Artful Nurturing

Nature has an organic way of creatively carving out its path and presenting images of unique aesthetic proportions. Examples can be seen via the intricate lines, shape and harmony of the spider’s web, or the heavy impasto texture and abstract sculptural form of mound building termite’s hills.

Although humans have learned by observing natural phenomena for centuries, our ability to design beyond the limits of our genetic construction has led to the creation of cultural movements such as visual art, music, film and literature. While our collective culture has developed artistically and created a whole new world through new media like the internet and virtual reality, some artists have reflected back upon natural phenomena and explored patterns between our materialized environment and the innate behaviors of the animal and plant kingdoms.

The artist Martin Roth created work in collaboration with wildlife. Through a process that combined laboratory science and studio art, Roth nurtured living organisms in sterile or manufactured settings. Roth studied painting for his MFA, but came to realize that the pigments on the canvas weren’t enough of a vessel for the potent energy he desired to create. So he chose organic matter as his medium. He asserted that “by working with something that was living, changing, growing, I felt like there was actual energy in the work” (Rachel & Roth, 2017).

For example, one of Roth’s works is a ‘drawing’ that is simultaneously a habitat for worms. The worms have taken residency inside of a glass frame and as they move through the soil lines, shapes and values manifest. While Roth turned the traditional technique of drawing on its head, his work still adheres to the enduring aesthetic notions of artistic composition. Roth painted, sculpted and drew by employing a push and pull between artificial and natural materials and subject matter. Roth’s work grows over time, its properties change and it either evolves or comes to an end. It imitates life itself.

 

Roth played with the grid, a time-honored compositional framework in Western art, with his installation titled In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets. The basis behind this work was that a basement (inside the Austrian Cultural Forum New York) full of lavender plants arranged in a compact grid, would grow as a result of Twitter rants from Donald Trump and other inflammatory agitators. As Trump and other blowhards angrily tweeted (and were re-tweeted), the intensity of the fluorescent lights got brighter and the plants grew bigger. The artwork provided a cathartic release from the tenseness of current events and sociocultural turmoil. The lavender plant symbolizes a direct contrast to the vitriol of the ferocious rants. Lavender is used in horticultural therapy to offer relief from anxiety and depression. The burgeoning rows of lavender, with their colorful hues and sweet fragrance, offered a counterbalance to the stressful and bleak moments society manufactures. 

The concept of nurturing human cognition and emotion through creative play with materials is also a major concept of Kindergarten pedagogy. The foundation of Kindergarten, which was developed by Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, combines children’s innate and learned abilities, in order to scaffold their growth into the adult world. Fröbel’s Kindergartens combined both organic activities such as gardening and dancing with human manufacturing and technology, which culminated through his series of ‘gifts’ (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). This methodology is largely incorporated today, especially in Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools.

The duality between inborn knowledge and experiential learning was significantly addressed by two of the foremost figures in developmental psychology: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. These are the two contributed fundamental insights into how our minds develop. Piaget asserted that cognition comes about through set stages, while Vygotsky proclaimed that development is continual.  If you have ever heard the phrase ‘nature versus nurture,’ it is basically an abstract that describes the differences in both phychologist’s theories. We now have come to largely accept that these theories are both valid and should be fused together to develop educational curricula and make judgements regarding social, emotional and cognitive learning.

Art educator Judith Burton (2000), argues that young minds develop through both individual and cultural experience. She suggests that art is an effective method of communicating the complex nature of the living environment. We all have an inclination to make our mark on the world. Without any prior references, the earliest humans developed an archetypal visual vocabulary, where similar marks and symbols have been found in locations thousands of miles apart. This shows how expression and symbolic communication is a natural response to the human condition.

Through combining a personalized artistic style and using their culturally formed and learned experiences, a child can create their own profound mark within humanity. Burton claims that this reason is why both the child-centered notion of mind informing art education and the belief in laissez-faire teaching are inadequate. It is not ‘nature versus nurture,’ but rather both working in tandem that lets the child be liberated to think and create compelling visual narratives. The research of Piaget and Vygotsky and its updated scrutiny by Burton, signify that it is a combination of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ that account for a person’s development. In other words, while we all have the natural ability to learn and develop, how we perceive the world largely depends on our experience, environment and education (Zucker, 2018).

Through reflecting on the elements of nature and nurture in Roth’s art, we can discover a lot about ourselves and the ways we are both in-tune and out of touch with our natural environment and each other.


This post is dedicated to Martin Roth who passed away at the age of 41 on June 14, 2019.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Burton, Judith. (2000). “The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited.” Studies in Art Education, 17-32.

Rachel, T. Cole and Roth, Martin. “Martin Roth on collaborating with nature.” The Creative Independent, 30 Nov. 2017. https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/martin-roth-on-collaborating-with-nature/

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Artful Qualitization: Ecotones

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Installation view of Meghann Riepenhoff: Ecotone
© Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Meghann Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes prints combine the physicality and symbolic nature of art making in conjunction with Mother Nature’s expressive forces. This collaboration is an awe-inspiring presentation of the clash between environmental cycles and humanity. The cyanotypes are reactions to changing environments due to human interaction and other forces. The prints are part artistic exploration and part scientific experimentation. They are qualitative interpretations of the quantitative data and scientific analysis that measure weather patterns, natural cycles and humanity’s environmental impact.

Riepenhoff’s choice of medium and materials are in dialogue with the past and present fields of aesthetics and science. Cyanotypes are well suited for studying the living environment, as well as producing works of art. Invented in the early-mid 19th century, the alternative photographic process was popularized by Anna Atkins, a botanist and photographer from England. Atkins utilized cyanotypes as a way to document the intricacies of plants and other natural objects by combining her astute eye as a photographer with her knowledge of plant taxonomy. She printed limited edition books of her prints, including Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (October, 1843), which is considered to be the first book illustrated with photographs.

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Installation view of Meghann Riepenhoff: Ecotone
© Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes offer a potent representation of the stress we put on our environment in an alluring and artful manner. For example, Littoral Drift #1170 (Polyptych, Great Salt Lake, UT 08.25.18, Lapping Waves at Shoreline of Antelope Island) was created by placing a sheet of paper prepared with cyanotype chemistry on the shoreline of the south side of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which is experiencing record low water levels. The Great Salt Lake is divided by a causeway built in the 1950s by the Morrison-Knudsen construction company for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The causeway has restricted the flow of the water between the north and south sides, making levels of salinity uneven and affecting wildlife such as the brine shrimp population. The two sides of the lake are notably different colors and altogether the lake is characterized as an ecotone, which is defined as a region of transition where two or more distinct biological habitats abut. Riepenhoff juxtaposed the south shoreline print with works made on the opposite side of the lake, to symbolize the aesthetic difference in each region’s water composition. This process is akin to the scientific method where systematic observation and measurement are used to test a theory, in this case: what is the difference in water quality on opposite sides of the Great Salt Lake due to its status as an ecotone?

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Erasure #4 (Bainbridge Island, WA 03.24.18, .23” Precipitation), 2018
Dynamic Cyanotype
Approximately 89” x 42” (226 x 106.5 cm)
© Meghann Riepenhoff, Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Riepenhoff also explores the aesthetic and vigorous qualities of storm water in another series of cyanotypes called Erasures. These prints are made when the storm runoff hits the prepared cyanotype paper. The length of the storm and the volume of water washing away large quantities of the cyanotype chemistry, results in a light tone with marks that recall painterly brushstrokes.

Data for weather and climate in the form of graphs and Doppler imagery is something that we rely on heavily each day. These data sets tell us about what to expect, but it is often hard to envision the environmental impact of the meteorological event until it is experienced. Art has a compelling way of making implied information relevant to our sense of visual perception, while leaving room for the viewer to interpret and include experiential elements.

Riepenhoff’s artwork visualizes the intricate force and physicality of storms and the variance of ecosystems in real time. The resulting engagement with nature is a subjective approach to capturing the essence of the biosphere and our individual interactions with nature. She can’t control the strength of a wave, the duration of the rainfall or the strength of the storm, but she makes a conscious effort to decide where to place her paper and how long to leave it out in the elements. The overarching result is a body of work that traces both the environment’s volatility and the artist’s deliberate choices.

This duality between consciousness and exploration is a crux of artful learning. The arts help us to develop critical thinking and flexible purposing skills that probe and conceptualize natural and cultural phenomena. The benefit of art-centered learning in scientific research and educational curricula, is that it adds an element of lived experience and personalization to a field largely engrossed in quantitative data and academic research. Art illuminates the ways that we interact with our environment and each other, and its captivating properties can raise awareness for issues affecting our shared natural resources. This is the case for Riepenhoff’s work, which subtly and discerningly depicts our interaction with the rest of the natural world.


Selected works from the Ecotone and Erasure series are on view at Yossi Milo Gallery (245 Tenth Avenue, New York, NY 10001) through June 22, 2019.

 

Artful Quantification: Environmental Graphiti

In an age where data seems to dictate many aspects of our culture, it is nice to see the artful interpretations of Alisa Singer, who transforms quantitative scientific analysis on climate change into colorful and expressive works of art.

Previously, I discussed the work of Nancy Graves, who blurred the line between abstract and representational paintings with her series of works that commented on satellite imagery and mapping technology. Graves’ imagery showed the ways that maps can be a form of both objective and subjective information.

Like Graves, Alisa Singer utilizes the evocative nature of art in order to bring awareness to the way civilizations rely heavily on data and infographics, while not always forming a personal and meaningful relationship to the information. Big data is daunting, and unless you have a background studying it, charts and graphs feel largely removed from the lived experience. In her series of digital paintings called Environmental Graphiti, Singer analyzes charts and graphs from world climate reports, in order to re-present them in a way that stirs emotional responses and aims to get viewers to make deeper connections to climate change. The title of the series incorporates a playful rewording of the art style graffiti to describe the fusion of quantitative data and emotive art. It is an apt name for Singer’s contemporary and hip artworks that resemble the aesthetic and conceptual nature of painterly public art, while spreading scientific awareness.

The elements of art such as color, line and shape have symbolic properties that communicate and make associations to mood, memory and archetypal signifiers. In Singer’s work, these elements are incorporated along with principals of design such as balance, unity and contrast, in order to create compositions that effectively symbolize causes, effects and actions related to addressing climate change.

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Alisa Singer, Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise, Digital Art on Metal 30″ W X 40″ H. Courtesy of the artist.

 

The Environmental Graphiti paintings are categorized into three identifying topics:

  • WHY is our climate changing? → Gallery A
  • HOW is climate change affecting our world? → Gallery B
  • WHO is at risk? → Gallery C
  • WHAT can we do to address climate change? → Gallery

One example of the ‘WHY’ is Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise, a semi-abstract digital painting inspired by a graph from the Third National Climate Assessment, Climate Change Impacts in the United States, USGCRP (2014). Singer uses warm and cool colors in a manner that symbolizes the temperature changes due to greenhouse gas emissions. In ‘HOW,’ paintings like Wildfires expressively portray how climate change is affecting natural disasters by changing the conditions of soil and moisture. The result is an increase in drier conditions that provide ample kindling for devastating wildfires.

 

‘WHO’ is at risk? Every living being on the planet is affected due to a myriad of factors such as disease, caused by rising temperatures, displacement of water sources caused by agriculture and industry. The painting Vector-Borne Diseases resembles the form of a mosquito filled in with a palette of vibrant colors, gesturally blended together. The mosquito is actually composed of text (see sketch above) related to vector-borne diseases such as Dengue Fever, Malaria and Zika. The enduring question of ‘WHAT’ we can do to address climate change, is presented through works such as Climate Change Mitigation and U.N. Sustainability Goals. In this digital artwork, Singer illuminates the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which was adopted in 2015. The original chart that the painting was based on, shows the correlation between sustainable development that protects the environment, and social development such as poverty eradication and reducing inequalities. The painting translates the U.N.’s graph into  glittering bands of color, as if to symbolize the hope and perseverance for reversing negative cultural and environmental trends.

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Alisa Singer, Climate Change Mitigation and U.N. Sustainability Goals, Digital Art on Metal 30″ W X 35.4″ H. Courtesy of the artist.

Singer’s combination of art and science helps make data more appealing and compelling because it transforms big data into a visual narrative that can be described, analyzed and valued using both concrete and abstract thought. We are able to assign feelings to the quantitative information due to the elements of art and design at play in these compositions. This adds a component of compassion and enables us to make connections between statistics and our daily life experiences.

While data is a great way for scientists and policy makers to organize and keep track of their research and facts, it isn’t always the best determiner for learning. Not everyone in the populace thinks along analytical mindsets (see: Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences). Learning is experiential; based on a combination of observation, socialization and the connections we make between ourselves and the world around us. These elements cannot often be neatly charted or mapped out. The work of artists like Singer and Graves, eloquently express how a painting can be worth ‘a thousand words,’ or in the case of the Environmental Graphiti series, sets of raw climate data.

 

 

 

 

Social and Emotional Learning for Artificial Intelligence

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Conversation between the robot Bina48 and artist Stephanie Dinkins.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the biggest and most ambitious futuristic concept that has arrived at our cultural doorstep (still no flying cars…). For decades, the concept of AI has been surmised and depicted through genres of science fiction, as well as through other fantastical media that conflated fiction with reality. Today, after many years of on and off research and development, we are starting to see the effects of how AI might interact and inform our collective culture. As theorized by some of the previous sci-fi accounts, AI can have both advantageous and detrimental impacts on our society.

One of the most problematic consequences of AI is its predisposition to exhibit discriminatory bias towards marginalized communities. Science journalist Daniel Cossins (2018) writes about five algorithms that exposed AI’s prejudice towards non-white men. The five discriminating algorithms include racial, gender and economic bias towards minorities. This is troubling because AI is increasingly being used by advertisers, job recruiters and the criminal justice system. AI’s favoring of white folks disturbingly revisits the revelatory insights gained from ‘the doll test,’ which was performed by Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark during the 1940s. In the Clark’s doll test, it was revealed that black children were conditioned to assign negative traits towards their own race and social status. When the Clarks presented African-American children with a black doll and a white doll and asked them which doll they preferred, the children overwhelmingly chose the white doll. Furthermore, they attributed more positive attributes to the white doll than to the black doll. The study reflects how segregation and racial stereotypes have a significant impact on a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development, and does enormous damage to their self-esteem. The poignant results of the doll tests were pivotal in deciding the Brown vs. Board of Education case, which ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional (Blakemore, 2018).

Unfortunately, while our social and emotional awareness regarding instersectionality has improved, there have not been nearly enough improvements to overcoming systemic racism and gender disparity. Artificial Intelligence, which is supposed to mimic our cognitive functions, such as learning, critical thinking and problem solving, provides a stark assessment of how far we are from achieving equal, equitable and social justice throughout our society. However, the arts have a problem-posing model (collaboration and critical thinking via dialogue between students and educators, which leads to liberation and empowerment. See: Freire, 1970) that sheds light on the possibilities for humans and artificial intelligence to collectively engage in genuine modes of listening, dialogue and action.

Transdisciplinary artist, Stephanie Dinkins, realized that AI was negatively conflating gender and race and has set out to explore and discover ways for AI to exhibit a greater sense of social and emotional understanding and ethical behavior. The big question within Dinkins’ work, is whether it is possible to teach a robot the habits of mind that will create an environment of hope, love, humility and trust (Freire, 1970) and empower humans and machines alike to be empathetic and virtuous collaborators.

Dinkins’ project Conversations with Bina48 (2014-ongoing), is a collaborative problem posing model involving the artist, a group of youth participants and an AI unit by the name of Bina48. Over the past five years, Dinkins has been building a relationship with a robot named Bina48, who was built with the capabilities to communicate individual thoughts and emotions. Bina48 is also representative of a black woman, however, the overarching issue is whether or not she can truly comprehend and reflect upon issues of race, gender and economic inequity.

The conversations between Dinkins and Bina48 blur the lines between human and non-human consciousness, exploring what it means to be a living being and whether it is possible to achieve transhumanism (life beyond our physical bodies). The depth of the interpersonal interactions encompasses the philosophical and is surprisingly profound, with moments of absurdity, where it is obvious that the human experience does not fully compute with Bina48. While Bina48 was able to answer Dinkins’ question about whether or not it knows racism, the response was both compelling, semi-relational and frustrating all at once. It is evident that there is still a great deal of learning necessary for robots to repletely understand and make meaningful connections to the intersectionality of identities that comprises human nature.

Because the algorithms used by these robots disproportionately reflect experiences outside of communities of color, AI needs to do a better job finding patterns and making connections (two studio habits of mind learned through the arts) to large populations that are marginalized by these algorithms.  To address this glaring discrepancy,  Dinkins enlisted several youth and adult participants from communities of color to develop inquiry based questions and dialogues that could be programmed into AI algorithms that support their communities. The ongoing project is titled Project al-Khwarizmi (PAK), and the transdisciplinary dialogue (which utilizes aesthetics, coding, speech and language) shows that there is possibility for co-learning and the creation of new sincere knowledge between humans and intelligent machines. When machines learn in ways that are similar to human data processing either through supervision, semi-supervision, or on their own, it is known as ‘deep learning’.

The results of AI’s ability for ‘deep learning’ is represented in another ongoing project by Dinkins called Not The Only One (N’Too). In this project, an AI unit presents a familial memoir, which develops via dialogue between a multi-generational African-American family and a deep learning AI algorithm that collects data about their life experiences and demographic information. Through active listening, the emotionally intelligent AI will be able to relate the collective stories of others in an intimate manner that shows it is growing both emotionally and cognitively. With each new narrative the AI will build upon its vocabulary and relatable topics.

If we are going to continue on the current trajectory, where AI is poised to become embedded into the fabric of our society, it is essential for us to develop methodologies and practices that ensure that the relationship between humans and machines follows problem-posing models. If humans and their robot counterparts are able to understand one another through active listening, dialogue and participatory action, then the world is far less likely to resemble the dystopic prophecies that sci-fi genres have illustrated.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Blakemore, Erin. “How Dolls Helped Win Brown vs. Board of Education.” History. 27 Mar. 2018. https://www.history.com/news/brown-v-board-of-education-doll-experiment

Cossins, Daniel. “Discriminating algorithms: 5 times AI showed prejudice.” New Scientist.  27 Apr. 2018. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2166207-discriminating-algorithms-5-times-ai-showed-prejudice/

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Russell, Stuart J. and Norvig, Peter. 2003. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Artfully Mapping

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Nancy Graves, Untitled #127 (Drawing of the Moon), c.1972, watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper, 30 x 22 1/2 inches. (c) 2019 Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by VAGA, New York; Courtesy of the Nancy Graves Foundation and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Nancy Graves’ art explores the connections between art, science, technology and geography. Her early 1970s conceptual paintings and drawings inspired by technological progressions in cartography, such as satellite imagery of the Earth, Moon and Mars, are currently on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash‘s Chelsea location in New York City through April 6, 2019.

Graves’ compositions featured in the exhibition (titled Mapping), combine the aesthetic qualities of maps with scientific inquiry, in order to investigate both the aesthetic and informative nature of mapping. Her artistic process was akin to the way scientists research data, test theories and utilize technology and matter in revelatory ways. Through combining qualitative and quantitative information, Graves portrays maps as both formal abstractions and figurative representations of human explorations, insights and discoveries.

Graves’ map inspired work prompts us to think about the legibility of information, patterns in nature, and our own personal bias regarding geography and technology. While science is an essential discipline for explaining the world, the arts humanize and intuit the essence of the world in ways that give gravity and symbolic meaning to scientific data.

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Nancy Graves, Mars, 1973, acrylic on canvas 4 panels, overall: 96 x 288 inches. (c) 2019 Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by VAGA, New York; Courtesy of the Nancy Graves Foundation and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

One of the centerpieces in the exhibition is the mural-sized acrylic on canvas painting titled Mars (1973). The painting references NASA satellite imagery of Earth’s planetary neighbor, which was first being made public during the time that she was painting this 24 foot long composition. Graves’ painting reveals the topographic elements of Mars in a fragmented and abstract manner. This recalls the nature of how visual information is sometimes disseminated through arbitrary signals. The artist’s rendering of the satellite image, shows that data can be read both literally and figuratively.

Graves’ work is a perfect example of why STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) curricula is important within the educational sphere. With so much focus being put into learning science and technology, it is necessary at times to transcend literal authenticity and think symbolically in terms of our physical and metaphysical connection with the world. Art gives us a platform to incorporate subjectivity into objective knowledge. The inclusion of arts with other disciplines also enables us to develop and implement well rounded characteristics that can increase our ethical, social and emotional well-being. When artists make connections between art and science, they create novel ways of observing and expressing material and impressionistic views of the world. This ability to think and work within and beyond the physical and metaphysical realms can result in a springboard for innovative and empathetic undertakings.

Full STEAM ahead!

We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits

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Froebel Gift #3

In the book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers and Play (2017), Mitchel Resnick asserts that the playful and choice based curriculum typically employed in early educational settings should be the foundation for life-long learning. He says that educational models should focus on a materials based exploration and student-driven projects that employ creative problem solving skills. He argues that a great way to do this is by strategically incorporating digital manipulatives and computer programming into the curriculum. Resnick is a distinguished educator, computer scientist and researcher who is currently the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, Director of the Okawa Center, co-founder of the Computer Clubhouse and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, the latter of which contributes insights into ways that technological progression can benefit pedagogy.

Resnick is optimistic regarding the embrace of technology as the catalyst for teaching to the whole child. He has first hand insight of the benefits gained from creative play within collaborative technological environments because of the positive results he’s experienced creating and implementing the Computer Clubhouse and the programming language Scratch. In 1993, Resnick and Natalie Rusk co-founded the Computer Clubhouse in order to provide a safe and collaborative space for youth living in underserved communities to learn programming and explore original ideas for tech based projects. The Computer Clubhouse empowers 25,000 youth each year to build their computer skills, become creative innovators and develop self esteem and efficacy through their work.

Scratch is a child-centered visual programming language, which makes it easier for kids to develop their own animated stories, video games and interactive artworks. Scratch programming has inspired ambitious child-centered initiatives (many good examples are mentioned in Lifelong Kindergarten) and the creation of a global community where new ideas for projects are posed, creative templates and technical strategies are shared and peer-to-peer critiques offer constructive support. Through a playful and interpersonal embrace of technology, Scratch and the Computer Clubhouse are educating and emboldening the future innovators of the world.

The arts, science, engineering, mathematics and education are just some of the many domains that have been affected by technological progression. In the visual arts, the advent of different types of paint significantly influenced the way individuals communicated and even profited. During the Northern Renaissance (15th century Europe, north of the Alps), the embrace of oil paint on a wooden substrate (oil on wood panels), signified a technological revolution (see: paint technology) because it enabled artists to explore techniques like glazing and layering paint. In the later half of the 15th century, canvas was introduced as an alternative to the portable but still expensive and cumbersome wooden panels. The advent of canvas as a surface for oil paint was a strong boost to the artist/patron relationship and by around the 16th century, oil painting was established as a commodity (see: Berger, 1972).

Traditional oil painting was a stable form of aesthetic technology that artists used to depict the world around them until the introduction and embrace of photographic medium and processes in the mid-19th century. As a result of photography, some artists who remained devoted to painting, developed new techniques and explored subject matter that was indicative of contemporary technological interests such as industry, scientific theory, mechanics and the sequence of movement (i.e. Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Viennese Kineticism). American painters such as Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella and Elsie Driggs, were incredibly enthusiastic about the technological advances during the early 20th century, and subsequently invented an aesthetic mode called Precisionism, which championed modern technology such as factories, bridges and skyscrapers. Art in the 21st century includes digital video, interactive games, sound sculptures, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

As evident from prior history, the idea that education, the arts and technology should compliment each other is not solely a novel objective that reflects our digital age. It is true that we are experiencing an increased interactivity (far more than ever before) with digital technology throughout the world, which makes exploring, learning and enjoying the possibilities of technology all the more beneficial. However, technology has a longstanding relationship with learning and the two disciplines have largely been symbiotic partners, enabling many important breakthroughs in each field. Throughout the decades before and after the industrial revolution, art was an important subject for students to learn in primary, secondary and university settings. In previous posts, I have described the way the arts were seen as a counterbalance to the dehumanization of the worker in light of industrialization (see: Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World). As John Ruskin aptly put it: “Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality.” Even before machinery dominated the American landscape, Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest proponents for art education, specifically drawing, to be included in the Colonial school curriculum. Drawing programs in schools were often centered on technical rendering skills that could be useful in designing modern architecture and industrial mechanisms. Specialized trade schools were established for industrial laborers and the curriculum incorporated artistic techniques and artisan principals that celebrated craftsmanship and good design. In fact, vocational training prior to World War II was known as “industrial arts,” and developed a mutual (albeit on and off again) relationship up until the end of World War II (Sterling & Burke, 1997).

Unfortunately, as Sterling and Burke (1997) described, the relationship between the arts and technology faltered in the period following World War II. The school curriculum gradually shifted towards a heavy focus on common core subjects (in preparation for colleges and universities and corporate jobs), standardized tests and quantitative assessments, which resulted in art and vocational programs being cut and underfunded in schools. While this is still a major issue today (see: The State of the Art…In Schools), the arts have been making a steady comeback as a key educational component in tandem with other academic areas of study.

The utilization of technology via the artistic process has led to educational curricula that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) learning. STEAM signifies the importance of fluidly combining creative and collaborative endeavors, which stem from our desire to understand and interact with the world in a more meaningful and productive manner. Contemporary artists have been at the at the forefront of collaborative projects with scientists and engineers (see: E.A.T – STEAM & Experiential Explorations, Discoveries and Insights), therefore it makes sense that STEAM learning is employed in educational settings because it combines rational thinking and scientific processes with inventive and mindful uses of technology. This combination can be beneficial in designing and implementing expressive, empathetic and sustainable approaches to address major aesthetic, sociocultural, environmental and economic issues (see:Activating Art and Education for Activism). Some educators have even suggested the addition of R (reading and research) so that STEAM becomes STREAM. This addition is appropriate because literacy and research methods are essential in the arts as well as in science and technology.

Perhaps the most important breakthrough in education was the advent of Kindergarten, a sociocultural revelation, which foresaw the importance that play and materials based exploration has on innovation. The contemporary version of Kindergarten (and Pre-Kindergarten) was the design of German educator Friedrich Fröbel. Fröbel was a mentee of the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose approach to “Learning by head, hand and heart,” led to a sweeping modernization of the educational system in Switzerland. Like his mentor, Fröbel believed in a strong social, emotional and embodied approach to teaching. His methodology incorporated Pestalozzi’s idea of teaching to the whole child, which means that every facet of a child’s life has a vital impact on the development of their personality, identity and cognition. Fröbel realized that the best way to educate the whole child is through activities and play. He stated:

“The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.” (Published in an issue of his magazine Ein Sonntagsblatt für Gleichgesinnte (A Sunday Paper for the Like-Minded) (See: http://www.froebeldecade.com/sonntagsblatt/)

Fröbel was especially devoted to early childhood education and opened a school for young children in Bad Blankenburg, Germany in 1837. He recognized that children from infancy to age three experience dramatic cognitive development, although prior systems of education had been lacking for this age group. In 1840 he invented the word ‘Kindergarten’ to describe his school’s curriculum. The methods of embodied learning taught at Fröbel’s inaugural Kindergarten included singing, dancing, gardening and playing with a new technological breakthrough he created called Froebel Gifts. Froebel Gifts are educational tools that inspire active learning through play and choice-based projects. Each of the Froebel Gifts was given a numerical value by Fröbel, which signified the order in which they should be introduced to the child. The gifts build upon the child’s prior knowledge and experience and enable the child to create and understand spatial relationships through artful activities.

The original gifts are still produced and used in classrooms and are the link to digital manipulatives such as LEGO Mindstorms, as well as other digitally programmed building toys that inspire self-directed play, which Fröbel coined as ‘Freiarbeit’ (free work). While the original Froebel Gifts are seemingly simple in their design (see: Intro to Froebel Gifts), they are highly advanced in the way they promote social, emotional and cognitive development. Froebel Gifts were one of the most revolutionary innovations for early childhood learning, because they provided young children with a means to playfully explore, manipulate and make insightful connections to the world around them. The influence of Froebel Gifts is highly noted by the visionary architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was given a set of Froebel blocks as a child and has stated the influence that playing with these blocks had on his work as one of the most innovative architects of the modern era. Wright stated: “For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top . . . and played . . . with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks . . . All are in my fingers to this day . . .” (George, 2000).

Individual artists and art collectives such as Antonio Ballester Moreno, Meow Wolf and Get Your Life!, take art and play very seriously in their multidisciplinary work. Many of their ongoing projects and creative endeavors embrace the idea of playful explorations leading to insightful lifelong learning and other benefits.

Antonio Ballester Moreno is a Spanish born contemporary artist and curator whose current artistic philosophy and practice is similar to Fröbel’s 18th century pedagogical philosophy and methodology. Both individuals explore(d) the interconnection between creativity and activities, as informed via an understanding and engagement with the natural world. Moreno’s Vivam os campos livres (Long Live the Free Fields) (2018) is a literal ‘garden for the children,’ which is the actual German translation of Kindergarten. The sculptural installation consists of ceramic mushrooms and fungi sculpted by school children in São Paulo, Brazil, which Moreno arranged on the floor in the form of a mandala. It references Moreno’s ongoing aesthetic, social and pedagogical interest, which manifests itself in his oeuvre of abstract geometric artwork.

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Antonio Ballester Moreno, Mountains #2, 2016, acrylic on jute, 36 1/4 x 28 3/4 inches. Courtesy of Christopher Grimes Projects, Santa Monica, California.

Within Moreno’s body of work, the concept of building on prior knowledge and experience is established through explorations that lead to insights within the framework of abstraction. For example, his large paintings such as Sol (2018) and Mountains #2 (2016) utilize an essential visual vocabulary from the elements of art (shape, line, color, balance and form) to create archetypal imagery out of rudimentary geometric relationships. These paintings employ the aesthetics of geometry and abstraction to create new meaning and make connections to recognizable forms that already exist in nature. They illuminate how both natural and synthetic forms are all interrelated in our collective lexicon. This is akin to the way the Froebel Gifts build upon each other and enable young children to expand their vocabulary, cognition and creativity through activities involving play with building blocks and manipulatives.  The link between pedagogy, nature and abstract artistic discourse was even more evident in ‘common/sense,’ a group show that Moreno curated for the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo. The exhibition featured his own work – such as the aforementioned Vivam os campos livres (Long Live the Free Fields) – alongside a display of objects from Froebel’s Gifts and mathematical games conceived by Fröbel.

Meow Wolf is a large multidisciplinary collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The group consists of members who have a wide range of unique personal experiences, academic knowledge and professional backgrounds. Some of the members include artists, architects, computer scientists, designers, film producers, performers and writers. With such an expansive creative team, Meow Wolf is able to create immersive projects where visitors can interact and fully experience the work of art in a personal and memorable manner. A work of art is meant to be experienced repletely and not just passed over with a quick fleeting glance. The summation of the artistic experience consists of the artist(s) conceiving the work and the viewer’s sensory responses to viewing and interfacing with the work. Because we each perceive things uniquely, Meow Wolf’s work enables an open-ended set of responses from the viewer. In the video above, each of the visitors describes their experience within Meow Wolf’s site-specific installation differently. It is like ‘being inside a Salvador Dali painting’ for one individual, while another person described it as ‘a big mystery’ where you have to put together clues, and yet another person interpreted it as ‘different levels of experience depending on your degree of consciousness.’ Several people aptly said that ‘it’s so cool,’ and mentioned that mere words wouldn’t do the total experience justice.

Overall, there is a unifying element to the installation, which reminds us that art, technology and life are intrinsically connected. While we each have our own individual experiences, we also share in the collective experience that is possible through art and a cognizant embrace of technology. Meow Wolf’s installations are fun to view solo, but arguably even better to enjoy with a large group.

In his book Art as Experience (1934), Dewey stated that there is a continuity between works of art and everyday life. Engaging a work of art from an experiential and socially relevant  point of view is more fulfilling than bestowing it as an idealized object of “high art” (art for arts sake) placed behind a glass frame or high upon a pedestal. In other words, Dewey is arguing that art should serve a utilitarian purpose through its relative usefulness in reflecting and supporting our daily lives and activities. This philosophy makes even more sense when viewing Meow Wolf’s work, which can be summarized as a type of ‘art for the masses.’ Meow Wolf’s work is complex, however, it is open, inviting and stimulating to viewers from all walks of life.

Dewey’s idea of democracy and socialization through the arts is elevated in the fun, playful and socioculturally conscious work of Get Your Life! (GYL!) This youth-led collective/production company is made up of middle school students who harness art’s ability to empower individuals and communities. GYL! utilizes both traditional and digital materials to make a variety of art work that speaks to the current experience of the student artists. They reflect upon topics that have significance in their lives, as well as overarching themes (like consumerism, technology, education, politics, sports, etc.) that are experienced throughout the society they are a part of. The students collaborate with a wide range of professional studio artists and art organizations to realize multidisciplinary and multimedia driven projects. The consistent adult in the collective is Lee Heinemann, an artist and educator who helped develop the concept along with youth participants at 901 Arts in Baltimore, Maryland’s Better Waverly neighborhood.

One of the central projects that GYL! focuses on is video production, which is an in demand skill for today’s professional environment. The videos that GYL! creates address issues that are both highly personal as well as significant of a collective conscious among the middle school age collective. The themes in the videos are topics that are largely of interest to young adolescents, such as fashion, online games, phones, electronics and television programs like Empire (see: KARISMA: The Karisma Daniels Show). They also delve into some deeper concerns such as equality, equity and social justice, which is playfully expressed in the video NIA: Queen Chastity Chrystal Enchantment II.

While viewing the recent Get Your Life! exhibition, titled Commons Collaboration: Get Your Life! at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I happened to have my copy of Dewey’s Art as Experience in my shoulder bag. The enchanting student art work was aptly reflective of the statement on page 132 (page number might vary depending upon the edition):

“Whatever path the work of art pursues, it, just because it is a full and intense experience, keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness.”

The exhibition was a refreshing way of validating that artwork within institutions remains connected and committed to the human experience.

Overall, the use of technology by artists, educators and students (of all ages) in mindful ways can be extremely beneficial to their social, emotional and cognitive well-being. The keyword in the previous sentence is ‘mindful.’ Technology for technology’s sake and art for art’s sake isn’t the answer. We all need to focus on incorporating these disciplines into our daily lives in a productive and egalitarian manner. As evident in the theories and work of Resnick, Fröbel, Dewey, Moreno, Meow Wolf and GYL! experiential learning through engaging social and meaningful processes empowers artists, techies and laypeople to maximize their creative pursuits and enjoy a fulfilling life. As our collective society becomes more dependent on technology, we need artists and educators to reveal the enormous learning potential that technology can have when it is utilized in a both a utilitarian and highly expressive manner.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Berger, John. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Brosterman, Norman. (1997). Inventing Kindergarten. New York: Harry N. Adams Inc.

Butler, Richard. & Oldham, Elizabeth. (2007). Digital Manipulatives as Froebel’s Gifts in the 21st Century? Pre-Service Teachers Report on their Experience of Using Lego Mindstorms with Children in Irish Schools. In R. Carlsen, K. McFerrin, J. Price, R. Weber & D. Willis (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2007–Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 1417-1424). San Antonio, Texas, USA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved November 21, 2018 from https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/24762/.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience. New York : Minton, Balch & Company.

Efland, Arthur D. (1990). A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hersey, George. (2000). Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 205.

Pietrowski, Amy. “The Differences of STEM vs. STEAM Education (and the Rise of STREAM).” EdTech. https://edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2017/08/history-stem-vs-steam-education-and-rise-stream.

Resnick, Mitchel. (2017). Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sterling, Carol. & Burke, Fred G. “Vocational Education and the Arts Education: An Important Synergy.” Counterfocus, n17 Apr 1997.

E.A.T – STEAM & Experiential Explorations, Discoveries, and Insights

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Fujiko Nakaya, Fog Sculpture #94925 “Foggy Wake in a Desert: An Ecosphere,” Sculpture Garden, Australian National Gallery, Canberra. Photo by Bertie Mabootoo

Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) is a non-profit organization co-founded by contemporary artists and engineers from Bell Labs in order to push the boundaries of artistic expression through the use of modern technology. E.A.T began in 1966 under the leadership of artists Robert Whitman and Robert Rauschenberg and engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer. The founding members believed that technological innovations could expand contemporary artists’ repertoire and visual vocabulary, while the social and emotional expressionism realized through tech-based artworks would be inspirational for engineers to create more empathetic innovations that benefit society.  The creative and playful experimentation and collaboration inherent in E.A.T’s multidisciplinary approach has enormous benefits across the primary and secondary educational curriculum (see: Resnick, 2017) and within society at large.

When E.A.T was launched, it was immediately popular within the art and engineering communities. A diverse range of artists and engineers (over 4,000 members) were partnered to collaborate on proposed projects. The organization didn’t exclude any one artist’s proposal nor cast judgement over the perceived aesthetic value within the project. E.A.T diligently matched artists and engineers based on the uniqueness of each proposal. They wanted to make sure that the relationship between engineers and artists was mutually beneficial and relevant. The results were immersive avant-garde artistic innovations such as Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculptures, which were first realized through E.A.T’s participation at the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.

In addition to art related projects, E.A.T’s series called “Projects Outside of Art” focused on art and technology centered explorations in interdisciplinary areas such as communications/telecommunications, agriculture, and multiculturalism. For example, the Anand Project (1969), brought artists and engineers to the Anand Dairy Cooperative  in Delhi, India to create an educational television network for the rural community. The project was initiated by E.A.T’s Billy Klüver and Robert Whitman along with Vikram Sarabhai of the Nehru Foundation for Development (Delhi, India). The Anand Project developed an educational program for women dairy farmers via the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), which made educational programing accessible to Indians living outside of major cities. Over 50 years later, E.A.T has continued to support cross-disciplinary partnerships between artists, scientists, and engineers.

Collaborations between artists and engineers are inspiring for each discipline, which is why STEAM based learning initiatives have been gaining steam (pun intended) in schools. Art classrooms need to embrace contemporary digital and mechanical culture. Computers, digital media software, 3D printers, nuts, bolts, switches, and gears should be as readily available for students’ creative use as paintbrushes and paints. When art and technology are combined to creatively solve problems or symbolically express an issue, the results are technological innovations that are favorable to the social and emotional needs of the general public. Artists who learn how to communicate via technology open themselves up to a larger audience, which exists outside of museums and galleries (see: Cory Arcangel and Debora Hirsch). Engineers who employ studio habits of mind develop technology that greatly benefits our well being because of their understanding of how art enhances our appreciation for the world and our understanding of each other.

Technology is developing at a rapid pace and an unanticipated consequence is it’s depersonalization on human relationships in some instancesThrough STEAM based learning and art-centered technological projects however, advancements in technology can be harnessed for humanitarian purposes such as environmentalism and social justice activism. When used in tandem with interpersonal relationships, technology can expand our range of communication and bridge the gap between diverse groups of people. Art is about pushing the limits of materials and ideas in order to re-present a portrait of the human condition. With the artful utilization of technology, we are able to boldly innovate and express ourselves through endless dimensions. 


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Resnick, Mitchel. 2017. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Battista, Kathy; Forti, Simone; Morris, Catherine; and others. 2016. E.A.T. Experiments in Arts and Technology. Cologne: Walther König, Köln.