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Art+Science at UC: A Natural Trend

22 Jul

For the past three and half years, UCIRA has nurtured the ‘Integrative Methodologies’ Art+Science initiative, utilizing our grants program to establish working relationships between UC researchers and practitioners who integrate art and science methodologies in a broad array of projects and programs.  


During spring 2013, UCIRA hosted the first in a series of art+science think tanks in partnership with UC Riverside’s Culver Center for the Arts to forge connections between arts and science practitioners within the context of the research university. The gathering was organized in conjunction with the exhibition “Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration”, curated by UCIRA CoDirector Marko Peljhan and Tyler Stallings, Director of UC Riverside’s Culver Center.


Over three days, 23 participants each presented their overview of science-art-engineering and design (SAED) activities, shared best practices, identified potential themes and topics— “Big Questions” that needed to be tackled, and initiated potential network opportunities. In addition, they brainstormed future funding sources for a UC-centered SAED initiative, from the National Science INSPIRE (Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education) grants as well as foundation and industry/research partnerships. The list of attendees, both across and beyond the UC system, included:


Babette Allina, Rhode Island School of Design

Nancy E. Abrams, The New Universe + the Human Future, UCSC

Sheldon Brown, Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, UCSD

Yvonne Clearwater, New Media Innovation, NASA Ames Research Center

Pablo Colapinto, Media Arts + Technology Systemics and Allosphere, UCSB

Amanda McDonald Crowley, Curator/Director, Studio 1A, New York

David Familian, Director of Exhibitions, Beall Center for Art + Technology, UCI

Liz Losh, Art + Techno-lit Program, Sixth College, UCSD

Guna Nadarajan, Dean, School of Art and Design, U of Michigan

Michael Neff, Technocultural Studies, UCD

Jennifer Parker, Digital Arts Open Lab, UCSC

Marko Peljhan, CoDirector, UC Institute for Research in the Arts, Media Arts + Technology

Eric Paulos, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, UCB

Yadegari Shahrokh, Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, UCSD

Tyler Stallings, Director, Culver Center for the Arts, UCR

Matthew Turk, Media Arts and Technology / Computer Science + Engineering, UCSB

Victoria Vesna, Design Media Arts/Art/Sci Center, UCLA

Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) Expressive Intelligence Studio, UCSC

John Weber, Director, Institute for Arts and Sciences, UCSC

Kathleen Wong, Principal Publications Coordinator, UC Natural Reserve System, UC Office of the President

Kim Yasuda, CoDirector, UC Institute for Research in the Arts, UCSB


Kathleen Wong, Principal Publications Coordinator for the UC Natural Reserve System, offers some thoughts on the think tank.


Art+Science at UC: A Natural Trend

by Kathleen M. Wong


From the enthusiasm about STEAM lately, you might think the Industrial Revolution was starting all over again. But in this case, STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics—a movement to blend these disciplines to spark creative advances across all of these fields. The “STEAM revolution” promoting the inclusion of the arts in science research is gaining momentum across the country, and UC is leading the way.


Participants representing the nine general UC campuses gave presentations about interdisciplinary arts and science efforts across the UC system. Each campus is evolving its own flavors of STEAM initiatives. Examples include UCSC’s OpenLab, which allows people from any discipline to share equipment and do hands-on work together; UCLA’s Art | Sci Center + Lab, which encourages the creation of a “third culture” bridging the arts and sciences, and UCSD’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination will tap scientists, artists, and scholars to solve major human problems.


One major hurdle for STEAM initiatives is to draw more people—especially scientists—to participate. Think tank participants agreed that the fruits of art+sci collaborations must provide professional recognition. Further, artists and scientists aren’t measured by the same yardstick. Artists receive recognition for exhibiting their work in shows or performances. Scientists are judged by the peer-reviewed papers they publish. Neither can afford to spend much effort on work not valued by their peers. These cultural differences may account for the wall of silence at least one artist ran into trying to find scientists to work with.


Part of that indifference might be ascribed to not knowing what art+science can offer. Scientists are familiar with the idea of an artist helping to visualize new species or concepts. They may not appreciate how working with an artist can help them tackle problems from new perspectives, and expand the boundaries of human knowledge. Those, of course, are the same reasons many people pursue science as a career.


One unit of UC is ideally positioned to bring scientists and artists together. The UC Natural Reserve System is a network of protected wildland areas across California that serve as outdoor laboratories, studios and classrooms. Using a reserve involves staying at a remote and beautiful place over weeks or months, with other reserve users their primary society. Inevitably, people get to know one another. They spark friendships while relaxing over a campfire, taking a morning hike, or cooking dinner in a communal reserve kitchen. Reserve visitors learn what everyone else is working on, whether modeling climate change, writing poetry, studying chipmunk ranges, or tracing ancient earthquake faults. All of these topics and more could profit from creative thinking and innovation from new directions.


Since its inception in 1965, the NRS has welcomed biologists and writers, painters and geologists, dancers and astronomers. But past outreach efforts have been aimed more to scientists than artists.


The NRS is now joining with UCIRA to expand arts opportunities at reserves, offering to provide guidance in designing and developing artist-in-residency programs at reserves, to provide access to artists as well as awareness of the NRS by engaging arts research communities across UC. These efforts should encourage more citizens of the art world and residents of planet science to work together as equal partners in the future.


Kathleen M. Wong is Principal Publications Coordinator for the UC Natural Reserve System.



NRS rock art 1

Rock art panels at NRS reserves are the precursors of tomorrow’s art and science collaborations. Image credit: Kathleen M. Wong

NRS rock art 2

Image credit: Michael Kisgen



Why art at NRS reserves?

22 Jul

July 22, 2014

By Faerthen Felix, Assistant Manager, Sagehen Creek Field Station

Image credit: Faerthen Felix

Located on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, in a bowl lined with conifer forests and fens, Sagehen Creek Field Station is a research area owned by the U.S. Forest Service and administered by UC Berkeley. It’s one of 39 reserves in the UC Natural Reserve System, a network of wildland areas across California encompassing more than 756,000 acres. In addition to hosting science research ranging from native fish populations to forest health, and offering education at all ages, Sagehen explicitly encourages the arts.

The purpose of the art program at Sagehen is to inspire reflection, connection, and new insight into the ecosystem of which we are a part. This insight can and should inform scientific inquiry into, and management of, this ecosystem.

The process of forming a scientific (or any other kind of) question is essentially an artistic one. People seldom, if ever, come up with their research question via the scientific method; science is a criterion of truth and a test of knowledge, not necessarily its originator. Science has been so successful at this that the term “knowledge” is often assumed to mean only scientific fact, leading to conflicts with other cultural knowledge like religion, ethics, politics, and even economics.

Art—whether literary, visual, musical, performance, or other form—is, at its core, the discovery process whereby we connect apparently unrelated elements to create new knowledge of any flavor. This knowledge can then be explored and tested via the scientific method, or brought to cultural attention through the application of pattern, beauty, or controversy.

As environmental artist Helen Harrison once told me, “It becomes art when it starts to reverberate in your mind.”

Image credit: Faerthen Felix

The history of Sagehen is peppered with this kind of occasional alchemy. For example, graduate students frequently, even typically, come to Sagehen with a thesis question that changes dramatically as they see things on the ground. One can only work with the raw material already in one’s head, and just being in the field allows the possibility of seeing something unconceived, creating new knowledge to be tested. One student discovered that slave-making ants parasitize different species here than anywhere else. Another found that traditional timing of grazing severely impacts native bees. Their willingness to notice differences and open their eyes to new patterns put them on a path that led from art to science.

In another example where connections between formerly unrelated elements created knowledge leading to action, researchers living at Sagehen in the 1950’s randomly happened upon large rainbow trout spawning in tiny ephemeral rivulets. This serendipitous discovery ultimately changed Forest Service management policy for these formerly devalued, temporary watercourses. Again, the journey from art, to science, to policy.

Our Sagehen Forest Project is another prime example.

This project will soon begin restructuring the Sagehen Basin forest for greater resiliency against climate change and wildfire, more natural structure, and friendlier wildlife habitat. I would argue that the collaborative, two-year process of designing the project was essentially about writing a community narrative. It followed a trajectory that moved from science, to art, to policy.

Planning the project began with a meeting of all the stakeholders we could think to invite: loggers, environmentalists, wildlife biologists, NGOs, agencies, and other interested parties. The first meeting essentially consisted of the Forest Service and the UC Berkeley saying, “The science suggests our forest is failing, and we’d like you to help us figure out what to do about it,” to which everyone else replied, “Okay, show us what you are thinking and we’ll tell you how we feel about it.”


Image credit: Faerthen Felix

It was such a vast departure from management precedent to begin like this—without preconceived notions, without a strategy, without preferred alternatives, starting with just a problem in which everyone felt invested—that no one could initially wrap their head around it. We discussed the science; we walked in the woods; we looked deeply at the forest; we marked trees for removal; we cordoned off animal habitat; we cut and burned test plots.

A year and a half later, the team had hammered out a radically new prescription and proposed action for the Forest Service to codify and execute. No one got everything they wanted, but everyone got something they could live with. We would remove lots of smaller trees from roughly 30% of the basin, in patchy, topographically driven patterns.

Then at the eleventh hour, the day before the final meeting, an endangered northern goshawk moved its nest out of the area marked for its protected habitat and into an area slated for forest restructuring.

This was the moment when environmental groups could have vetoed the entire project. In the meeting, we addressed the bird’s movements. Everyone tensely turned to the environmentalists’ representative, who thought for a moment before saying, “What we are trying to do will make things better for those birds. I can’t see stopping this project because of that bird.”

Image credit: Faerthen Felix

We let out a breath of relief, carved the nest site out of the map, and agreed to wait until nesting season was over before working in the vicinity. Remarkably, the process moved forward.

The Forest Service received three letters of support during the public comment period: one from UC Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, one from Sierra Pacific Industries (the loggers), and one from Sierra Forest Legacy (the environmentalists).

This kind of agreement among these very different stakeholders is unprecedented. Such folks don’t usually agree, much less voice support for the same forest project.

It would have been helpful in all these cases to have a physical artwork to mold and share the narrative, to provide a doorway to participation and ownership by the community of the new truths…and the subsequent science and policy emerging from them.

We are now working toward the installation of such an approachable physical artwork at Sagehen, the Invisible Barn. Conceived by designers stpmj, the barn consists of a small building wrapped in reflective film. The building blends into the environment and enables visitors to view themselves standing in the midst of the forest. The structure encourages contemplation of the meaning and presence of people in nature, without telling them explicitly what to think or how to feel.

Image credit: Faerthen Felix

Invisible Barn is a departure from the idea of imposing preconceived, top-down form on a community narrative. It’s more abstract.

Invisible Barn builds on the techniques of the Aldo Leopold Land Ethic Leadership (LEL) workshops held here at Sagehen a few years back. LEL teaches participants to “Observe, Participate, Reflect,” which provides “a framework to help you facilitate values-based discussions in a new and open way, allowing you to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of your own views as well as those that differ.” There is no end goal except to start a conversation around a subject and see what commonalities emerge to guide future action.

Given the almost universal reduction in natural history emphasis, collections, and field time within university science programs in favor of lab work, art is naturally going to play a far larger role in discovering and exploring future scientific questions, and will create linkages between and within communities to effect policy change as a result of this science. Somebody has to be out there observing the world as it is and reporting its meaning back to us.

Image credit: Faerthen Felix

The point of this lengthy manifesto is that the public doesn’t seem to understand what art has to do with our research program, or why art is important beyond its aesthetic value.

We have heard this directly from an agency partner, and from many confused visitors who, perhaps understandably, can’t wrap their heads around Force Majeur, the 50-year art project by Helen and Newton Harrison that explores enhancements to the water carrying capacity of the soil in this watershed and in the other mountains of the world.

At least the Sagehen art program is already stimulating questions.

Addressing this confusion would be very helpful to our community, to Sagehen, and to the UC Natural Reserve System in general.

Maybe it would be a good idea to talk to other groups about this issue and ways to address it? Maybe we need more partners? Maybe we need a larger effort in the form of a workshop of some kind? Maybe there are tools out there already that we are missing? Maybe we need to incorporate this priority of communicating the value and purpose of art in science and at reserves into artist-in-residence criteria? This would be at least as useful as any actual artwork produced.

We’ve had some interesting feedback and would like to continue the conversation about how to move forward from here. We hope you will weigh in on this conversation with your ideas.

Faerthen Felix,


Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Sharon Daniel: Causes and Effects

10 May

The sound of silence in Sharon Daniel’s work is multi-toned. A woman details her life in a California prison sewing American flags for 55 cents an hour. A recovered addict turns the back streets of East Oakland into a photographic portrait of rutted asphalt and benign blue skies. The silence in Daniel’s decade’s worth of interrelated projects—Need X-Change, Blood Sugar, Undoing Time, and Golden Rule—is that of voices muffled. The silencers are poverty, abuse, discrimination, lack of education—and also public policy.

Daniel describes her role as that of ”context provider.” While using traditional documentary methods like filmed and printed interviews, she distributes tools—software, disposable cameras, walkmen, one-one-one instruction—she hopes will widen the public domain. Her aim is an internet that publishes the stories and perspectives of all members of society—as told by themselves.

One topic, closely examined, often leads to new perspectives on another. Need X-Change began with a demonstrated cause and effect: Disposable needles could significantly lessen an injected-drug user’s risk of catching or transmitting HIV. Working with participants in Casa Segura’s needle exchange program to record their thoughts and experiences, Daniel hoped to ensure the program’s continuance despite neighborhood fears and political resistance.

Their stories, however, pointed to a wider web of cause and consequence, including the revolving door by which addicts become inmates and inmates become addicts (explored in Blood Sugar), and the economic usefulness of an incarcerated population examined in Undoing Time (formerly titled Capitalist Punishment) and the upcoming Golden Rule.

In an introduction to Public Secrets–a work which like Undoing Time looks at the corporate use of prison labor—Daniel distinguishes between “secrets that are kept from the public,” and so called public secrets, those “secrets that the public chooses to keep safe from itself.” One such open secret is the widespread use of prisons to provide a cheap domestic labor force.

Offering inmates a chance to earn money while learning marketable skills sounds like a reasonable idea. Closer investigation reveals what Daniels calls an mushrooming, exploitative “security economy” in which, she writes, “private companies receive substantial tax incentives from state and local governments to establish facilities on prison sites and hire prison laborers who often work for less than a dollar a day.” It’s a powerful incentive, Daniel suggests, for acquiring ever more prisoners through harsher sentencing laws.

Recording inmates’ stories required another kind of secrecy. California has a media ban which makes it illegal for reporters to conduct face to face interviews with prisoners that are not monitored by prison officials. Daniel’s solution was to go undercover. Posing as a legal advocate, she spent five years interviewing women at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, the largest female correctional facility in the United States.

Among the video portrait that emerge from the interviews, one—from Undoing Time—gives the phrase ‘draped in the flag’ a chilling twist. A sixty-one year old African-American woman sits half covered by one of the large American flags she spends much of her time sewing and lists the labels by which she has been systematically dismissed: “black girl,” “lesbian,” “drug addict,” “HIV positive.” As she talks, it becomes harder to connect the symbolic flag that’s so vigorously waved over political debates with the stiff, painstakingly stitched fabric that engulfs her. The labels too begin to seem insubstantial in the presence of this thoughtful, articulate person, sentenced to fifteen years for possession of 20 dollars worth of heroin, who works for a tiny fraction of America’s minimum wage.

It’s shocking when the woman first rips a star off the flag in her lap. Then a hopeful thought occurs. Perhaps, just as stitches can be undone, the tightly woven networks of abuse can begin to be dismantled.


Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Annie Loui: Blue Light

1 May

A dark opening in an overgrown hillside; the opportunity for a daring feat of discovery—these are near-irresistible lures in any century. In 2002 they proved fatal for Glenn and Nicholas Anderson, 18 and 23 year-old brothers who drowned while exploring an abandoned Orange County silver mine. Annie Loui, choreographer, director and UCI professor, moved to Silverado canyon not long afterward and learned about the accident, which occurred nearby, from neighbors. Eight years later Blue Light, Loui’s multimedia production inspired by the story, premiered at UCI Irvine’s Studio Theater.

Named for the mine where the accident took place, Blue Light turns a tragic but not infrequent statistic—nationwide, old mines had already claimed 11 lives that year –into an examination and evocation of the adventurous impulse. Loui’s production, designed with the help of Cornerstone Theater’s Greg Pacificar and UCI graduate student Adam Levine, is built around giant, high-definition projections of the Santa Ana mountains. They fill the stage and the invitation they hold out is visceral. Actors turned superheroes  leap joyously toward the looming boulders and steel themselves to face the unknown darkness. The script, written by novelist and UCI professor Michelle Latiolais, and based on interviews with family and friends of the brothers, portrays adolescents who are sensitive to the world around them, excited by their own potential, but still untested.

Loui wanted the images to be huge in order to convey the larger than life scale of the terrain she sees out her windows. She was drawn to the story, she says, “partially because it was part of the community I was moving into. But what I ended up realizing was also really attaching me to it was that I’m an adventurous person. I’ll head off into the mountains by myself. If I were their age I would have probably been going in right there with them. I think there’s a sense of exploring, and the limitless of life, and not really knowing where any boundaries are when you’re a teenager. It’s a certain youthful energy and a certain ability to take off into the unknown with absolutely no thought for the ramifications. “

Leaps into the unknown  are in some sense fundamental to Loui’s work.

Falling Girl (2008), a collaboration with Scott Snibbe, is an interactive animation of a girl falling gently from a skyscraper and the people she encounters in the building’s windows on her way down—a journey which transforms her from girl to old woman and includes the film’s viewers. In that piece, the point of contact between the girl and the animated spectators is virtual–-as it is between viewers and the adjacent screen which captures and incorporates their movements into the girl’s fall. In much of Loui’s work, though, the contact point is tactile.

As a dancer and teacher she uses the principles of Contact Improvisation, a now widely used dance practice first developed in the 1970s. Contact begins with a single point of touch and shared weight between partners and uses it as the fulcrum of a 360 degree sphere of improvised movement. In her 2009 book, The Physical Actor, Loui extends the practice to partners working with text in a traditional theatre setting and teaches it in UCI’s graduate acting program.

She explains: “In the way I teach Contact, it’s very much about the relationship between the two people, and the most important thing is the authenticity of the relationship. So every physical movement of energy and weight exchange has to be authentically followed through in real attentiveness to your partner.”

The next step is adding words. She says she usually starts with scenes like those in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ones with “really quick exchanges that happen to rhyme. You find that if you’re just speaking the language while you’re moving and the movement comes first, you start embodying a lot of the meaning of the text without intending to. You don’t try to act it out in any way, or act out a character. You start allowing the text to inform your movement.”

She finds the process is “very liberating for the actors. You can take it down to more realistic scenes and keep that same energy going. You might end up doing a Chekhov scene where you’re sitting in a parlor drinking tea, and you’re flipping people over your back, as you’re talking about when the doctor is coming and how the samovar is doing. If you’ve done this work, if you’ve just Contacted the scene, and then you take it down to realism, its much more charged, because the relationship is already physically established between the two people. So if somebody crosses their legs and looks at their watch, somebody else will turn their head and look out the window. There’s a really interesting reciprocity that starts to happen.”

In “Blue Light” she extended the practice even further: “The video was so enormous and overwhelming, I had people responding to the projection like a contact partner. There’s one section where the screen is showing somebody going up a gorge, and the actor is dealing with the screen, ducking and jumping as new things come up.”

In some ways that sense of untamed nature has been informing her work ever since Loui, raised in Saint Louis, relocated to Southern California from Boston in the early 1990s. “The Midwest where I grew up is agrarian,” she says, “and where I trained was in Europe where, as we know, it’s been settled for so many thousands of years that wilderness isn’t really an option. But here, particularly in California, I feel that wilderness is part of the manifest destiny model. You go West and there’s this ever-expansive horizon of possibility. And in some ways I have actually found this to be true.”

Another Day in Paradise,  which Loui created soon after her arrival, dramatized the war between the promoters of cookie-cutter suburban development—like Irvine Ranch’s Donald Bren—and the mythic California of open spaces and individual freedom. Both that piece and Blue Light, Louie explains, were in part attempts to come to terms with her own transcontinental leap into a new environment.

“I was in Boston enough time to feel the constraints.” she says.“ And I was married to a New Englander, so I was well ensconced in that whole aesthetic of New England as a territory as well as a cultural—well I won’t quite say Mecca, but as a long tradition.”

Orange County was very much another country. “I was absolutely horrified when I first moved here by the amount of development and the accepted artificiality of the landscape that was being superimposed on top of this wilderness. I think part of the way I’ve made peace with it is to begin to understand that some of what I thought was artificial is really California. Palm trees do grow right here. And part of it was to move up into a landscape that’s completely indigenous.”

California’s shifting mix of myth and reality was brought back to Loui during the research for Blue Light. Heard today, the name of the mine sounds romantic, suggesting the gleam of silver or the beckoning flicker of a will of the wisp.  Loui found otherwise. Cave-ins are a mine danger most people recognize, but with the last of the Silverado mine operations shuttered since the early 1950s, few area residents knew that a blue light was a traditional warning sign. It signaled that oxygen-sapping methane gas, often present in rock faults, had seeped into the shaft. The Anderson brothers were both strong swimmers, but rescuers found oxygen levels in the tunnels where they drowned to be fatally low.

Loui had the sad job of informing the boys’ mother that the mine’s danger had at some point been well known. At the same time she encountered the outrage of cave buffs who resented any forest service efforts to restrict mine entrance. These paradoxical pulls of risk and restraint—central to contemporary discussions of wilderness, and, it might be noted, to contact improvisation—are neatly caught in Michelle Latiolais’s script. Glenn Anderson speaks admiringly of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and its romantic protagonist. His friend thinks the boy was stupidly unprepared. Their English teacher suggests that Krakauer may invented some details—which “would not be an issue” if the book were fiction.

Blue Light’s use of real people and events was for Loui another venture into new territory. It was, she says, “like writing biography in a way. You want to stay as close to truth as you can, and honor everybody’s memory.” The boys’ family, she notes, was “outrageously supportive” and the sold–out run during the UCI theatre season brought out a lot of the Silverado community. “It ended up”, she says, “being a bit of a commemorative event.”

Still, she adds, “it’s an interesting line to walk.” Full of push and pull, or as Loui puts it: “There’s only a certain amount of license you can take. And, taking license is what makes things theatrically interesting.” What seems to be required is an ever-shifting balance.


Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

Adam Tinkle: The Universal Language Orchestra of Spring Valley CA

3 Apr

Music may be a universal language, but the music made by the Universal Language Orchestra of Spring Valley CA is deliberately designed to emerge from the specifics of time and place. Among those specifics—the contemporary existence of cheap electronics; San Diego County’s network of recreation centers; and the region’s long tradition of visionary eccentrics.

If the orchestra has a spiritual godfather it’s probably Harry Partch, the maverick American composer, instrument designer, lover of found language, and student of universal myth, who spent the last decade of his life in and around San Diego. ULO creators—UCSD Music Department graduate student Adam Tinkle along with Bonnie Whiting Smith, Joe Marigilio, and others—believe like Partch, that instruments exist to serve musicians and not the other way around.

Orchestra players may or may not have musical experience. The 8 to 12 year olds who attend once-a-week ULO classes in the Spring Valley Community Center, begin not with traditional scales but by customizing their personal instruments. One that Tinkle is especially proud of is an electro-acoustic kalimba, which, he claims, “to our knowledge, bests all extant designs for a portable, amplifiable, user-customizable, and inexpensive musical instrument.”

The kalimba’s parts cost less than ten dollars, and the wiry keys are made from straightened hairpins (a green enterprise some girls particularly appreciated: providing new life for outmoded fashion accessories.) An introductory session is spent adjusting the length of the wires with a teacher’s help to create a range of pitches the student chooses. The next step: using music to tell a story.

The sound of rain is particularly prized in dry San Diego, and it’s the dominant note in the ULO opera students and teachers created last fall from a resonant piece of local history. A mile and a half south of the Center’s now suburban location the Sweetwater Reservoir was built in the 1880s as a hedge against the area’s frequent droughts. In early 1916 tradition reversed. Rainfall was so heavy that the Sweetwater dam failed, and countywide flooding washed away miles of railroad track and whole communities. Ironically, a month earlier the city of San Diego had hired local rainmaker Charley Hatfield whose experiments with chemical evaporations had produced results and testimonials from Texas to Tujunga. But the city, fearing lawsuits after the flood, refused to pay Hatfield, claiming the rains either weren’t his doing or weren’t covered by his contract.

For storm effects ULO players relied on recycled vegetable cans filled with rice or dried beans, sections of steel conduit of assorted lengths mounted on wood blocks—referred to as  metallophones—and plastic tubing restyled as didgeridoos. The performance, recorded at UCSD studios in December, was spirited and also underscored the project’s point: creativity like rain arises from a number of factors working in concert.

New sound-makers, too, may arrive at any moment. The ULO practicum offered at UCSD this spring focuses on alternative musical instrument design. In addition to touring a banjo factory and exploring signal processing, its students will draft their own innovative instruments as well as help Spring Valley children build their orchestra parts.

But the underlying purpose of ULO is less DIY than what Whiting Smith described as “a system in which the creativity and being of each individual is valued and collaboration between those individuals is essential.” Coming again this June under ULO’s aegis, is the Spring Valley Center’s Intergenerational jazz camp—a one week intensive led by saxophonist Tinkle. The faculty includes an undergraduate and a graduate student, a middle school bandleader, a retired teacher, and a former New Orleans musician. If a flood of never-before-heard-sounds inundates the area—so much the better.


Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

SOTA: Report Back: Alternative Pedagogies and Uses of the University

29 Mar

SOTA: Report Back: Alternative Pedagogies  and Uses of the University

UCSD’s Sixth College Conference

Education in Action: Mobilizing the Next Generation for Social Reform

January 26, 2012

by Kim Yasuda (UCIRA Co-Director)

A day-long event of concurrent panels hosted by UCSD’s Sixth College proposed numerous case studies in undergraduate and graduate education emerging out of the UCSD campus.  Cross-cutting “experiential learning’ projects from the arts, design, planning, education, media studies, STEM, social sciences and business contributed to thought sessions under an array of thematic frames, such as Public Dialogue, Digital Literacy, Global Education as well as Student Development, Business Opportunity and Campus-Community Collaboration.  Regardless of discipline, the integral role of the arts featured prominently throughout the presentations.

The conference was an outgrowth of the Sixth College Practicum (( and its collaboration with campus and community partners. With close to 1,000 students engaged yearly, Sixth College Practicum promotes “civic engagement and global consciousness, satisfying general education requirements through alternative, innovative projects”.

Particularly striking and atypical of most academic conferences was the degree to which the student agency was valued as a critical part of the discourse.  Student-lead activism guides the work of Sixth College community and this was evident in the mixed panel sessions in which students, faculty, administrators and community members presented as co-investigators in research, repurposing the academic space as we know it and desperately need to rethink it.

Student presence was a primary goal for lead conference organizers, Sixth College Acting Provost and Professor of Mathematics, James Lin, Practicum Director and Diane Forbes , Director of Academic Programs, Liz Losh and Associate Director, Eliza Slavet.

The youngest of UCSD’s six college divisions, Sixth College was established in 2001 as a “21st century pedagogy” and alternative to “disciplined studies of the previous millennium”. Sixth College curriculum was designed to arm students with a distinctive skill-set in “self knowledge, technical know-how, interpersonal skills and cultural awareness” to become “effective global citizens who engage creatively and ethically with the complex issues facing the world”.

Experiential learning strategies emerging from Sixth College address the pressing need for larger institutional change on the part of the university to invest its intellectual capital beyond campus borders. Whether local or global, conceptions of classroom learning took place within vastly expanded fields, with students actively engaged in the broad and complex arena of public culture. Projects highlight student-centered research that confront emerging questions around the efficacy of current learning models in higher education, especially at a large public research university, pressed to educate its increasing and diverse California population.

Sixth College has undertaken its own ‘repurposing’ of UCSD’s existing academic structures and resources into more relevant instructional strategies. Through the College’s unique co-curricular programs, undergraduate students are encouraged to think nimbly across disciplines, while becoming “more engaged innovators within an ever-expanding global arena”.  For example, to address campus GE requirements, Sixth College Practicum courses have been combined under the CAT: Culture, Art+Technology program ( CAT curriculum fulfills the basic writing requirement for graduation from UCSD, while providing a more relevant foundation for students to gain “an understanding of society in an integrated, interdisciplinary way”. Discussion sections of each course in the CAT program are led by graduate students from many different departments to encourage interdisciplinary discussion. Faculty are also recruited to CAT from across the disciplinary spectrum (anthropology, communication, history, literature, music, philosophy, sociology, visual arts, etc.).

As part of its expanded mission, the CAT learning model tackles research questions such as “In the 21stCentury, how do we shape the world and how does it shape us? What are the ethical questions raised by designed objects, environments and interactions? How do cultures manage change? How far back in time should we look? What forms of production and consumption do we take for granted in contemporary life? How do new solutions sometimes create new problems?”  These lines of inquiry shape CAT curriculum, programs and activities.

ARTiffact Gallery, housed in the public spaces in and around the offices of Academic programs at Sixth College, showcases works conceptually related to the courses in the CAT program.  Currently on exhibition this winter is Mapping Occupations, “an exhibition that explores our preoccupations with space through the practices of mapping, diagramming, modeling and speculating. The exhibit, curated by Associate Director, Eliza Slavet, features the work of UCSD arts faculty, Teddy Cruz, cog-nate Collective, Matthew Hebert, High Tech Media Arts program, David Kim, Stephanie Lie, The Periscope Project, Hermione Spriggs and Patricia Stone

With the support of a second UCIRA art-science planning grant for its curricular launch in the CAT program next year, “Something from Nothing: Audacious Speculations in Art, Science and Entrepreneurialism” CAT 3is a teaching-research initiative to explore “connections, overlaps and productive tensions” between conceptual/activist art, scientific research and business.

CAT program director, Liz Losh, recently appointed to UCIRA’s system wide advisory board, came to UCSD in 2010 to assume her interdisciplinary appointment as faculty and director of academic programs for Sixth College.  Teaching in 3 departments (Literature, Visual Arts, and Communications), Losh’s own research investigates multiple vectors across digital humanities, public culture, offering theoretical reflection on the role of democracy and new media.  Losh’s commitment to alternative pedagogies and creative practice translates effectively between her roles as researcher, program administrator and faculty member.

A interview with Liz Losh will be featured in an upcoming post of UCIRA’s SOTA blogpost.

10 Proposals for Life After Art School

5 Mar

I was just on a panel with some of my fellow MFA students here at the University of Illinois at Chicago about life after undergraduate study in the arts. I was writing up some notes yesterday to prepare and then it turned into this manifesto of sorts. The benefit of the manifesto is it kept me from rambling as much as I would’ve otherwise (because all the rambling was put onto paper and turned into this handout). I should say in advance that it is a bit more focused on having an “art career” than having a good life and so some other time I will have to write-up those proposals and see where they correspond or conflict with these. So if you are curious, have a look:

10 Proposals for Life After your BFA: These are not rules, they are proposals and advice based on my personal experience

  1. Do not be afraid to know how things work. This applies to research in general or to your life and career. If you seriously want to be a famous rapper – learn how people become famous rappers and what systems they have to navigate to do so. Learn it all, learn about the PR agencies, the magazines, the unpaid interns, the talent scouts, the corruption, the street teams, the fans, and especially about the contracts. If you understand how stuff works then it is easier to make an informed decision about if you really want to participate in that system or not. This will also help you not talk about stuff you don’t know.

  1. Try not to go to graduate school until you have done (think about a minimum of 5 years) of other stuff. Do something impressive. Fail at something ambitious. This will help ensure you have questions that really need to be addressed in grad school. Actually learn how stuff works (see #1). Try not to teach adults before you are 30 (unless you are in a co-learning environment). College students are getting older and you want to be sure you actually have enough life experience to share with them. Surely there is something else you can do for money up until that point.

  1. Find or create a community that gives you support, helps you continue to develop as a person and artist, and that is critical. Support other people because there is much to be gained from being a good audience, the kind of audience you would want to have for your work. It is a great learning experience to be intimately aware of how other people work and even collaborate with them. And the critical thing is important to…if you just hang out with people think everything is great then you will not learn anything from each other. This will help you avoid shelling out more money to go to grad school, because these are the things most people go back to school for (community and critical dialogue).. Then if you end up going to school, you will have a really good reason to do so.

  1. Sincerely and seriously participate in “conversations” or fields outside of your job and outside of art. While some people can be fulfilled by solving artistic problems with art their entire lives, many more people get inspiration by being deeply aware of other aspects of the world around them (and their art). The sincere part matters – people universally hate tourists and fakers. Seriously consider getting a graduate degree in another field. This will also help you not talk about stuff you don’t know.

  1. Don’t let people scam you into thinking that their little project is the most important thing in the world. These people are like parasites and they prey on smart people who just got BFA degrees. They make you think that life will be better one day if you “get exposure” or “make connections.” Think long and hard about what you actually want to be doing. Remember suggestion #1. Participate in things you want to participate in (especially if they are unpaid volunteer work). Once people start paying you to do stuff, then you have to do the internal negotiation about what you will and will not do for filthy cash money. Also, don’t be afraid to get contracts if you are working with large sums of money (whatever that means to you).

  1. Consider what forms of labor and administration are necessary to do different kinds of projects. Don’t get into running a gallery or a collaborative art group or whatever without thinking about if you want to and how you want to raise money and make decisions in a group. Just like you shouldn’t make videos if you dont like editing them or make graffiti if you aren’t ok with getting arrested.

  1. Get internships or crap jobs that will give you resources or inspiration. Everyone does stupid stuff for money, but maybe you can be a little strategic about what stupid stuff you do.

  1. Do not be afraid to talk honestly about your desire for work and/or financial situation. There is a tendency in art communities and when there is a power imbalance (artist talking to curator; unemployed teacher talking to employed teacher). But there is a recession going on and it needs to be understood that some people have jobs and others do not. If you need a job and someone can give you one, politely say, “You know that sometimes I teach art and I would be happy to work with you if there was ever an opening.” That way you will not regret it as a missed opportunity. Just don’t be tacky. After all, most people are in the same boat these days.

  1. Organize your stuff, answer emails, and don’t be afraid of spreadsheets. Being a slacker on communication is not charming. Find a Getting Things Done system. Find a balance between self-promoting and self-marginalization. Figure out what that means to you. People hate people who talk about themselves all the time but people don’t even hate people who self-marginalize because they don’t even know who they are.

  1. Self-Care. Do not neglect your body/mind/soul needs. There is more to life than work and it is important to have boundaries. Smart phones and smart-phone-culture can make you feel like you do not know when you are “on” or “off.” For instance, the weekend is something that people died so we could have (and I mean organized workers died). So consider relaxing on the weekend or at least one day a week.

(Daniel Tucker, 2/20/12)


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