The Art of the Stars

UW's DXARTS Is Recognized by the World but Ignored by Seattle
The Stranger - Dec 1 – Dec 7, 2005

Scholars worldwide see Seattle as the nucleus of an artistic revolution. Locally, however, we are oblivious to any major innovation. Meet DXARTS, the University of Washington's Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media, an unusual BFA/PhD program launched in 2001. The department has received critical acclaim from the likes of the New York Times, Wired magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle, but local press has paid little attention. Almost all of DXARTS faculty members show abroad, yet few local galleries display their work. DXARTS nourishes every sort of arts practice, including digital video and media, computer music, sound art, computer animation, mechatronics, as well as work that pushes beyond these categories. With a department so extensive, why doesn't Seattle seem to care about DXARTS?

Galleries don't exhibit their work for two reasons: One, the market for "high-tech" art is small and local art spaces are ill-equipped to handle work that requires good network and electrical foundations; and two, the papers stay quiet because local galleries don't show the work. But we can't blame Seattle exclusively. As DX-artwork often morphs technologies, some so intricately that they require FDA approval, it's not surprising that the department is shrouded in mystery. It's hard to know what to make of it.

Luckily, DXARTS does not perpetuate this mystique. With a little investigation the department reads like an open, albeit complicated, book. A few hours after sending an e-mail to cofounder Shawn Brixey, I received a letter with a short history of the department, his own work, and an invitation to meet. This cannot be underestimated. Brixey is not only a world-class artist—in 2003 he received the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship—but is also the co-head of a $1.4 million center that, for any given class, receives approximately 150 applications for every 10 slots available. He is a busy man, with every excuse to be pretentious, and yet Brixey gave me two hours, was unassuming, and, save some subtle politics, totally honest about the department's agenda.

To think that DXARTS is simply about combining art with technology, or to picture the department as a group of techies, would be to underestimate this beast. Certainly the field DXARTS is carving out is penetrated by science and technology, but the department goes far beyond joining disciplines. "DXARTS," Brixey explained early in the interview, "is interested in rigor, poetry, enduring contributions, and making history." Funny, the words one might readily associate with digital arts—"computing," "technology," or "science"—don't even come up.

Brixey detailed what he and Richard Karpen, the other DXARTS mastermind, conceived. "It's fairly simple," Brixey stated, "we are designed to support artists who work at such extreme distances from any known boundary or tradition that they must invent new methods and tools—which include science and technology—to create their work. We are a new breed of artists looking at the complete horizon/picture of what it means to be human... We construct meaningful work around that entire thing."

This ambition obviously manifests itself in interesting ways. Take for instance The Difference Engine, Research Associate James Coupe's latest project. Four computers are programmed to check their own overly spammed e-mail accounts looking for interesting word sequences. Dulcetly singing the keywords aloud—each with a different voice—the computers search Google for the word's meanings. At once eerie and calming, The Difference Engine strikingly comments on the autonomous capabilities of computer technology and imparts a synthetic vulnerability onto the computers that is utterly human; these computers are trying to "search the internet for meaning."

Brixey's work has a similar effect. His latest project, Altamira, explores the uncanny connections between our biology and the universe. Using radio waves recorded from collapsed stars, Brixey has conceived of glasses that trigger phosphenes, the bursts of light you see when you close your eyes tightly. That Brixey has worked out how the code of a dying star resonates with our neurology is incredible; aside from pressure, nothing is known to stimulate phosphenes. And though the FDA isn't quite sure what to make of it, that we will see something utterly foreign in a totally familiar way is nothing short of thrilling.

Clearly, DXARTS isn't your traditional art program. They are bringing artists, engineers, and scholars together, granting art degrees and making great artwork. They are even making history. Ultimately, DXARTS will do a lot more than we can currently imagine. It's about time Seattle paid attention.