and delightful -- will be shown at the Braunstein/Quay Gallery from April 21 through May 22. For more information, visit the web at



John Sanford, News Service: (650) 736-2151,

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