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Art, Science Mix at UCI

Times Staff Writer

Art and technology converge in a plain red box of a building on UC Irvine’s campus, an innocuous setting that belies the ideas that are housed inside.

At the Beall Center for Art and Technology, engineers, computer scientists and digital artists create art that is ultramodern, innovative -- and sometimes noisy.

“What we do isn’t fine art. It isn’t conventional,” said Eleanore Stewart, the center’s director. “It’s really appealing to people with an open mind and a curiosity to see what’s happening at the experimental edge of art and technology.”

The current exhibition beckons with a clanging, rattling, rat-a-tat-tat -- an orchestra of percussive robotic instruments.

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This electronic call and response, touring under the acronym of LEMUR -- League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots -- is the creation of a Brooklyn-based group of artists and self-described “technologists.”

More than 20 robots -- a hodgepodge of wires, circuits and solenoids fashioned into musical instruments that play themselves -- are positioned throughout the darkened, 2,500-square-foot industrial setting. Some are suspended from a pipe and lighting grid 16 feet above.

Mood lighting is created with a projection of neon-rich hues -- red, orange, violet and magenta -- pulsing in a grid pattern on the concrete floor. Meanwhile, a bouquet of 25 thin, 10-foot fiberglass poles -- named ForestBot -- sways and shakes the small egg-like rattles that are mounted at each end.

With its array of interactive, performance- and installation-based exhibits, the Beall Center is well on its way to accomplishing its mission of redefining the gallery experience.

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Past exhibitions have featured music created through dancers’ movements, and an actress performing a sketch as it was being written by eight improvisational actors typing from locations nationwide.

Alexandra Elliott had never seen an art gallery quite like the Beall Center before arriving at UC Irvine two years ago. The 19-year-old drama student began working as a tour guide in January.

“Everyone reacts differently,” she said, recalling two women who toted a video camera into the LEMUR exhibit and videotaped themselves dancing and lying on the floor. “That was an interesting reaction to the art. It’s fun to watch the people that are really here to enjoy it and figure it out.”

Venues that showcase technological works of art are rare, Stewart said.

“It is difficult for artists working in this kind of art to exhibit their work,” she said. Last year, the center received 50 proposals from artists vying to fill three exhibition slots.

In January, the center was named the national headquarters for the newly founded National Art and Technology Network and will play host to the group’s annual conference in April.

After playing host to a successful computer-game festival as its premiere event in 2000 and following up with another last fall, the center aims to bring similar events that support noncommercial game makers to UC Irvine every other year.

“We are interested in becoming the equivalent of the [Sundance] independent film festival for computer games here in the United States,” Stewart said.

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The center got its start with a $1-million gift from the Rockwell Corp. in honor of its retiring CEO Don Beall, an engineer and a patron of the arts. Admission is always free.

“The world has gotten to the place that it’s so complicated that no one person or one discipline can grasp it all,” Stewart said. “We’re seeing our own university change in response to that.”

UC Irvine’s new graduate program brings together the schools of arts, computer science and engineering. The program’s first graduates will showcase their work at the Beall Center in April.

“It’s a pretty exciting time to see all this new development,” Stewart said. “It’s very hard to predict how some of these things may play out in the future. They could turn into megatransformational industries, like the film industry.”


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