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Art and Science: Opposites Attract

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By Claudia Luther

Published Apr 1, 2014 8:00 AM


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Fabian Wagmister (sixth from left), Jeff Burke (far right) and the rest of the School of Theater, Film and Television’s REMAP team.

"We are exploring how the park can become a place where neighborhoods can tell their stories and people can explore the connection between that and the history of Los Angeles," says Burke, whose background includes both electrical engineering and fine arts. "What is interesting to us is when cross-disciplinary collaborations radically alter the expressive possibilities available to artists and storytellers — whether professional or from the public — and at the same time, open up new areas of exploration for scientists and engineers."

"It's a pioneering partnership," says Wagmister, who is also TFT vice chair of production and directing and principal investigator on the downtown project. "There is nothing else like it in the history of L.A."

In his TFT classes, Burke sometimes uses the example of the Johnny Cash Project, which was conceived by Aaron Koblin M.F.A. '06 (with director Chris Milk); Koblin is now creative director of the Data Arts Team at Google. As Koblin explains in a popular TED Talk, hundreds of participants in the ongoing Cash project created drawings that were woven into an online collective tribute to the singer, set to lyrics of his song "Ain't No Grave." (Visit www.ted.com/talks/aaron_koblin.html and see "Driven by Data: Inventing a New Digital Art," UCLA Magazine, January 2012.)

Burke likes the Cash project "because it shows that you can be an artist or an author and create something that emerges from your own voice. Or now you can — at the same time — use the Internet and digital technologies to invite participation and engagement with an audience in a whole new way.

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Created by artist and scientist Rita Blaik

"Digital technology and computer technology, in particular, are things that, sometimes we forget, can be taken apart and played with and used in new ways," Burke says. "And that's a good thing for artists, the entertainment industry and storytellers in general."

One sign of the exhilarating art-science synergy on campus is the Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) gatherings at UCLA, which bring scientists and artists together monthly during the academic year to talk and share their works in progress.

The "Leonardo" in LASER is, of course, a reference to da Vinci, perhaps the most famous polymath ever to live. But it is also a reference to the Observatoire Leonardo des Arts et des Technosciences, whose president, Roger Malina, is a world leader in the collaboration between science, engineering, art and design and who is a board member of the UCLA Art | Sci Center. (Visit www.leonardo.info/isast/laser.html.)

Malina, a distinguished professor of arts and technology and a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Dallas, says that, while artists and scientists share a passion for making sense and meaning of the world, "they have different ways of knowing." For many of the world's most complex and intractable problems, he says, these approaches combine "in productive and poetic ways."

Since LASER's beginnings several years ago, interest in the program has burgeoned, Vesna says. "We initially started with North-South mixers to help shift the culture, and I was happy to see faculty cross over to the 'other side,' " she says. As interest grew, she opened the gatherings to academics from other institutions, as well as to artists and other creative people in the community.

"Once people meet outside their respective disciplinary boundaries, the possibilities for new ways of thinking and collaborating become very real," she says. "It is an exciting time for students and faculty to imagine what, not so long ago, was deemed impossible."

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