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PULSE pushes the boundaries of new media
The Jepson pulls out all the stops for a newly expanded Technology & Art Week

OVER THE past two decades, Hollywood has churned out two separate horror films titled Pulse, and both of their plots centered around technology run amok.

In one, a computer hacker accidentally unleashes a powerful force which drains the willpower of living humans through their cell phones and wi-fi connections. In another, an “intelligent” pulse of electricity travels from house to house through power lines, causing electrical appliances to revolt — wrecking the homes and murdering the homeowners.

Frighteningly plausible though such scenarios sound, the Jepson Center for Contemporary Art has thrown caution to the wind by recasting this, the third installment of their annual Technology Week, into PULSE: Art & Technology Fest. This ten-day educational celebration and interactive showcase of cutting-edge art is based around both high and low-tech electronics, and begins this Wednesday.

PULSE brings together a host of far-flung, buzzworthy artists — each of whom is pushing the boundaries of new media by recasting and repurposing such commonplace tools, toys and gadgets as wheelchairs, Nintendo Wii systems, Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spells and the sort of electronic effects pedals commonly used by rock and jazz guitarists.

It also includes displays and performances incorporating robotics, automata, animation and live, improvisational audio and video mixing.

Museum Educator Harry DeLorme curates this increasingly celebrated event. He says showcases of this nature are slowly becoming more commonplace in the U.S. — just not necessarily at established museums.

“This type of programming turns up more in contemporary art spaces or non-profit gallery and performance venues like Eyebeam in New York,” he explains, adding: “There are other festivals that focus on a particular medium. For example, the recent Robot 250 city-wide festival in Pittsburgh spotlighted robotic art, and New York’s Bent Festival is based around circuit-bending.”

“Others are large scale events like Robodock, in the Netherlands, which is sort of a Dutch version of the ‘Burning Man.’ I’m not sure that we’re more forward-looking, but we seem to be the only Georgia museum —and maybe the only one in the Southeast— that has a festival of this type.

“Some of these artists, Beatrix*JAR for instance, have performed at many other museums, and will be at Atlanta’s High Museum before coming to Savannah.”

Beatrix*JAR, otherwise known as real-life couple Bianca Pettis and Jacob Aaron Roske, are becoming a hot property in the museum and performance art worlds. Their quirky, energetic, entertaining and informative workshops on DIY electronic music are said to have changed the way some observers look at music entirely.

Whether playing large, famous rock clubs such as Minneapolis’ 7th St. Entry (where Prince’s concert sequences for 1984’s Purple Rain were shot) with flavor-of-the-month neo-New Wavers The Black Kids or holding brief residencies at houses of higher learning such as the University of Houston, their mixture of exotic, danceable beats and hypnotic “fuzzy sound collage,” serves to bridge the gap between hard-to-penetrate, found-sound art installations and Über-hip loop-and-sample psychedelia.

“We spent most of our youth stuck in the mind-set that music must sound a certain way, and (that) if you have never been trained to play music then you have no right to be a musician,” says the duo, who create many of their most memorable and unpredictable sounds by “bending circuits”, or rather, cracking open and monkeying around with old —and sometimes arcane and simplistic— electronic musical devices and synthesizers.

“Approaching music in outrageous ways and circuit-bending gave us a new vocabulary to express our love of music and to create a world where musical expression is not limited to just those people with formal training. We believe that anything that makes sound can be a musical instrument.

“These new voices are the crux of our compositions.”

Just as Beatrix*JAR blur the lines between toys, computers, turntables and musical instruments, the totality of this year’s PULSE highlights the breaking down of long-recognized borders between fine art, technology and music. For decades now, progressive composers and experimental artists have been creating work of this type, but it’s only been in the last decade that such ideas have begun to take root in the worlds of club culture and DIY rock and dance music.

DeLorme says he enjoys seeing the type of cross-pollination that is on display at this annual festival.

“I like this blurring of media and content,” he enthuses. “Music has long been a part of many of the programs we offer, and in terms of new media, you are often talking about engaging more than one sense.”

In the end, no matter how curious or entertaining some of the art displayed in this technology-driven exhibition may be, DeLorme says there’s a greater message behind all the blinking lights, distorted audio and video collage.

“I think these opportunities encourage people to take charge of technology and use it to creative ends rather than just consuming it.” cs

PULSE: Art & Technology Fest

When: Jan. 21-28

Where: Jepson Center for Contemporary Art, Telfair Square

Cost: Free to all ages

Info & Schedule: