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Q&A with Sheldon Brown, Calit2 Artist in Residence

By Doug Ramsey | May 1, 2006

Sheldon Brown, far right, at Calit2.

The UCSD Division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) has announced the appointment of its first Artist in Residence. The honor for an initial two-year term went to visual arts professor Sheldon Brown, who will juggle the new position with his own new-media art and job as director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts (CRCA), the oldest organized research unit on the UCSD campus. The 43-year-old Brown works at the intersection of video, virtual reality, computer gaming, and even sculpture. He talked with Doug Ramsey about art and algorithms.

Q. What does your appointment say about Calit2’s commitment to the arts?

A. As someone who was involved from the early stages, I wondered how Calit2 would grow, given that the arts, hard sciences, engineering, and medicine all represent very disparate cultures. The appointment of an artist-in-residence shows the continuing evolution of Calit2’s desire to cultivate these different areas in a strong way.

Q. How do you see your new role?

A. I want to take Calit2’s ambitions, intellectual resources and facilities, and marry that wider context with my own aesthetic and thoughts on art production – not just the content of the art, but the process of art-making in a technological world. For example, Calit2 has invested in a super-high-resolution, digital cinema environment in its main auditorium that affords four times the resolution of high-definition TV. It gives you a cinematic experience that is very different because of the level of fidelity. As an artist I may have ideas about pursuing art in that framework, and because it is so new, I can bring my working methods as an artist to help craft and shape production methods for this innovative technology.

Q. Tell us about your own art. How would others define you as an artist?

A. If you ask five people, depending on what they’ve seen, they’ll each say something different. [Laughs] The work that I do lends itself to a lot of different final forms: some of it is sculptural, some on canvas, some print. A lot is electronic images, whether related to computer games or cinematic environments or virtual reality. They are all forms I work in. But with all of them, even in sculpture, computational processes are critical. At some point there is an algorithm involved. So I do sculptures that don’t plug in and don’t blink, but they are very related to what I may do in developing a computer game.

Q. What about your artistic sensibility?

A. The common thread running through all of my projects is how I look at the way in which human experience is reshaped, extended, and constrained by the ongoing computerization of the world in which we live. I try to find places of tension where algorithmic structures will offer an opening up of the world around us, while giving it a new shape or new inflection that may cause anxieties at the same time. I would equate that to the process that cultures are always going through. Just as the development of perspective in the Renaissance changed the way people viewed the world, today we are radically changing our relationship to the world around us and ourselves by these computational methods.

Q. How will you balance your roles as Calit2 Artist in Residence and as Director of CRCA?

A. The directorship of CRCA is an administrative service that tries to enrich the experience of the arts community in general, and arts researchers in particular, within CRCA and Calit2. I am a facilitator trying to take care of everyone else’s interests. The artist-in-residence position provides more of a space for the exploration of my own artwork.

Q. As an artist, then, what are you currently working on?

A. Whether I am making a sculpture or a multi-user virtual environment, first and foremost I am interested in perception as the interactive modality. I’m working on a project called the Scalable City, a multi-user virtual environment that is technologically very complicated, and a lot of technology has to be developed to make it happen. It is about halfway done, and I hope to complete the bulk of the work in winter 2007. But I am also sending out parts of it in other forms, using elements from the same asset pool. There are digitally produced prints, a digital video installation, a sculptural piece, and I also hope to complete a super-high-resolution cinema piece.

Q. You are also known as a new kind of sculptor. How so?

A. Early on I did an art residency at Arizona State University, where I became interested in computer-controlled fabrication processes. They start with a connection back to computer vision, which produces original data that I then reshape algorithmically to create the sculptural object by computer control. I am producing a series of sculptures titled Istoria which explore the intersection of the virtual and physical worlds. They are produced with a variety of computer-control methods and will go up a few notches as we develop a computer-controlled fabrication facility here at Calit2.

Q. You have pioneered an Experimental Game Lab within Calit2. How will games of the future differ from today’s generation of games?

A. Tomorrow’s games will go beyond what usually passes for interactivity in virtual spaces, such as competition and goal orientation. Today we are developing rendering technologies that can produce real-time images that are very lush, very dense, very rich and very realistic. That greater fidelity may allow us to get away from the twitchy aesthetic of Pac-Man or even Tomb Raider. More powerful computing platforms and better rendering techniques over the next few years will radically shift the temporal nature of games, which will no longer only be about immediate reaction time, as they are right now.

Related Links

Sheldon Brown Website
Center for Research in Computing and the Arts

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