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Hybrids of art and science

February 17, 2005

A view of Heckert's scupture "Rotifier""There's always been a strong relationship between art and science," insists Bill Hsu, professor computer science. "There's more technology involved in the creation of art than we think." For an example, he says he's always admired the 19th century practice of artists using wax to sculpt the human form into models for medical students to study. "Technology," he says, "is really about how materials behave and can be used."

The material that Hsu uses when he collaborates with artists and musicians may be the computer, but finding new ways to use the computer is what excites him outside as well as inside the classroom. The results of Hsu's collaboration with steel sculptor Matt Heckert are on display at the Catherine Clark Gallery in downtown San Francisco.

Heckert says that the two robotic sculptures in his work called "Rotification" are meant to explore "what takes place during communication." He wanted the movement that he asked Hsu to program to "evoke basic human emotions like fear as well as intellectual activity." As a result, viewers of the robotic sculptures in "Rotification" say they seem "spastic, "argumentative," "meditative" and a number of other things meant to speak the unspoken.

Hsu says his long-time friend and collaborator first demonstrated how he wanted his sculptures to move in a low-tech way. "He used a pair of chopsticks."

One sculpture, "Fencers," consists of two robotic forms with long horizontal poles which imitate the competitive movement of fencing opponents. The other sculpture, "Rotifier," consists of large steel poles that move within a circular steel armature. Hsu programmed both of the pieces' motor functions using Max, a programming environment/language. Computer-based sequences control the movement of the poles, which create sound and ever-changing three-dimensional forms. "It's programmed so that the sculptures behave or move according to well defined rules," Hsu says. "But the details of the movement and any sound it may produce can vary all the time."

Heckert, who taught at SFSU in 2001, adds that the experience for the audience varies. He believes that the "fencers'" movement and sound suggest personality and create dramatic interaction with anyone who observes it.

While "Rotification" operates without the collaborators immediate presence, Hsu's work with musicians often involves live performance. "I am not a composer," he insists. "I am a collaborating musician/improvising partner," he says. "I 'play' sound synthesis modules much like one would improvise with an acoustic instrument."

In his ongoing work with a British saxophonist, John Butcher, Hsu says his computer has modules that "listen" to and analyze what the saxophonist plays. Then he extracts timbral characteristics (whether sounds are noisy or not noisy, smooth or rough, etc.), and generates a variety of musical sounds and gestures or phrases. Already, Hsu's work with this musician has resulted in a concert in Amsterdam. A native of Hong Kong, Hsu expects to continue this collaboration over an upcoming sabbatical.

Hsu enjoys sharing his discoveries with students at SFSU. He's taught in electronic music classes and hopes some day to expand his collaborative work to include cinema students.

"Rotification" is on view until Feb. 26 at the Catherine Clark Gallery, 49 Geary St. in San Francisco.

-- Denize Springer
Image: courtesy of Matt Heckert


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Last modified February 17, 2005 by University Communications