UCR Magazine The Magazine of UC Riverside

Spring 2015

Past Issues

Colliding Worlds: When Art, Science and Technology Meet at UC Riverside

Michelle Woo

Across campus, scholars are breaking out of their labs and studios to form a spirograph of unexpected connections, solving historical mysteries, inventing solutions for the future and stretching perceptions of what is possible.

An astrophysicist, a music composer and a college student are sitting at a table. It may sound like the setup for a bad punchline, but at UC Riverside, scholars understand that such scenes are the breeding grounds for innovation and discovery.

On this afternoon, the composer is Tim Labor, who is marking up pages of sheet music with a pencil.

3 three posing for photo.

Astronomy postdoc Mario De Leo Winkler (left) and music professor Tim Labor (center) are helping undergrad student Ryan Straka with his thesis, a musical composition based on colliding universes.

“So we’re inside the cloud watching the stars double in number,” the associate professor of music says, his eyes following the roller coaster of tiny black symbols.

Beside him are Mario De Leo Winkler, a UC MEXUS postdoctoral researcher in the Physics and Astronomy Department, and Ryan Straka, a fourth-year music major. The three are working on Straka’s thesis project — a musical composition that represents the merging of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy. De Leo Winkler’s role is to ensure that the sonification is scientifically sound. He guides the student with charts, graphs, equations, photographs, NASA articles and research papers on the galactic collision. Labor is there to help make sure the piece, which will be performed for the public this fall, conveys the magic of the spectacular event. “I’m the poetics consultant,” he says.

The purpose of the project is multifaceted. For the composers, it is to draw inspiration and connect with a power outside their own heads; for the scientist, it is to share astronomy with new audiences through the universal entry point of art. “It’s important for people to understand and have a picture of our modern universe,” says Straka, the first student to take on the unique interdisciplinary opportunity. “It’s the next frontier.”

Science vs. Art?

Science and art. For far too long, the disciplines have been painted as polar opposites in a clash between logic and passion. But it is misguided to believe that the two are mutually exclusive. At a time when the great connector of technology helps dissolve the boundaries of thought, when connections between scientists and artists occur, the outcomes are often more wildly impactful than either could have imagined on their own.

At UC Riverside, science and art are colliding like two far-off galaxies. Across campus, scholars are breaking out of their labs and studios, forming a spirograph of unexpected connections, solving historical mysteries, inventing solutions for the future and stretching perceptions of what is possible. Every day, you can see the merging of disciplines at work.

“There is a new energy being shared amongst certain humanists and scientists who are starting to explore in very open-ended ways the realities of overlap between the arts and the sciences,” says Jason Weems, an assistant professor of art history. “In terms of these crossovers, I believe the best is yet to come.”

Science and art were not always separate fields. The diverging roads certainly didn’t exist in the 15th and early 16th centuries when Leonardo da Vinci reigned as a master of both. The eventual birth of industrialization and specialization contributed to the division, but the line is finally fading once again as scientists and artists realize they make natural partners, both guided by what Weems describes as a “balance of human desires.”

“On one hand, there’s the desire of humanity to create knowledge and imagine the world as a knowable and containable thing,” he says. “At the same time, what drives both scientists and humanists is also the allure of the unknown. The notion that beyond the frontiers of our knowledge resides incredible possibility.”

Bonding Across Disciplines

Bust of Lorenzo de' Medici.

Face-recognition technology under development by UCR researchers recognized three-dimensional portraits of the same individual: a death mask and bust of 15th century Italian statesman Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Connections at UCR form through natural, open- ended conversation, which blooms through programs such as Science Studies Coffee Hour, an intimate forum where faculty, researchers and graduate students of all disciplines can delve into the areas of science, technology and medicine. The group — composed of scientists, science fiction writers and scholars of culture — has toured an artificial septic system in the Bourns College of Engineering, discussed new research on personhood and immunity, and read about innovations in rice production. “The world is becoming more and more techno-scientific, and we need new tools to grasp it, to make connections across the disciplines,” Dana Simmons, associate professor of history and a member of the group, says. “Scientists have deep technical expertise but may not be equipped to grasp the social impact or cultural factors shaping their research. Humanists understand social issues but may lack empirical knowledge. We want this to be a space for building new bridges.”

Scientists have deep technical expertise but may not be equipped to grasp the social impact or cultural factors shaping their research. Humanists understand social issues but may lack empirical knowledge. We want this to be a space for building new bridges.

Dana Simmons,
Assistant Professor, History

Sometimes, when those bonds are formed, the results are nothing short of revolutionary. Four years ago, art history Professor Conrad Rudolph was watching the news when he heard about facial recognition technology, a computer-based verification system being used in areas such as visa processing, forensic investigations and border control. Rudolph’s first thought: Why not use it to study portraiture? When he looked up a list of the nation’s experts on the Internet, he was surprised to find a name from his own campus: Amit Roy-Chowdhury, head of UCR’s video computing group. Rudolph sent over an email to his colleague and left it at that. “I never thought even for a minute that someone in computer engineering would spend time on this,” Rudolph says. But Roy-Chowdhury was willing to hear more, intrigued by the possibility of using his methods “in a very different application,” he says. He developed a program that learns to identify faces from their anatomical dimensions, such as the width of their noses, distance between their eyes or curvature of their eyebrows. The possible identification of figures such as Mary Queen of Scots and Galileo made headlines on The Economist, Gizmodo and NPR.

And in art history alone, Rudolph says, the technology has enormous potential. “It can be applied to craftsmanship in silverwork, to measure proportions of the human body, to analyze large bodies of works of art — for example, to compare Netherlandish art of the 15th century versus Italian Florentine art of the 15th century. ”

Through the collaboration, Roy-Chowdhury says he was surprised by the overlap in methodologies used by computer scientists and art history scholars. Rudolph’s set-up, essentially, is pretty much how statistical hypothesis testing is done. “It’s just represented very differently.”

Differences and Misconceptions

Yet the merging of disciplines isn’t always seamless. First, there’s the challenge of shattering deeply held perceptions that artists and scientists are different breeds belonging on opposite ends of the Myers-Briggs spectrum.

Last year, Victor Zordan, an associate professor of computer science and engineering who leads UCR’s video game design program, had an idea to launch an interactive art showcase. Here professional dancers and attendees could create control graphics for motion capture animation through their body movements. “Motion and dance — there’s obviously a lot of overlap,” Zordan says. But getting scholars on board with the project took some convincing. “A lot of students were scratching their heads, saying, ‘You want to do a dance project?’” he says, “Students turned it down because they didn’t want to be associated with the performance component of it. They just wanted to do video games.”

Circular building built into cliffside.

“Coastline Cliffside 22,” by art professor Amir Zaki from his 2013 exhibition “Time Moves Still.”

Once he did cobble together a team and submitted a proposal to the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art, the hard-to-categorize project was not granted funding. “There’s still a long way to go to get common acceptance and traction,” Zordan says.

Despite setbacks, the computer scientist persists in forging connections. Zordan has collaborated with Amir Zaki, chair of art in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (CHASS), to create a cross-listed pair of classes that bring together computer science and art students to learn modeling and animation.

“It’s hard to mix the two disciplines, but you can create the appreciation and respect for each other and a common language,” Zordan says. He is also working with music Professor Tim Labor on a joint video game project: Zordan’s computer science students are coding the games, while Labor’s students compose the soundtracks. And he’s part of another groundbreaking endeavor — to develop 3D-printing tools for producing textiles for the fashion industry and beyond.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

Experimental musician and Ph.D. student no.e Parker’s career has been a long road of breaking down stereotypes of what artists and scientists should look like—or should be doing. While she was an undergraduate at Cornell taking classes in material science engineering, people would often comment on her punk rock aesthetic. “They would say, “You don’t look like an engineer. Why are you here?” she recalls.

You can’t just write Beethoven and Bach to be relevant as a composer these days. Artists have a responsibility to help people understand what’s going on in the world.

Dana Simmons,
Assistant Professor, History

Parker says doors are now opening for scholars like herself who want to work at the intersection of art and science. She was one of the first to join UCR’s digital composition program in the department of music in 2011. She is now working on an audiovisual installation at the UCR Culver Center of the Arts, for an exhibition opening on June 27, showcasing sound and music created using a sonification apparatus. This is designed to enable real-time collection of temperature data taken from compost. Through the installation, the veteran gardener aims to send a message about sustainability, organic waste and what’s coming out of our kitchens. “You can’t just write Beethoven and Bach to be socially relevant as a composer these days — those composers were developing groundbreaking music technology for their time,” Parker says. “Contemporary artists have a responsibility to help society understand what’s going on in the physical world around them.”

Helping People Understand the World

Woman wearing headphones and holding a microphone over a compost barrel.

Experimental musician and Ph.D. student no.e Parker is working on an audiovisual installation at the UCR Culver Center of the Arts, for an exhibition opening on June 27, showcasing sound and music created using a sonification apparatus. This is designed to enable real-time collection of temperature data taken from compost.

And art is able to do that like no other medium can. Juliet McMullin, an associate professor in the department of anthropology, examines how graphic novels about cancer not only illuminate the “ordinary, chronic, cruddy” life experiences of those with the disease, but they can also contribute to the nuances of discourses on health care inequalities. “Being able to see the imagery alongside the words allows the reader to pause and think more in-depth,” she says of the genre. This summer, McMullin will host the International Comics & Medicine Conference at the Culver Center of the Arts from July 16 to 18. This will explore the idea of space as a critical element in health care and comics.

Just as art has helped propel the scientific sphere, science and technology has long elevated the work of artists, whose creations sometimes defy description. Adorning the university’s state-of-the-art Institute for Integrative Genome Biology building is a large-scale art installation designed by professor of art Jim Isermann, who was inspired by geometric shapes of molecular structure. Earlier this year, Paulo Chagas’ “In-Between: Works for Percussion, Electronics and Multimedia” at the UCR Culver Center of the Arts fused together rhythms from Afro-Brazilian cult drumming, cutting- edge live electronics and an interactive image projection. The professor of music, a self-described maverick by nature, is now working on a multimedia opera that explores ideas of sustainability and the creation and destruction of nature. “Music — and all art — has always been about expanding the awareness, perceptions and consciousness of people,” Chagas says. “Technology supports that.”

An artist who has worked with digital tools throughout his career, Amir Zaki says he “uses new technology in the way a painter uses a different brush.” The 3D computer graphics software Maya has helped him explore the rhetoric of authenticity in his pieces. These are primarily hybridized photographs in which the scenes look somewhat off-register, but just slightly so. “I’m not very interested in the statement, ‘That can’t be,’” says Zaki. “I like it more when people look at a piece and say, ‘Can that be?’”

Can Dance be Taught Online?

In art education, UCR scholars are not merely keeping pace with technology’s evolution — they’re at the forefront of it. Jacqueline Shea Murphy, associate professor and chair of the department of dance, was the first UCR faculty member to bring an entire course to the Web, as part of the systemwide program UC Online.

Dance is a collaborative art form. You don’t usually dance all by yourself in the dark with no music. You dance in relationship to music, in relationship to a partner or to a group of people, in relationship to an audience.

Shea Murphy,
Associate Professor and Chair, Dance

“For the 21st century, one of the most important skills for students to learn is how to work collaboratively in an online environment,” Shea Murphy says, explaining why she launched an online version of her general education course “Dance: Cultures and Contexts.” The course requires students to form groups and develop a wikipage together. “Dance is a collaborative art form. You don’t usually dance all by yourself in the dark with no music. You dance in relationship to music, in relationship to a partner or to a group of people, in relationship to an audience. Most people think of the Internet as a passive place for students — you sit back and listen to the professor. But I think in many ways, a big classroom is like that. In an online environment, there’s more of a sense of one-on-one.”

The art-and-science movement at UCR comes on the heels of a national rally for STEAM, an update on the academic disciplines known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math, but with an “A” added for art. A national initiative led by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the goal is to “foster the true innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer.”

The leaders of UCR’s Graduate School of Education (GSOE) are collaborating with Palm Springs Unified School District and DIGICOM to study the impact of one way to integrate STEAM concepts into K-12 education. That curricula comes from DIGICOM, a K-12 program implemented in the Palm Springs Unified School District that puts students in the role of filmmakers. The GSOE is collaborating with the district to evaluate the program to eventually apply for federal grants.

GSOE Dean Thomas M. Smith says developing the skills of digital storytelling is designed to foster critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. “On the art side, they’re writing scripts and giving voice to personal stories, but they’re also learning about the technical aspects of designing, shooting and editing a short film,” Smith says. “We hope to meet this medium that kids are already familiar with — video and YouTube — with trying to engage them in the skills we want them to learn.”

At UCR, scientists and artists are reestablishing the foundation of discovery and innovation — together. Mae Jemison, a doctor, dancer and the first African-American woman in space, said in her 2002 TED presentation,“The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin … or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”

When the two galaxies collide, the result can be spectacular.