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Spotlight on arts-technology collaborative

STANFORD -- A steep wall gradually rises on the left of the walkway at the same time that steps are slowly growing out of the ground on the right. Turn the corner past one marble column and a pathway opens up -- only to disappear a day or two later as the maze of 25 computer-controlled columns shifts yet again.

That's a glimpse of public sculpture of the future, courtesy of the newly formed Stanford Arts and Technology Initiative (SATI). One of five interactive art exhibits on display in a black-draped room next to the Nitery Theater in the Old Union, "25 Columns" takes visitors on a scale-model stroll through whimsical plazas of the 21st century. Designed by mechanical engineering graduate student Mark Scheef, the ever-changing columns project two days of artistic ups and downs in a telescoped one-minute period.

Visitors with a secret longing to improvise stories with virtual puppets can see their plots and characters take shape on screen at another interactive stop in the SATI exhibit. "Animated Puppets" is the brainchild of Barbara Hayes-Roth, a senior research scientist in computer science who programmed the mood, voice and behavior choices for the puppets with her own two children in mind.

"Invisible Cities" flickers on screen in one corner of the exhibit room, documenting a number of ballets that were choreographed for human dancers and computerized robots at Stanford from 1978 to 1985. Coordinated by Professor Larry Leifer and Gayle Curtis of the mechanical engineering design division, the retrospective of dance performance includes a musical score by Michael McNabb and choreography by Brenda Way. Also on screen is a documentation of "Ephemeral Ceremony: Essential Epiphanies," the performance installation that premiered at Memorial Auditorium on May 16-18.

Visual artists and aspiring wordsmiths may gravitate to "Goddess Continuum," a multimedia space created by poet Edith Smith, in conjunction with her husband, Leland, music professor emeritus. Using traditional iconography of goddesses from many historical periods, Smith has worked her poetic salutes into computer-generated imagery that is stimulated when approaching viewers set off motion sensors.

"The computer-generated art works are the equivalent of the finest paintings," says Charles Lyons, the Margery Bailey Professor of English and Dramatic Literature and chair of SATI. "And more and more in the arts community there's the feeling that we need to tie into this new technology and open up to this new art."

The SATI exhibit is offered in conjunction with the drama department's production of Real Original Thinker on stage at the Nitery. The exhibit, open from noon to 1 p.m. and from 7 to 10 p.m. May 31 to June 2, and again from 1 to 4 p.m. on June 3 and 4, is the first interactive introduction to the work of the recently formed arts and technology collaborative. Last fall 50 faculty, graduate students and staff members from drama, engineering, computer science, English, psychology, art, education and the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) answered an electronic call for an initial meeting and SATI was launched.

In January, SATI members broke off into three focus groups. The Praxis Group, co- chaired by Hayes-Roth and Michael Ramsaur, professor of drama, has been looking at how new technologies can be incorporated in the production of works of art, including performance. The Resource Group, chaired by Larry Friedlander, professor of English, quickly became a de facto clearinghouse of information for faculty interested in using technology to teach existing works of art. And the Theory Group, chaired by Lyons, was charged with identifying and developing analytical structures that could be helpful in understanding the so- called "new art."

"Just as there was resistance to the development of wood engravings by 15th- century easel painters, there's bound to be resistance to computer-generated art today," says Lyons. "Some artists feel that once you master the digital media, which are in many ways very difficult to master, you don't have that hand-eye creative product that comes from shaping a work, and they say you lose something in the process.

"But there are others of us who look at the facility you gain with the new technologies, and who think that the more you stimulate and experiment and expand the imagination, the more exciting the resulting art becomes."

Lyons says that the interactive possibilities between a work in progress and an audience are particularly exciting for performance artists. At one recent SATI meeting, that potential was explored by Michael Naimark of Interval Research, a Palo Alto firm that specializes in media arts research, who showed a video of his performative installation, "Bar Code Hotel." Chairs, tables and various objects in a gallery space were liberally covered with bar codes that were assigned to computer-generated patterns that appeared on huge monitors on the walls. As visitors to the installation manipulated sensors, disguised as pens, they created new art works that continually changed shape and configuration.

"We're now at the edge of being able to apply technology which will allow performers to change the visual environment in which they are working at will," says Lyons. "On campus CCRMA [pronounced karma] is the model we look to, to show us what is possible when there is collaboration between the arts and sciences.

"Given our connection with Silicon Valley and the university's emphasis on science and technology, the small but dedicated band of people we have in the fine arts has done wonderful things -- with more to come."


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