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Realizing the dream

The University of Illinois launched a new institute that will combine arts and technology. Called edream, the institute will be headed by Donna Cox, who leads NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory. Access’ Barbara Jewett sat down with her and Kelly Searsmith, the institute’s assistant director for planning and development, to learn more about the institute and digital arts media.

Q: Tell me about edream. What is the focus of this new institute, and how did it come to be?

COX: edream stands for Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media. This new institute will help coordinate and converge the University’s diverse activities in art and technology. Years ago the University of Illinois was well ahead in art and technology innovation in a lot of areas, and we prided ourselves on being number one. We pioneered computer music, for example, in the late 50s; we hosted experimental music/visual performances here in the 60s.

Then in the 80s, we pioneered the convergence of art and science through scientific visualization. In the 90s university artists innovated Web-based experimental art forms. Now we see this art and technology momentum across the world, having a very large impact in the creative industries, such as design and architecture, but also in other areas such as performance and interactivity.

There’ve been hybrid PhDs in the arts growing up, primarily in Europe, around artists exploring technology. The edream Institute will help to harness and promote Illinois innovations in these emerging digital arts. We are one of the top universities in engineering, and we have enormous computational capacity here through NCSA—and we will leverage that potential within the digital arts media.

A few years ago, the University formed the Seedbed Initiative to explore how art and technology could be synergized on campus. edream grew out of this campus initiative to coordinate, synergize, and support interdisciplinary art, technology, and humanities creative research and education. Over a year ago I was asked to help institutionalize the Seedbed Initiative exploring digital arts media. The provost appointed an advisory committee and we developed the edream Institute, which was approved by the Illinois Board of Higher Education in December.

Q: Why all the interest in digital arts media?

COX: We’ve seen a global resurgence of what’s possible with art, technology, and public engagement and outreach. An excellent example is the historic opening event of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Did you see? It was awesome! It expressed a cultural dynamic and astonished the world through its fusion of art and technology.

Illinois can also have important cultural impact by coordinating and leveraging our campus innovations in digital arts media. We will help Illinois participate in and lead a digital arts resurgence based upon our advances in technologies. Important technologies that have transformed this planet have come from this university, not the least of which is the Internet browser Mosaic.

We’ll help coordinate interdisciplinary activities, and help to build a whole new academic PhD in the arts and an online professional masters degree in digital arts media. We’ll build upon our strengths and transfer this technology and this knowledge to upcoming generations.

Q: Is eDream officially operating?

COX: We have five years to become self-funding and establish these degrees. And of course, we’re taking this challenge on in some of the worst financial times we’ve ever experienced! But you know, Abraham Lincoln funded land-grant universities in the climate of the Civil War, and sometimes it takes those kinds of beliefs and passions to move forward in formidable times. The payoff will be great. Creative arts can come together with technology on this campus and create transformative public engagement. There are transformative technologies we’ve engendered at the university and at NCSA, and we know there’s more transformation to be done.

SEARSMITH: The arts have traditionally been thought of as something that happens in a high cultural environment, like galleries or inside venues made for high culture. But there is a kind of ubiquitous art too, the idea of cultural informatics that breaks down the “boxing” of high art and makes it part of everyday life. So we’re interested in the kind of art that’s on the Internet, or impacting people on their cell phones, as well as things that take place in traditional arts venues.

Q: In tough economic times, some question the value of the arts.

COX: Art permeates and enriches our lives and has huge economic impact. The National Research Council released a report in 2003, “Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity,” which noted that the creative industries—such as movie making, gaming, design, music, Internet, television, architecture, and advanced visualization—produce major economic opportunity wherever they thrive. They generate a massive global and cultural impact. At this time, creativity is a critical component in our university’s strategic planning, as art, science, and technology are synergizing to drive the creative industries. And digital arts media now dominates the creative industries.

SEARSMITH: Times of crisis are also times when people are trying to reassess how they live and what their purposes are, and the arts is a cultural space that people turn to for that expression, for alternatives to mainstream solutions. And one of the exciting things about digital arts media is that they are so participatory, they allow for more interaction and expression back.

Q: You’ve mentioned students and campus collaborations to develop public engagement—are those the target groups?

COX: And the community. I’ve had meetings with businesses, and business leaders, and various organizations in the community.

SEARSMITH: We’re hoping to connect also with the national and international community. We’re going to sponsor a biennial festival and symposium in digital arts media, bring in visiting scholars and artists, and take those communities we’re engaging and hook them up with others across the U.S. and Europe who are doing these things as well, both audiences and practitioners.

Q: Back to education. When and how will that degree commence? And how many students?

COX: Through The Cyprus Institute we are already starting down this path, and we’ll share some graduate students in the fall. We’re putting together a new concentration of existing courses that students can remap to their current major; their degree would come out of an existing college, but they could take cross-college courses that would enable them to walk away with a concentration.

SEARSMITH: Creative media is a big draw within the arts. But there isn’t enough of an applications focus on campus. Students who want to do creative work with an aesthetic technology, that’s very much applications driven. One of the things that edream hopes to do is partner with our local community college, Parkland, which is very interested in creating creative industries careers for their students. They have applications and technology focuses that benefit us, and they realize their students also need some of the research resources and research focus and the intellectual resources that Illinois has. We’re hoping to create an undergraduate degree track that will be very complementary and use these community strengths to produce students who are competitive with those coming out of schools on the east and west coasts. And Donna is very committed to using all the industry contacts she has to lead to internship opportunities for these students.

COX: We will really try to give students the opportunity to work on creative productions, such as a movie or digital gaming. The kinds of things that we do in our cinematic scientific visualizations have application in areas of special effects, as part of digital arts media education. The digital technologies designers and creative practitioners will learn here will be applicable in a lot of different disciplines, and some of these economic opportunities are emerging today.

The PhD in the arts is relatively new. Even big arts universities like UCLA do not have a PhD in the digital arts yet, although there is work to establish one there. There are design doctorates that have been offered in the U.S., but it’s not exactly the same kind of focus we’re talking of, which is really a very cross arts-humanities kind of PhD with a strong theoretical focus. For students who do want to stay in academia, having a PhD in arts informatics is going to be very important to them in the future—to get grants, to do research, and to publish.

It’s all about perception. When people think of the arts, they think East Coast or West Coast. Illinois is passed over; we’re not on the map. Maybe the Art Institute of Chicago, but that’s private, not a state-funded, land-grant university. Forming edream makes sense. Illinois may not be considered a coastal arts mecca, but we are a tour de force in transformative innovation that will infuse our research and educational efforts in digital arts media.

edream will officially launch on April 20, 2009, with a reception at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts on the University of Illinois campus from 5:30 to 7 p.m. This coincides with the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) conference being held on campus April 19-21.

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