Get Ready for ArtTech

As visitors of ArtPrize in Grand Rapids will soon discover, amazing things happen when art teams up with technology.  So get ready to strap on your personal jetpack because the future arrives next week, when you can become part of artwork as well as view it.

There will be opportunities to see yourself flow like sparkling water in a stream, admire artwork created with the help of robotics, and view the work of artists whose palettes come from computer displays.  You can even let your fingers act like paint brushes on a 24-square-foot electronic canvas at what may be the nation's largest demonstration of multi-touch technology.

But there will also be an enduring and very human side of the ArtPrize competition that will persist long after the hype of Tomorrow land fades in early October.

"Personally I have been incredibly enriched by meeting these artists and talking with them," says Bill Smith, owner of CompuCraft Inc., 620 Stocking NW, that is a venue hosting ArtPrize artists who employed technology in their works. "It's wonderful to find out what they are doing, how they're doing it and coordinating with them. They are just phenomenal people."

And there isn't any doubt that artists who have taken a better peek into industry's deep toolbox are returning the admiration.  They are now considering entirely new media for their art, based upon their ArtPrize experience.

With a total purse of $449,000, the competition centered around downtown Grand Rapids running from Sept. 23 to Oct. 10 is billed as the world's largest cash prize for art.  The public will vote to decide which artworks win the top $250,000 prize and nine other cash awards. 

At the Edge
Probably the group that is on the leading edge of the arts/technology cusp will be housed at ActiveSite, 40 Monroe, where the future will come at you like a stainless steel bowling ball on high-speed rail. Literally.

Fabricators were putting the finishing touches on a rail system installed on the ceiling of ActiveSite this week that uses hollow steel balls propelled by compressed air to deliver on-the-spot, custom-made T-shirts to visitors. It's not quite art, but it's flashy.

However, the T-shirts themselves act as the key to an "augmented reality" demonstration, one of the several ways in which people turn themselves into art at ActiveSite, says Claas Kuhnen, 33, assistant professor of industrial design at Kendall College of Art and Design and an ActiveSite participant.   ActiveSite's augmented reality is taking images of people with video cameras and merging those images with computer-generated graphics and information.

In one demonstration, a person wearing a T-shirt sporting an "AS" logo looks as a normal person would on the computer monitor -- except that a  3-D graphic of the floor plan of ActiveSite is shooting out of his chest like a guy who has just taken a stump-sized arrow in the back.  The graphic follows every motion of the T-shirt wearer, showing an accurate rendering of floor plan as it would look from above, below or side to side.

Another demonstration in motion tracking and the flow of people aims "to make the ActiveSite space as a piece of art," says Grant Carmichael , who last year launched his ThinkXD LLC consulting firm in Grand Rapids to develop user interface systems. 

 Carmichael, 40, who holds a bachelor's degree in industrial design from Carnegie Mellon University, showed a demo of the system earlier this week on a decidedly 20th century laptop resting on a shopping cart, but he promised that the future will arrive in time for the beginning of ArtPrize.

Visitors can have reflectors about an inch square stuck to the top of their shoulders as they enter ActiveSite.  Spotlights in the ceiling shower invisible infrared light onto the floor, and PlayStation 3 cameras also mounted in the ceiling catch the reflections of the people as they flow through ActiveSite.  The result on a large screen computer monitor resembles the graceful swirling of embers rising from a campfire -- a constantly changing piece of art created by movement through space.

Carmichael says visitors can also get a feel for interactive technology and art through a demonstration put on by Jason Sosa, who founded Immersive Labs in Holland to commercialize a different way for humans to interact with computers. 

Standing in front of a screen 8 feet by 3 feet, Sosa can use both hands at the same time to create cascading waterfalls of light as the computer system tracks his every motion with infrared light and detectors.

Projected onto the screen that senses his hand’s motions, Sosa’s system responds when he uses his hand to grasp an item and drag it into a different location. Using infrared light, cameras embedded in the screen recognize touches and swiping motions, then tell items on the screen how to respond to the user’s commands.

Possibly the largest demonstration of multi-touch technology in the nation, Sosa says he received critical cooperation from Natural User Interface Inc., in Silicon Valley, CA, to scale up the software to the size screen employed at ActiveSite.

Mechanical Muscle
But not all of the art/technology collaboration shown off at ArtPrize is just computer imagery. Sometimes the computer can lend some muscle to actually build works of art.

When  local artist Kelly Allen  heard about ArtPrize, she was excited about the possibility of entering a piece that would capture her skill at creating finely detailed art with "biomorphic imagery."  But there was a problem: she paints on such a small scale that she sometimes uses a magnifying glass to fill in minute lines of fish scales and cat's whiskers.

"When ArtPrize came up, I knew I had to think of something big, otherwise my work would be entirely overlooked," says Allen, 30, who holds a master's degree in fine arts from Kendall.

Through a fortunate turn of events, Allen found out about the laser metal cutting capabilities of Grand Rapids Chair Co. and "that's when the idea came off in my head that: Wow, I wonder if I can take one of my tiny, super-detailed paintings, and blow it up to huge proportions on some laser cut steel."

The result in the hands of design engineer Chris Pabst is an impressive and complex piece called "A Star is a Seed" that Allen says has "tons of angles, curves and knocked out shapes," all precisely cut from a 4 x 8 foot sheet of 1/8 inch thick steel. 

 It was a day-long wrestling match between Pabst and robotic limbs of the laser cutter to navigate the geometry of the artwork, using the limited memory of the laser controller. He had to break up Allen's huge data file that initially choked the controller into eight smaller packages that it could digest and round out lines and curves so they intersected exactly.  But Pabst prevailed.

"It's gorgeous," Allen says. "When you look at the piece, it contains a big tiger, flowers, a molecule, a fish and other images -- all cut with such precision that I can have whiskers extending off the tiger's face that are very, very thin and really strong. It was simply amazing what they could do." She says the experience has given her an appreciation of an entirely new medium to explore as an artist.

Allen says she was amazed further by the support Grand Rapids Chair showed.  One of America's leading providers of chairs and tables for restaurants, hotels, casinos and other commercial establishments,  the company donated the steel to Allen's project.

Community Support
Other local companies are showing their support for the techie artists.

CompuCraft is serving as a venue during ArtPrize for six artists who "range from high tech to high touch," says Smith, 53, who founded the company in 1987 that now serves as an integrator of Mac computers into PC environments, as well as support for graphic artists and other applications. "In our venue, we will be able to show both ends of the continuum,"  he says , adding that the artwork will start to be installed this coming weekend.

On the high tech end of the spectrum, CompuCraft is hosting the works of artists who practice their art on computer screens using a variety of software packages. Midland artist Tiffaney Berlin is scheduled to display 2-D art created as an abstract image that started with a digital photograph, then used the computer to turn that into digital art as an "abstracted image of a hidden world."

Jeffrey Klynstra, a graduate from Jenison High School who now works as a designer and digital sculptor in Chicago, used 3DS Studio Max and Z Brush to put together  a digital printout of a 3-D sculpture of a homeless man, so let a person viewing the two-dimensional artwork perceives it as three dimensional.  Originally from the Detroit area, Grand Rapids graphic artist Kyle Hilla used Adobe Illustrator to create a logo that centers around the infinity symbol that will be displayed on a series of seven doors staged along Stocking street.

On the high touch side, Bryce Pettit  will be displaying a bronze sculpture of a barn owl that he first designed with a three-dimensional CAD/CAM software package.  Using the two-dimensional image as a reference, Pettit then sculpted the owl by hand.
Matthew Gryczan is the managing editor of Rapid Growth.


Demonstrating the infrared technology used to track movement in the space (

Grant Carmichael

Claas Kuhnen

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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