Technology, Art Forge Vital Connection

By ERIN E. BORG
Special to Capital News Service=

BALTIMORE -- Jason Sloan remembers his fascination with water sloshing and dishes clinking in his family's dishwasher.

"It would create this rhythmic pulse," said Sloan, a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "I would stand in front of (it) and would just dance up and down until it was done. My mom would come and pull me away, and I would run back and dance to the dishes."

At the age of 4, Sloan understood what cities across America have begun to see and encourage -- the important connection between technology and art.

Cities want to attract talented and innovative thinkers -- and artists and technology types are often one and the same. Their collaboration can lure investment, lead to innovation and fuel the economy.

"The next generation of companies, the next great idea could easily come from a tech-savvy artist," said Jane Brown, president and executive director of the Towson-based Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.

In art classrooms, in museum galleries, on smart phones, in ticket lines and in weekend workshops, Baltimore's artists and technology innovators are working together.

"Art has expanded its boundaries fairly significantly," Brown said.

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MICA incorporates new media into many of its classes, and the Baltimore Museum of Art is working to digitize its galleries, with digital artwork and videos of musical performances. The city hosts weekend events that showcase results of the combination.

Sloan, who came to Baltimore 15 years ago to earn a master of fine arts degree from Towson University, believes the city is committed to investing in technology -- including technology that's related to art.

"I see a lot of my students when they graduate decide to stay ... because they really like Baltimore and what it offers," he said. "(It) has a lot going on positively in a technological aspect that's really spurring the creative arts that's happening here."

Baltimore ranked second, behind only Seattle, when Forbes magazine recently ranked American cities based on steadiest and most sustained technology growth over the past decade. Much of that growth, the magazine said, was because of the federal government's spending on new technologies.

But urban theorist Richard Florida has warned that American cities are competing not just with each other but with cities around the world that are coming up with better and bigger projects that are attracting creative people.

Florida identified the links between technology and creativity in his 2002 book, "The Rise of the Creative Class." The theory is that "both innovation and high-tech industry are strongly associated with locations of the Creative Class and of talent in general."

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Heather Sarkissian, of Community Analytics, a research organization with headquarters in Baltimore, says that she has seen people move from Baltimore to more innovative places.

"A characteristic of the creative class is that they leave if they're not happy, so we see that all the time: super talented people leaving the city," said Sarkissian. "They are going to go where things are most exciting, and technology is making art very exciting."

Sloan, who teaches in the Interaction Design and Art program at MICA, says that the college has incorporated technology into even the more conventional art classes.

Sloan's classes include Electronic Media as Culture, which all freshmen have to take to learn how technology affects art and other aspects of creative society.

"It's important to have students learn to really push the medium to where it's not just a bad Photoshop collage but where they can take these materials and do something really creative and experimental," he said.

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David East, MICA ceramics professor, says that his courses use a great deal of technology to speed up production and to expand the ways in which the material can be used. He teaches his students how to plan their projects with 3-D software using computers connected to 3-D printers.

"Frankly, it is a very relevant thing to introduce my students to because they're going to be the people inventing new kinds of tools to work with this material," East said.

Sarkissian agrees. "Given the reality that technology makes everything easier and is a component of all industries now, it makes a lot of sense if Baltimore wants to get ahead it should invest," she said. "There is no question that technology is making the creation of art easier, more affordable and more accessible."

Sarkissian also says the combination of art and technology leads to innovation, which she believes can benefit a community in more ways than one.

"You just get a very powerful result," she said. "You get products and exhibits and ideas that are both very aesthetically pleasing ... (and) highly functional."

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As Community Analytics' chief business development officer, Sarkissian worked with the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts to plan Betascape, a weekend event that kicked off in late September of this year designed to bring artists and technologists together.

Laure (CQ) Drogoul, 2006 Sondheim Prize winner, led a workshop called "Symphonic Stitch," a musical knitting circle, in which the participants' needles are outfitted with tiny microphones that amplify the percussive sound of the knitting process.

"The idea was to get people who are working on either technology or the intersection an opportunity to learn new things and meet new people and make some stuff," said Sarkissian. "That was really what it was all about."

At the Baltimore Museum of Art, Anne Manning, the museum's deputy director for education, says the BMA is working to feature more new media.

"With each exhibition we do, we think about how we are going to engage our visitors in understanding and learning about the art on the walls, and we think about what's the best tool to help us do that," Manning said. "(Technology) brings the art to life, provides context for helping visitors understand the art better."

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"Smartphones and other technologies are so much a part of our everyday life that people expect to be able to get information wherever whenever and carry it with them," Manning said. "So part of it is really responding just to how people are learning and communicating in the 21st century."

The museum is working on a mobile tour app for smartphones, which should be ready this year, that visitors can download and listen to as they wander the galleries.

The Deutsch Foundation used to limit its grants to technology programs but last year began to include arts programs as well.

Incorporating technology into Baltimore's arts districts also makes for larger audiences, Brown said.

"As tools of technology have become easier for people to use,"

Brown said, "it's really kind of hard to separate where technology starts and ends and where art picks up."