I’m standing before a wall-sized screen in a darkened corner of the Beall Center for Art + Technology. A blend of amorphous human figures in rainbow shades begins to take shape. Within minutes, I see my own silhouette emerging on the screen, first in ghostly white, then slowly changing color and blending into the forms of people who have come before me.

While the UCI venue’s “Embodied Encounters” exhibition feels like a cross between a really cool science center show and an interactive art display, it’s ultimately representative of a novel art movement that incorporates technology to express the 21st-century world. While the art-tech movement is not new, the growing presence of digital devices in everyday life has more artists pondering its power to elevate contemporary art and provide commentary on society and culture.

The piece that has me transfixed is entitled “Shadows of Light.” Created by Alex May, it comes to life via a screen, Xbox camera, computer and projector. The camera captures the outline of each viewer. The longer a person remains still, the more pronounced the image is in color and depth. However, the “paint” will start to drip, spread and merge with the traces of prior viewers.

I have difficulty extricating myself from the work, moving a few steps to the right and then to the left to see new images of myself appear on the screen. What is the piece saying? That I’m alone in the world? Indistinct from the masses? That we view each other in the broadest of terms, missing what individualizes us?

The docent accompanying me, a freshman drama student named Isaiah Tadros, smiles at my reaction. “It raises questions about everyday life, maybe suggesting that we should all slow down,” he says, noting that it requires a minute or two to see one’s silhouette appear on the screen and become vibrant with color. “All of these exhibits produce many different interpretations. Most of the people who come here say the show is really different than they thought it would be.”

Expanding the Possible

Part of the intrigue of blending art and technology is that it has few constraints. Even the name of the medium is open for discussion. Co-curator David Familian, artistic director of the Beall Center, calls it “expanded media arts.”

“To me, it’s not about what technology you’re using, because what you’re really doing is adding new possibilities to a medium,” says Familian, who has been curating for almost nine years, with a focus on digital technology and art. “It expands on what’s possible. But the work still has to be about something; the artist has to have an idea. If it’s just a gadget, that isn’t going deeper into what art needs to do.”

“You can contemplate a painting, but our world is no longer static. This art form reflects the complexity of the world we live in.”

Expanded media arts pieces can encompass three-dimensional printers, lasers, cameras or computers. The trend is here to stay, because technology is now inexorably linked to the human experience, says May, a London-based artist who created his own custom software for “Shadows of Light.”

“Technology provides radical new tools for artists to explore and experiment with,” he says. “Technology is a human creation; it’s a mirror reflecting our creativity and inventiveness, and that brings all the trappings of the best and worst aspects of humanity. This is not a new trend, of course. Artists have always explored the rough edges of humanity’s relationship to the universe we inhabit, as well as between ourselves.”

Some viewers find expanded media arts more compelling than contemplating a 19th-century impressionist landscape, Familian notes.

“I’m interested in works that engage all our senses, not just our eyes,” he says. “You can contemplate a painting, but our world is no longer static. This art form reflects the complexity of the world we live in.”

Tapping STEM Fields

The “Embodied Encounters” exhibition, which closed last month, featured works by seven contemporary artists from across the globe. “Cardiomorphologies,” a 2007 installation by Australian artist George Khut, creates geometric shapes through the viewer’s real-time heart and breath rate data. It comprises a floor-to-ceiling screen with video images that are controlled by the heartbeat and respiration of the participant, seated a few feet away in a comfortable leather chair and wearing a pulse oximeter on a fingertip.

Another display, from the Amsterdam-based duo of Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat, invites visitors to wear electroencephalogram headsets that measure brainwave activity. They either kiss or watch another couple kiss, as the data – the participants’ sensory perceptions – are displayed visually as EEG waves.

A previous exhibition at the Beall Center, in the spring of 2016, explored the interface between biotechnology and art and featured “necklaces” containing synthetic amino acids and bacteria that produced energy to run a musical synthesizer.

Usually, the artists possess a certain amount of technological know-how, Familian says. “They’re not saying, ‘I’m going to call up a scientist and engage with him a little bit and make some art.’ Most artists in this area have long-term relationships with researchers,” he explains. “It’s about knowing what your medium is. We expect painters and sculptors to know their medium as well.”

May taught himself to code at age 8 and says he’s equally attracted to art and technology. He recognizes, however, that not every artist has sufficient training in such fields as computer coding. Recently, he released an open-source digital art platform for anyone to use.

Artists are inspired by modern materials and feel free to tap into the expertise of people in other occupations to bring ideas to life, says Irish artist Rhona Byrne, who also exhibited in the “Embodied Encounters” show.

“In my work, I try to rethink the capacities of materials,” she says. “Technology has always impacted how art is made, as it opens up new potential for stretching ideas. I like to collaborate with people from different disciplines to push the possibilities. Combining knowledge, technology and skills can have really exciting outcomes.”

Younger artists and art students are not intimidated by technology and will have growing opportunities to blend art and technology. This is especially true for those in K-12 art-STEM classes , Familian says.

“Artists have always explored the rough edges of humanity’s relationship to the universe we inhabit, as well as between ourselves.”

“There are an increasing number of art programs around the country that teach computer programming and the creation of interactive artwork,” he says.

The trend is more popular in Europe, but shows pop up occasionally in the United States, with the Beall Center positioned as an ideal venue in which to explore the emerging medium. The spring 2016 exhibition featuring biotechnology was a joint effort of the Beall Center, the UCI Center for Complex Biological Systems and the campus’s Newkirk Center for Science & Society.

“We want to be the place people would come to see the way in which emerging arts are actually working,” says Stephen Barker, dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of Arts. “Our students are increasingly well-trained in their interfaces with technology. We have to make sure that, as a research arm of a research university, we stay one step ahead. We want to make the Beall Center not only a showcase but an academic program to create possibilities for the training of a new generation of artists working across metadisciplinary space.”

He encourages faculty from other disciplines, such as the STEM fields, to collaborate with the arts programs. It’s a myth, Barker says, that people can’t be logical, critical thinkers and also creative, accessing both the left brain and the right brain to reach new levels of intellectual productivity.

“We’re trying to be a catalyst for conversations between people who are not used to talking to each other but have common interests,” he says. “Everybody has this creative disposition, but it’s bred out of us. The School of the Arts is the place where you can rediscover it.”

Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of UCI Magazine