"Emergence – Art & Artificial Life"
Beall Center for Art + Technology visitors shine flashlights as part of an interactive installation during the "Emergence – Art & Artificial Life" exhibit in winter 2010.

Art is often described as “cutting-edge.” But UC Irvine’s Beall Center for Art + Technology is beyond that. It’s on the “bleeding edge,” according to Antoinette LaFarge, associate dean for graduate affairs at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and associate professor of digital media.

She should know. She’s been with the center from the beginning.

This fall — 10/10/10 to be exact — the center will celebrate 10 years of redefining gallery and exhibition space by merging art and technology.

Being on the edge, however, can often mean being misunderstood — at least until others catch up.

In 2000, LaFarge and Robert Nideffer, studio art professor, curated the center’s first show, “Shift-Ctrl,” which focused on computers, games and art.

“It was the first in the country to take computer gaming seriously – showing that games and art are not separate,” LaFarge says.

The exhibit took place during a very different time. “In 2000, the major media and cultural climate were portraying computer games as bad and violent,” she says. “So to dedicate an inaugural show to gaming as art was a huge risk — and quite visionary.”

Visionary indeed. A decade later, popular culture has changed dramatically, and universities — including UCI — have begun to make gaming an academic field of study.

Promoting new forms of creative expression is part of the center’s mission. Rockwell Corp. funded the facility in honor of retired Chairman Don Beall and his wife, Joan, the core idea being to merge their lifelong passions — business, engineering and the arts — in one place.

The center is a web of invisible electronic infrastructure: Electrical outlets are everywhere, and it’s “networked to the max,” according to LaFarge. The windowless black box is a perfect platform for the extraordinary endeavors showcased there.

Visitors have been invited to challenge their perceptions through luminous, intelligent blimps (“ALAVs 2.0,” by Jed Berk, 2007); everyday objects transformed into roving electronic beings that respond to human attention (“EX-I-09,” by Shih Chieh Huang, 2009); instruments that need no musicians (“LEMUR,” by Eric Singer, Jeff Feddersen, Milena Iossifova, Bil Bowen and Luke DuBois, 2005); and interactive video dancing (“Active Space: Interactive Videodance,” by Lisa Naugle and John Crawford, with Frederic Bevilacqua, 2004). Such highly acclaimed artists as Nam June Paik and Jennifer and Kevin McCoy have also had shows at the Beall.

Because of the exhibits’ unconventional approaches and materials, “there’s been a resistance to this kind of work,” says David Familian, the center’s artistic director and curator. He’s trying to change that with the pieces he selects for exhibition. “First of all, I want it to look like art — not just technology. It’s not ‘Gee whiz, look what this thing can do,'” he says.

In addition, Familian titles exhibits without referencing technology to avoid any preconceptions. He wants people to be open to the work, not distracted by the latest electronic gadgetry or gimmickry. Calling an exhibit “Live” or “Emergence” leaves a lot of room for imagination and interpretation.

“The tension is always between not having the technology overpower the concept and the visual quality of the work,” Familian says. “Technology expands the expressivity of what you’re doing, but what you’re doing is the same thing that every artist does: You’re manipulating materials to create meaning.

“It’s like photography was in the 1970s. Museums were not showing photography. They had departments that would separate photography from the rest of the arts. Now there’s more integration. We’re striving toward that. It can be done — it just takes time.”

Eleanore Stewart, the center’s director from 2004 to 2009, reflects on what has already been accomplished there: “Over the last 10 years, the Beall Center played a critical role in the emerging field of digital arts by providing the advanced technical space and support to exhibit work when other U.S. museums and galleries could not.”

Involving the surrounding community is also part of the center’s mission. By hosting “Family Days” for each exhibit, the center encourages audiences of all ages to open their minds to the media arts with child-friendly activities related to the art.

“The best part for me was the opportunity to work with so many wonderfully imaginative artists and to see the faces of visitors light up in amazement when they saw the exhibitions,” Stewart says.

To kick off the one-decade celebration, artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer will show his “Pulse Room” and “Pulse Index” for the first time in the U.S. at the Beall Center. The opening reception will take place 6-9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 30, and the exhibit runs through Jan. 22. A free “Experimental Media Art Festival” also marks the center’s 10-year anniversary 1-8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 10, with music, exhibits and activities for all ages.

Lozano-Hemmer’s work has been exhibited internationally, including at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. His “Pulse” installations incorporate sensors that detect participants’ heartbeats, to which lights, shadows and water are then synchronized. Quite literally, visitors become the art.

Just as you’d expect from an art center on the “bleeding edge.”

Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 3, Iss. 1