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NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 3 , December 15, 1999

I, a Tech:
A Graduate's Reflection on the Interarts and Technology Program
by Jeffrey Gray Miller

"You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
--William Goldman, The Princess Bride

What is IATech?
I could give the stock response I've developed over the past few years: "It's called Interarts and Technology, and it's the study of music, dance, art, drama, and how they interact with technology." That's the simple answer, the one that reassures the parents when they are concerned with the number of art and dance classes on your schedule. One semester, when my mother saw that my classes were all within the art department, she looked at me, horrified, and blurted out, "You're not…an art major, are you?" I could almost hear her hopes for my future job prospects wilting in her tone of voice. "No, no," I quickly reassured her. "It's Interarts and Technology." She was vastly reassured. Technology = job prospects.

But that's a pat answer. What is IATech, really?Dance performance

If you hang out with the students, you hear a mixture of exhilaration and frustration at being exposed--somewhat forcibly-- to the cutting edge of media technology. The joke goes that the program consists of 3 years of IATech 101, Which Button To Push, followed by a year of advanced study, IATech 102, When To Push It. In a way, it's true; as much time in class is spent learning the vagaries of video formats, edit suites, sound digitization, and computer graphics programs as is ever spent in art theory or aesthetics. But that's necessary for artists using the kinds of brushes that have buttons, require electricity, and change, sometimes unrecognizably, every two or three years.

While that may be truth, it's a subjective one, from those on the inside. So, what is IATech?

I've given it a lot of thought. I've discussed it ad nauseam with my professors, the faculty who created it, colleagues from around the world, fellow students in the program, other artists, dancers, programmers, everyone I could find who had any idea of what the word IATech means. The result: nobody agrees on what the program is, much less what it should be. Heated arguments have been fought between faculty members who have differing ideas on the curricular emphases or the direction the students should be encouraged to follow. Students, of course, complain about the classes, the teachers, the requirements, the equipment. Yet there is a common thread: passion. These people all care about the IATech program. They are proud to be a part of it. And regardless of their complaints or fears about the program, there's no other program or place they'd rather be.

"I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy…in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture…"
--John Adams, 1780, in a letter to his wife, Abigail

The history of IATech goes far beyond the University of Wisconsin's Dance Department. It goes far beyond the works of Bill Viola or Laurie Anderson or Nam Jun Paik, all pioneers in the melding of art and technology. It could be argued that it began with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the founders of the Bauhaus, and arguably the first interactive artist. But I have my own theory, my own secret vision: the first IATech piece was in China, with the invention of fireworks.

Like everything else in this article, this is a purely subjective conclusion, based on my own admittedly eclectic knowledge of history. My favorite history professor taught me, though, that the dates and individuals are less important that what happened. What happened was that the discovery of the mixture of carbon, sulfur, and saltpeter, a black powder, caused a chemical reaction which was used to add stars to the sky. It was used to create an ephemeral abstract image with the sky as the canvas. This science, this chemistry, was used not to kill, or subjugate, or create wealth: it was used in the creation of Beauty. In the service of Art.

Yes, someone later made the innovation that degraded black powder into gunpowder, a tool of destruction. Art has a long history of being appropriated for mundane or even antagonistic purposes, ranging from selling Volvos to justifying genocide. Gunpowder, though, wasn't made for guns; it was made for fireworks, for pretty lights in the sky. Imagine what the world would be like if it had been kept to that purpose. Unrealistic, of course. But it has everything to do with what we're talking about: IATech. To use a more current example, however, let's go forward to the word on everyone's lips today, the internet.

Why was the internet invented? No, not for Al Gore. Not for e-commerce. Not for open-source software, and not for networked Doom games. It was invented for the same reason that computers were invented: for war. The word "computer" originally meant exactly that: one who computes, originally the women employed by the defense department to compute logarithmic tables used for ballistics with heavy artillery. Computers as we think of them, electronic calculating machines, were invented to help us better shower death and destruction on enemy troops. Dance performance

This is human nature; the cave paintings in Lascaux show spears being used to kill not only food, but also other people. We seem to instinctively need to find out if our new toys can hurt others, as any childcare worker will tell you.

Likewise, the internet, in its infancy, was created in the hopes that, should the conventional means of communication fail, the network of computers would continue to function in the event of war. Do people realize, when they send e-mail, that this technology was designed for a very different kind of delivery? In a way, it is an incarnation of one of the ancient standards of a healthy culture: the beating of swords into plowshares. A weapon used for peaceful purposes.

Yet is that enough? Were the people who created agriculture the ones we look to as our "founders of civilization"? Perhaps, to some…but for most, the words synonymous with "ancient civilizations" are cultures such as Egypt. Sumer. Mesopotamia. The cultures who went a step beyond beating their swords into plowshares and beat their plowshares into chisels, to leave their art, mingled with their technology, in the form of incredibly accurate calendars, architectural geometries, arithmetic used for gardens rather than fortresses.

This is the secret: IATech is the appropriation of technology for artistic purposes. The computers that were designed to be weapons were appropriated by business, first to calculate wealth, then to generate it. We in the field of Interarts and Technology are taking it a step further away from its destructive purpose, using it to create beauty, or some vision of it. We hold it up to the world as both a mirror and a record (what is photography, and all related imaging technology, other than a mirror that records?). We use it, like other artists of other times, to celebrate humanity and warn against apathy. To remind people of what has gone before, what is happening now, and what may happen in the future. Personally, I believe it is the single most essential work to the survival of our culture.

"…profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful…"
--Paul Valéry

The pundits are starting to catch on: we are in danger of drowning in our toys. Both technophiles and technophobes alike are warning, in the midst of all the cultural self-analysis brought about by the millenium, that things are going too fast. Change is not constant, as previously thought, it is accelerating. We are in danger, they say, of losing our humanity in the midst of the latest e-trend, the Killer App of the moment.

The difficulty lies in where to draw the line. If I lived in 1945, for example, I would not have any children, for all four of my daughters were high-risk pregnancies, and it took all the medical technology available in the pre- and post-natal wards to keep each of them, and their mother, alive through their births. Now, with my oldest child eleven years old, I'm very aware, as I watch her grow amidst the media barrage around her, that the same technology that threatens her individuality gave her life. Should I condemn the use of the television when the doctor who saved my daughter's life may have been inspired by Marcus Welby? Technology is not created in a vacuum. One of the purposes of IATech, I believe, is to help us, as a culture, remember where our miracles come from.

For me, the first rule in deciphering any new technology, from programming a VCR to Microsoft's latest upgrade, is to remember the source: a human being. Somebody, somewhere, thought this stuff would be intuitive. Someone was proud of this design, spent valuable portions of his or her life to create it. Technology does not create itself yet. Somewhere, behind every blinking light and noisome beep and smooth metal casing, there is a flesh and blood hand much like your own. That is the task of IATech: to find the human face of technology.

In the midst of all of those classes teaching Which Button to Push, we are given the ability to speak the language of the engineers and programmers, to understand why Object-Oriented Programming is useful and why you don't have to rewind CDs. At the same time, we are forcefully brought into contact with our humanity, by intensive exposure to arts such as dance, in both practice and theory. We may deal with professors who are Neo-Luddite, and those who are pioneers in computer music, and sometimes they are the same person. We are given a sea of tools to create with, and then tossed in to see if we can swim. In essence, it is a boot camp designed to produce da Vincis. We are the bridge between the techies and the artists, living in both worlds and interpreting the needs of both into the new media. We learn, in essence, what works in art and technology, and what doesn’t.

In case you're wondering, it's pretty simple, really. Where it is intended as a substitute for reality, technology fails. Where it seeks to extend the human spirit in ways otherwise impossible, technology works.

There you go, four years of college in two sentences.

Does it work? Do digital da Vincis come out of the program and create the bridge between the cybernetic and the soulful? Yes, though not always in obvious ways.

Pragmatic parents can be reassured; I personally know of IATechers who go directly from graduation into the commercial sector, with starting salaries around 40k. However, they also have stopped creating. They have given up dance, art, and theatre, in favor of the American Dream of working 50 hours a week, with vacations in California and an entertainment center. This used to frighten me. If people whose work had been so inspiring could give up art, what chance had I of maintaining my own ideals? Aesthetics, though, are as hard to lose as innocence is to regain: I recall listening to one of my friends critique a video game in terms normally used for art history. I realize that in his way, he is still in IATech. It's not a matter of changing the system; he is change, and the system has to deal with him. It's a joy to see.

Others claim to have given up IATech, burned out by the constant barrage of tape glitches and crashed computers and unsympathetic audiences. Yet even they seem more comfortable amidst the chaos of innovation around us; a stage manager who can program a new light board or a minidisc player as readily as calling cues, or an elementary school network administrator who creates a multi-media Halloween for the kids coming trick-or-treating. These are the people who are subverting the dominant paradigm of technology portrayed as a monster that won't let you even set your VCR clock. They know that it's a tool, at worst, and at best, a toy. They know this, and their attitude is contagious.

A few take the path envisioned by the creators of the IATech program, and work in the world of art, of new media, and suffer the slings and arrows of outraged critics and uncomprehending audiences. Yet they continue to work, trying to take the technology beyond war, beyond commerce, and beyond entertainment. They are using it to illuminate, create, and celebrate. When it works, it is unforgettable.

Dance performanceIt is, however, a struggle. It is a voice often drowned out by the sound and fury of pop culture, which steals from artists as readily as any other source. Resources are scarce, and the lure of a more lucrative career such as advertising is constant. These aren't the entrepreneurial heroes you read about in Newsweek and Wired; these are the people who struggle to produce their videos at the community television stations, who are given a few paragraphs by local newspapers in the arts section. Occasionally they are sponsored by corporations such as Sony and given spots in trade shows or allowed to bundle their work on the latest CD-ROM from Apple. There's not a lot of name recognition for people like this, even amongst their peers. For a medium that thrives on collaboration, IATechers are suprisingly solitary people, both socially and professionally. There are far more solo artists than collaborative groups, which is somewhat puzzling, given the demands of the medium.

Theirs is the task of taming the techno-beast and ensuring that these tools are never used for their original purpose. Theirs is the task of making sure we can continue to use technology to improve ourselves collectively as a species, rather than at the cost of our humanity. They serve to bring our attention to our own face in our electronic images, to bridge the distances artificially created by our own cleverness and imagination.

And it's very important. Possibly it is possibly the most important work there is for the survival of our culture. This time the artists can't afford to let the science fall into the wrong hands. The stakes are too high.

After all, look what they did with black powder.

Jeffrey Gray Miller graduated from the Interarts and Technology program in 1999 and is a web designer and freelance performance technologist based in Madison, Wisconsin. His current projects include preparing for Touchdown, a web-based dance performance with Sita Popat, a dance researcher in the UK, and a collaborative site with author Barbara Sher to be released in February.

Text and dance performance images copyright J.G. Miller, 1999. Dance images are taken from Digital WaterSeries by J.G. Miller, Amherst, MA, 1999 (Dancer: Jin-Wen Yu).