When Catie Cuan first danced with a 2755-pound industrial robot, she felt transcendent.
“I went from being compostable, soft, and water-based to colonizing an object that was hard, would not die, and needed to be programmed by a computer,” she said during the Stanford Art+Tech Salon Showcase, which took place in March and was co-sponsored by Stanford Arts, the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI), and the Stanford Art+Tech faculty.
The experience was so jarring to her idea of what it means to be a person, that Cuan wanted to make it available to other people. As a resident with Thoughtworks Arts in New York City in 2018, she began using an augmented reality app and an AI model to convert the movements of multiple dancers into training material for an enormous robot that can dance with anyone.
Cuan’s choreographic work has a larger goal as well: to make robots more versatile and expressive and thus more approachable to people. She’s now pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford, with the aim of designing better robots and robot interfaces for usefully interacting with humans beyond dance performance.
Cuan is not alone in building this bridge between technology and the arts with influences flowing in both directions. The other 12 participants in the Stanford Art+Tech Salon Showcase are similarly positioned at that intersection. Whether they work in theater, film, sculpture, or other media, these artists bring tech to human experience and human experience to tech.
“This kind of cross-disciplinary work is exactly what HAI is all about,” says Michele Elam, the William Robertson Coe Professor in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences and an associate director at HAI, who co-organized the showcase along with Camille Utterback, associate professor of art and art history, and Michael Rau, assistant professor of theater and performance studies, both of whom are HAI-affiliated faculty.
Artists, especially those who are working with technology, are connecting humanity’s understanding of its past with the implications of tech for future generations – not only in a cautionary way, but as a way to access novel ideas, Utterback says. “What might we imagine if we’re thinking more creatively or more outlandishly about technology – or just exploring it through a different cultural or historical lens?”
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The March showcase presented just a small sampling of the work at Stanford that crosses over between arts and technology. In addition to Cuan, viewers heard from nine other artists, including HAI Visiting Artist Rashaad Newsome, whose Being App aims to use AI therapeutically, as a balm for Black people across the globe; and Amelia Winger-Bearskin, whose work includes building Indigenous ethics into computer code. The showcase was also tied to the Stanford Theater program’s StageCast performance, which uses brand-new technology to enable live theater performance over the internet from diverse locations – with quality much better than other platforms can offer.
Elam and Utterback hope that the March Art+Tech Salon Showcase launches a sense of excitement on campus about the spectrum of possibilities at this intersection. And the event is just the first salon of a monthly series designed to build connections among artists on campus who are working in this space.
“Rather than just bring in an artist-in-residence and tuck them into a corner with some paintings on the wall to provide, literally, color, we want something deeper and richer with some real exchanges that take time, over time,” Elam says.
During the monthly salons, faculty members, visiting artists, graduate students, and undergraduates will present their work and engage in dialog with like-minded community members. Interested Stanford community members can sign up to join the conversation. The next salon is on April 14 at 5:30 pm PT.
“There are students and faculty all over the university who are working across the arts and tech divide, but it’s hard to find each other because we’re not in a single department,” Utterback says.
One benefit of these gatherings will be practical: People from the music, art, computer science, and engineering departments will identify shared interests and offer one another advice and assistance. But another benefit may well be psychic: finding like-minded souls in what can seem like a vast university system. “There’s this hope that the artists who work with tech can have a community; that they can meet informally and have an ongoing dialog about their practice,” Elam says.
And there will be future public showcases as well, so that the broader community can continue to engage and learn from artists working with tech, which could lead to broader conversations about technology’s role in society.
“Often the arts and humanities are best positioned to really shape the civic imagination,” Elam says, “which in turn shapes policy and the way people understand tech.”
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