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Digitally Mastered

Artists in MICA's Digital Arts Master's Show Follow Their Visions Down to the Wire

You've Got Male?: In images like this digitally altered untitled photo, MICA artist Nancy Froelich bends gender and tweaks media.
Street Seen: Terrance Wilson uses software to animate his gritty, angular illustrations of life on the street in his work, "A Fish Out of Water."

By J. Bowers | Posted 5/5/2004

The Master of Arts in Digital Arts Thesis Exhibition IV

The Master of Arts in Digital Arts Thesis Exhibition IV

It's 8:39 p.m. on Tuesday, April 27, the last night before thesis reviews, and the main computer lab of the Maryland Institute College of Art's Master of Arts in Digital Arts program, housed on the fourth floor of the spanking new Brown Center, is a high-tech squatter camp.

Cutting-edge flat-screen Macintoshes share space with half-eaten bowls of salad, pilfered from a swanky reception in the atrium below. Well-stained coffee mugs compete with portable external hard drives, used to import almost-finished projects to the computers next door for last-minute Final Cut Pro action. Someone fell asleep on the black leather couch last night, bleary-eyed from hours of editing, Photoshopping, and statement writing.

It's crunch time. Everyone's highly caffeinated, and more than a little high-strung. Even the program's two resident goldfish, who figure prominently in one student's thesis, seem a little stressed out, bumping their bug eyes up against the glass. But there's laughter amid the chaos--gentle mockery for a giggling pair of students who finished on schedule, genuine enthusiasm upon realizing that there's beer downstairs, and the organic camaraderie of 18 artists who have weathered moments of high creativity and low energy, learning as much about each other as they have about translating their ideas into the ever-evolving medium of digital art.

Street Seen: Terrance Wilson uses software to animate his gritty, angular illustrations of life on the street in his work, "A Fish Out of Water."

As a one-year degree program, MICA's digital arts master's curriculum has precious little time to waste on the nuts and bolts of Illustrator, After Effects, Pro Tools, and other popular digital design programs, preferring instead to focus on artistic conceptualization and realization. With varying levels of prior experience, digital arts students jump in at the deep end, learning to view computers the same way that more traditional artists view pencils, paints, and other media.

"Other, multiyear digital arts programs are focused more on doing things like physical computing," explains Rachel Schreiber, the program's coordinator. "We have people doing all kinds of things, and they use computers in their process, but that's not always the main thing that drives them. I don't subscribe to the idea of the computer as a tool. I think the computer is a medium, and that's a key difference, because inherent in a medium is a way of thinking about something. We're engaging in the possibilities that technology has made available. We're not just using computers as tools--they're changing the way we can work."

Take the digitally manipulated photographs of Nancy Froehlich, for instance. Using Adobe Photoshop to recombine and reimagine images of male and female models, Froehlich blurs gender lines, creating ambiguous portraits that seem slightly off-kilter, without blatantly betraying their computerized origins. Does that boyish-looking figure have breasts, or a five o'clock shadow? Is that a soul patch in the center of a pigtailed girl's chin? Some of the photographs seem intentionally unambiguous, but at Froehlich's best, it's genuinely difficult to tell--and difficult to discern where, exactly, the photographs have been manipulated. For the Master of Arts in Digital Arts Thesis Exhibition, opening May 7, nine of her images will be reproduced as 30-by-30-inch prints, one of a handful of stationary objects in an exhibit that will include installations, animation, video, and other work that takes digital art out of the students' flickering computer screens, and places it at the same level as more traditional gallery fare.

"I think that digital art is in an interesting place, because more and more, many [other kinds of] artists use computers," Schreiber says about the shifting difference between digital art and other work. "In our graduate seminars we talk a lot about what it means to be a digital artist."

Part of what it means, at least lately, is having your own new home. With the addition of the translucent, über-modern Brown Center, MICA has changed to accommodate its growing digital arts needs. The 61,410-square-foot facility, designed by Charles Brickbauer, is a dazzling fusion of form and function, providing space for three new undergraduate majors in experimental animation, interactive media, and video, along with the master's of digital arts program, and two other graduate programs in photography and graphic design. Spacious, glassy, and full of empty spaces, the Brown's clean, industrial lines impart a sense of openness, a far cry from other MICA buildings' cluttered, institutional floor plans. Students are already using the building's exposed beams and glass paneling to artistic advantage, creating impressive space-specific work.

"People are taking advantage of the space," says Terrance Wilson, an infectiously cheerful digital arts master's student with hip-hop style who also completed his bachelor's at MICA. "We all have to think of more creative ways to display our stuff--a lot more is possible here."

In addition to providing open-ended gallery space for the student body and professional artists, the Brown boasts a 550-seat, bilevel auditorium, equipped for multiple performance functions, especially digital screenings. In fact, the entire building was wired with digital work in mind, featuring state-of-the-art recording studios, a green-screen shooting studio, and many other digital-specific facilities.

"Since the dot-com bubble burst, we've gotten more and more interest in our digital programs," Schreiber says. "Ten years ago, anyone could just go out, learn some software, and make lots of money. Now that the industry is not such a golden calf, digital art is more competitive, so people are more intent on creating better portfolios, to get better jobs. Now, we really want to think about how technology impacts the practice of art-making. When you go into the industry and get a job with a Web firm, or in special effects, or animation, as many of our alumni do, or whether you're going into teaching, really interesting, high-quality artwork is what's going to get you the farthest in each of those fields, not a demonstration of accumulated technical knowledge."

Artists working in more traditional media are drawn to the multimedia potential of digital arts, as well as the field's marketability factor. Wilson, previously an illustrator with a deep interest in sequential art and comic books, now uses rotoscoping (a kind of overlap of video and animation), green-screen (used for shooting live action in front of a composite background), and a handful of digital programs to animate his gritty, angular drawings of life on the street. Intercut with live-action sequences and narration, Wilson's quivery, hyperkinetic "A Fish Out of Water" tells the semiautobiographical story of a young black protagonist who chooses not to participate in an armed robbery.

"Coming from a strong drawing foundation, there's something really cool about watching my drawings move, doing something time-based, getting effects that I could never get through straight draftsmanship or painting. I don't look at this equipment as equipment," Wilson says, waving dismissively at a Macintosh. "This is a pencil to me. I can take it and I can see things more creatively than a tech guy could."

Raised in public housing in Paris by a Brazilian mother and a Franco-Russian father, multidiscipline artist Alexis Peskine speaks with a slight French accent and a lot of hip-hop attitude. Well aware that Americans view his home city as a glittering, romantic vacation spot, Peskine hopes that his piece, "Ripa,"--that's street slang for "Paris"--informs audiences about the poverty and racism at the fringes of the City of Love. His terse, original rap, backed with beats by his brother Adrien, provides the soundtrack and narrative anchor for Peskine's emotionally engaging video of a rarely seen yet familiar culture, where basketball and rapping aspirations are interrupted by random ID checks and drug addiction. Through digital media, his world is color-corrected and oversaturated to Fellini-esque brightness. Familiar Parisian sights, including the Eiffel Tower, contrast with sustained shots of Peskine's friends as they slit open cigarettes, ride trains, and look out for their working-class parents. Franck is a professional basketball player, worried about how he'll make money if he gets injured. Isabelle lovingly straightens her mother's hair. By "Ripa's" end, it's easy to see why Peskine wants to show this project to an American audience.

"There are a lot of similarities between blacks and Arabs in France and in America," Peskine says. "It's hard to be away from family and friends, you know what I'm saying, but in a way, that gave me the distance to think about it and see the similarities."

Yet another artist who found the new technology conducive to exploring his own experience Craig Herndon, a father of five who logged 32 years as a photojournalist for The Washington Post before joining the dot-com boom. He says he views the digital arts master's program as a way to update his skills and prepare himself to teach at the college level. He's interested in digital art as a vehicle for getting audiences to spend more time contemplating and interrelating groups of still photographs.

"I'm not as digital as some of the other folks," says Herndon, an African-American artist who focuses on the themes of memory and racial identity for "Honey Child: An Act of Love," an autobiographical slide show-style commentary on the fragility of race, inspired by his blond-haired, gray-eyed daughter Maya. Herndon's work isn't flashy, but it's deeply felt--a common thread among all the digital arts master's students, in spite of their all-nighters.

"Even with all the new technology, what we always come back to is the human experience," Herndon says, earning a nod from Wilson, who's still tinkering with his video. "All this other stuff--it's just a bridge. "

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