Parachutes and box fans were suspended from the ceilings. Laser cutouts of animals were hanging from a fan and spinning around continuously, and the artist described them as “collaged cybernetic mythological creatures.”
These were just a few of the bizarre and interesting elements of Lile Stephens’ exhibit “Aesthetic Conditions.”
Stephens, an MFA student who incorporates computer science into his art, is an example of the change that has been occurring in the arts at UNC. Students are no longer confined to basic clay sculpture or a paint brush — they can now incorporate technology into their work and use different devices to enhance it.
“The hardware is what I’ve been most interested in, as opposed to creating a video work and editing it and that being the piece,” Stephens said.
And Stephens isn’t the only student in the art department who is branching out away from traditional art forms to combine two disciplines. Jack Twiddy, a junior studio art and philosophy double major, bought his own 3-D printer used for $750 as a way to teach himself about sculpture and computer-assisted design programs before applying to graduate school for architecture.
Twiddy, who has traditionally been a painter, said he has wanted a 3-D printer since he was 12 years old because it’s a way to translate the digital world into the physical world.
“I wanted to understand and wanted to do as much of the process by myself as possible,” Twiddy said. “But, moreover, it gives us more control over the process just because by understanding the tools and technology, it gives us an idea of what’s possible to do with it and allows us to better work with and manipulate the resources available to us.”
Twiddy said understanding the computer softwares behind 3-D printing has been one of the most difficult parts of the process. Once he sketches the design of a sculpture, he has to model it using computer programs called Blender and ZBrush. Then he uses another program to turn the model into digital instructions for the printer to follow, which are called a stereolithograph file.
These instructions cut the model into flat layers, and then the printer creates the 3-D sculpture — layer by layer.
Both Stephens and Twiddy said that as art grows or coincides with available technology, artists are going to manipulate these new resources to create their vision. Both of the students said they haven’t taken courses at UNC to learn about the different technologies they use to create their art.
Jim Hirschfield, chairman of the art department, said the department is always trying to incorporate technology in new ways so that students can carry out their ideas. The art department offers courses in laser cutting, video and digital photography.
“We teach students the opportunities that are out there, and students will discover their own opportunities as well,” Hirschfield said. “We want to teach people not just about the medium, but how to think about using what’s out there.”
Hirschfield said that the department will provide technologies when they would be too expensive for students to access or purchase themselves. He said Twiddy, for example, didn’t need the department to provide a 3-D printer for him because he was interested in having one.
“Our job then is to have Jack bring back to the classroom what he has accomplished and for the faculty to talk about the work aesthetically, talk about the work conceptually, what are his ideas, how well are they working,” Hirschfield said. “Hopefully we are able to teach people to explore possibilities, and they will discover the technologies on their own.”
Hirschfield said that the technologies that aren’t easily available to people are the types of things the University will invest in. The art department has a laser cutter located in Hanes Art Center, and also purchased a Computer Numeric Control router about a year ago for students to use in computer assisted design.
The CNC router, which costs about $50,000, is located in the Art Lab on Airport Drive. Stephens said he took a local workshop to teach himself how to use it and hopes to continue working with it in the future. Hirschfield said the department hopes to incorporate the machine into courses in the fall.
Similar to the 3-D printer, the machine cuts material into a programmed design created through computer software. Pat Day, manager of the Art Lab, said PlayMakers Repertory Company uses a CNC to create and design sets.
Day said students were a large part of why the department purchased the CNC router. But he said incorporating technology like this into coursework might take time because not only does it introduce a new way of creating — it also introduces a new way of teaching.
“The interest is there, and we do have the equipment, but we’ve also got to teach all the other aspects of creating,” Day said. “Unless the artist could think of something really cool to make, (the technology) won’t matter.”
Day’s idea introduces a troubling question for artists that even Twiddy expressed: Will the definition of an artist change if the art is no longer coming directly from physical execution and a relation to the work? Twiddy said there is always a worry that viewers will see the work as “cheating” if it was the product of machinery and not the artist’s own hands.
Day said that the artist still has to conceive the idea and the process is always going to change with technology. Twiddy said that when artists truly understand the medium with which they are working, then they can never be accused of “cheating.”
“Art is an interesting technology,” Hirschfield said. “Visual art is not just the hand, it’s also the eye. Someone may have a vision, and the best way to create that vision is through technology.”
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