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When art & technology collide
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Serious mind-bending.
That’s what’s going to happen in Savannah on Saturday, Jan. 27. Minds are going to expanded. And maybe even blown.
The Telfair is hosting an event from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Jepson Center for the Arts that will celebrate creative uses of technology. Sound, video, robotics and computer artists will use technology to create their unusual art.
While the event has been described as a “family day,” even those without kids may want to check this one out. And while you’re there, keep both ears open for the sounds of the furtive Theremin.
Connect caught up with some of these high-tech artists.
The Video Artist
Daniel Shiffman is a self-described “researcher, teacher and sometimes artist” who creates video art that is literally astonishing. Visitors to the Jepson Center have been enjoying three of Shiffman’s installations since the Jepson opened last year.
He is returning to the Jepson for the Art and Technology Expo to change out one of the installations with a new one. He also will meet with local students during a special workshop.
Daniel, you have been described as a “math whiz.” Were you a prodigy?
Daniel Shiffman: I just enjoy solving problems and thinking about math. I’m a math “hobbyist,” perhaps? My father, grandfather, and grandmother are all mathematicians!
Why do you involve the viewer?
Daniel Shiffman: I like the challenge of creating a simple, easy to experience interaction -- no mouse, no keyboard, no complex interface, just a video camera.
What inspires you to create a piece?
Daniel Shiffman: I usually start with an algorithm or math problem that I find interesting. In the process of programming, I experiment until I find something I like on the screen.
What types of projects are you working on now, or that you hope to work on in the future?
Daniel Shiffman: I’m very interested in looking at models of how the brain works and am experimenting with creating a visualizations of neural networks -- hopefully, that are interactive.
What type of research do you do?
Daniel Shiffman: I work on a variety of different projects. For example, I’m working on using text analysis algorithms to classify media content on the web. I’m also planning on developing an open source system to create screen-based artwork across multiple screens for large public displays.
What do you do to relax?
Daniel Shiffman: I love puzzles and games, particularly card games. I also like to read mystery novels and watch the TV shows Lost and The Wire.
We, Robots
Some people might say Savannah’s school system is substandard. Obviously, they haven’t seen the Johnson High School robotics team in action.
The team won a state award for their basketball-playing robot. But robotics isn’t limited to just high school students in Savannah.
The program incorporates elementary and middle-school students, too. A LEGO League competition was held in Savannah on Jan. 6th, and a VEX competition was held on Jan. 13. 
The first step in teaching students how to create robots is to program them. The students, that is.
“There is a role-playing game,” says Julie Sonnenberg-Klein, Georgia Technical College community outreach coordinator. “We have them put cards in the right order to ‘program’ a person.”
Robotics teaches teamwork and enhances other skills, Sonnenberg-Klein says. “They have to work in groups,” she says. “It helps their communication skills, their team building and their confidence.”
Competitions are held on local, regional and state levels. “It’s like a sporting event with parents cheering,” Sonnenberg-Klein says.
At the Jepson Center, Sonnenberg-Klein will work with elementary and middle school students who will have their robots do runs on a table. “It is a really friendly activity,” she says.
A “gracious professionalism” award is given at competitions. The Johnson High School team won the award this year. “They had their robot up and running, so they helped the other teams,” Sonnenberg-Klein says.
Steve Horton is the CTE supervisor for the Savannah-Chatham Public Schools and the godfather of the robotics program at the high school level. He organized a local competition and arranged for all of the high schools to have VEX robotics kits.
Connect spoke with Horton about robotics.
What types of students participate in the local high school robotics program?
Steve Horton: A complete, well rounded team would require mechanical types, designers, programmers, fund raisers, and so on, so there are many different personalities and skills required. Each school is represented by one robot, which represents all of the students’ efforts. Team work and cooperation is a required ingredient.
Do girls participate?
Steve Horton: Most teams have some girls. The South Effingham team has over 50% girls and received a $7,500 “Females in Technology” grant for their team.
What happens at the competitions?
Steve Horton: Each school is represented by a driving team and these teams are paired with rotating “alliance” partners. This means that all schools will work with and against the other schools several times during the competition. Teams have a pit area to work on their robots and there is an atmosphere of cooperation where everyone lends parts, shares ideas and helps each other to prepare for the qualifying heats.
What benefits do the students get?
Steve Horton: Students get to explore science, engineering and technology using the seductive attributes of competition to develop the muscle between the ears.
Can you hear me now?
Sound artists will have a strong presence at the expo. New York-based Matthew Horan and Makiko Saito will demonstrate their new interactive sculpture In Tension.
It is a sound chamber that one or more players can enter. They then can make music on 18 bungee cords, which are connected to sensors and microcontrollers.
Penny Brice is a local multi-media artist who works primarily in sound. At the expo, she will help children (of all ages) make their own take-home sound recordings.
“Sound is one of the senses that is quite easily overlooked,” Brice says. “I am interested in encouraging children to work with the sound environment, to help them highlight what they listen to every day.”
Brice came to the United States from England and now teaches art history at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “The sounds here are very different,” she says. “Such things as leaf blowers, school buses are completely different.”
After three years in Savannah, Brice has found many subjects for her installation pieces, which incorporate sound. “I’m very interested in Savannah as a city, and how it functions,” she says. “It is a very creative city. There is a lot of potential to make art work.”
At the expo, Brice will set up metal objects, amplifiers and headphones in the Neises Auditorium. The Jepson is providing a rare opportunity to showcase artists who use technology, she says.
“I think it is nice, too, for students who are using technology to learn it can be used in artistic ways,” Brice says. “In other places, technology has been used in art for a long time.”
Beware the Theremin
Its name may sound beastly, but the Theremin is actually a musical instrument. However, it can make some utterly spooky and unearthly sounds.
In the hands of local musician Ricardo Ochoa, it also can make beautiful music. Ochoa will bring his Theremin to the expo for demonstrations and hands-on experiments.
Fans of old science fiction and horror movies are probably familiar with Theremin music. The Theremin was designed in 1919 and named for its creator.
It’s considered to be the first instrument developed to create electronic music. Ochoa recommends as the website for all things Theremin.
How does a Theremin work?
Ricardo Ochoa: It uses a radio antenna. You never touch the Theremin. The pitch and volume come from waving your hands around the Theremin.
You play many musical instruments. Why did you decide to learn to play the Theremin?
Ricardo Ochoa: Curiosity. I was interested in playing the instrument because of the sound it makes. It has the capacity to sound like the human voice. Also, I was interested in the fact that you don’t touch it to play it.
Is it difficult to learn?
Ricardo Ochoa: Yes. Like every other instrument, you never stop learning. It took me almost a year just to get a feel for it.
What will you be doing at the Jepson Center?
Ricardo Ochoa: I will show videos and play it and let people play it for themselves, especially young kids. I’d like them to come up and give it a try.
What type of reactions do people have to Theremin music?
Ricardo Ochoa: My favorite comes from the kids. Their mouths fall open! They don’t understand what is happening. The question most people ask is, “Where did you pick that up?” It’s an experience for people because it’s such an unusual instrument.
Where can people buy a Theremin?
Ricardo Ochoa: Thank goodness for eBay! You have to go online and order one. There are kits you can buy. They are very close to a radio transmitter, so they’re not difficult to build. There is a very large community of Thereminists. Some put them in old radios, others put them in plastic heads. People become very creative with it. But you don’t have many people lining up for Theremin lessons. ƒç
The Jepson Center hosts this free family event Saturday, Jan. 27 from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.