Nebraska artists swap brushstrokes for keystrokes

The computer that runs Omahan Luke Kelly's "Vangobot" robot painter is covered in splashes of paint. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Omahan Luke Kelly stands with the fourth prototype of his "Vangobot," a robot that paints. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Examples of paintings produced by the "Vangobot," or a painting robot developed by Omahan Luke Kelly. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
The view from the top of a Makerbot, a 3D printer used at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for art classes. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
3D printers are still a developing technology, and require monitoring; this Makerbot flubbed a printing of a whistle. Still, the potential is great, said Jeff Thompson, assistant professor of digital arts and new genres. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Listen to this story: 

January 17, 2013 - 6:30am

When it comes to contemporary art, forget paintbrushes, blocks of stone or pottery wheels; for some Nebraska artists, it’s all about supercomputers, lines of code and robots. But while they push the boundaries of art, such innovations also present new challenges for museums – and audiences.

Underneath the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium, a network of massive supercomputers churns through terabytes and terabytes of information. But it’s not just processing datasets or running complex mathematical analyses – it’s helping create art.

“Last year, we did a project that ended up being called ‘Every Nokia Tune,” said Jeff Thompson, assistant professor of digital arts and new genres at UNL who has a veritable artist-in-residency position at Holland Computing Center. The “Every Nokia Tune” project centered on the classic Nokia ringtone, “the most ubiquitous piece of music in the world.”

That 4-second ditty is heard an estimated 20,000 times per second worldwide:

“And we took that – those 13 notes – and I said, ‘OK, what happens if we make not a few remixes of that, (but) instead we make every remix?’”


Photo by Brian Winter

Brian Winter is a photographer from Council Bluffs who shows work in Nebraska; some of his art is currently on display at the Artists' Cooperative Gallery, 405 S. 11th St. in Omaha. 

A former photo lab technician, Winter shoots large-format film photography, and said digital technology makes photography "false," and too easy.

“I belong to a photo club here in town, and I hear people say, ‘Well, I applied this filter to it,’ and they made the picture really nice, but well, I had to wait places for hours to get a picture … that nice," he said. "Or you hear people say, ‘Well, I’ll take this picture and then later I’ll drop a nice cloud sky in the background for it,’ and that just kind of makes me shake my head.”

The result is more than 6 billion combinations. But how to display them? You can’t exactly hang 10 terabytes of mp3s on a museum wall. After discarding more interactive options, Thompson decided to display the standalone hard drive containing the songs as a piece of static sculpture.

Presentation is just one of the ongoing debates sparked by the rise of technology in art, said Karin Campbell, Phil Willson Curator of Contemporary Art at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. It’s one thing to mount a series of photographs, but for art that relies on high-tech projection, for example, the cost of equipment can be prohibitive.

Then there’s preservation. The shelf-life of new media artwork is a major factor, Campbell said.

“With new media work, especially film- and video-based work - and some with sound art, as well - technology has a tendency to become obsolete,” she said.

Just think of VHS or 8-track tapes.

“If they’re no longer going to be viable in 10, 15 years, do we bring those in?” Campbell continued. “Or do you make the decision that that’s not a route you’re going to go, even if new media work might be important for … completing a narrative of contemporary art history?”

That narrative includes plenty of instances where contemporary artwork was greeted with raised eyebrows, if not outright disdain, and pieces relying on modern technology are no exception.


Courtesy image

This Vangobot painting was commissioned by a San Francisco art collector. It measured 6.5 feet by 4.5 feet; the buyer specifically requested a piece based on the view from his apartment with a 60s period-style akin to painter John Axton.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

Luke Kelly's "Vangobot"  is a robot that paints.

See more photos of the Vangobot in the slideshow at the top of the page.

Just ask Luke Kelly. The Omahan is the co-creator of a robot that paints, cheekily named the “Vangobot,” pronounced “Van Gogh bot.” The apparatus fills a room the size of a small bedroom; looking like a shop table with a complex array of wires, tubes and gears, it holds 16 paintbrushes and eight canisters of paint. It’s run through a desktop computer that’s coated with a multitude of colored paint splatters.

 Paintings by the Vangobot have been sold to hotels, banks and private collectors; it’s even had its own art shows in Lincoln, Neb.

“Ultimately, the reaction was really split,” Kelly said. “It was either a love-it-or-loathe-it type reaction.”

You can tell the machine exactly what to paint or let the computer’s artificial intelligence programming interpret your suggestions and make its own decisions – like an art teacher giving a student a prompt. The computer then converts the pixels on-screen into brushstrokes on-canvas

“I had never been what you would consider a traditional artist,” Kelly said, “in the sense that, really, everything I’ve done has come from the computer side of things and been merged with the traditional. And the resulting output is the Vangobot project.”

Some of the backlash against digital art argues that it removes the creative process – it’s too “easy,” too automated (see the sidebar at the top of this article). But for Kelly, that’s sort of the point – he wants to make art easier. Despite some people’s dismissal of paintings created with a robot, the project was conceived specifically for the average art lover.

“I think our concept was, ‘Hey, let’s let people make a painting that could match their couch,” he said.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

A Makerbot 3D printer is used for various art classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The printer creates objects by gluing thin layers of plastic together - the same plastic used in Legos. When printing, it sounds like a mix between a standard inkjet printer and a sci-fi film spaceship. 

See more photos of the 3D printer in the slideshow at the top of the page.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

One of Jeff Thompson's 3D printing designs is an accessory that allows him to hook up a stethoscope to his smartphone and record his heartbeat. Thompson is an associate professor of digital arts and new genres at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Thompson, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach to his work, much of which only exists as an online visualization or lines of software code.

“My work is almost entirely non-visual at this point,” he said. “The pieces are way more conceptual and cerebral, and meant to exist half in your head and half in the world. … I don’t make objects that I care so much about hanging above someone’s sofa.”

While demonstrating how a 3D printer operates in his classroom at UNL, Thompson’s technical background is obvious: the object he’s printing – a whistle – involves around 40,000 commands, or specific instructions to the computer.

Though they have different approaches, both Thompson and Kelly have strong computer backgrounds, and they bring a kind of open-source ethos to the table. Kelly envisions the day when household-sized Vangobots would allow anyone to create quality, original paintings, while Thompson shares all his work on his website, free to download, including the programming and coding.  He said the art market is driven too much by money and profit.

“That whole idea of ownership and copyright and sharing, it’s something that processes – especially cultural processes, like art – that use digital technologies are really well-suited to address,” he said.

As for the “validity” of art made with or connected to technology? When asked about this debate, Campbell just laughed, describing the question of “what is art?” as an endless argument.

“With all artwork – not just new media – it’s finding your own personal point of entry,” she said. “So when something like the fact that it’s just new media dominates the conversation, I think that actually does a disservice to the work, because there’s more than just technology happening in these works.”

Digital technology is just another tool, Thompson said, no different from a paintbrush or a chisel.

And we’re really just scratching the surface of what’s possible, he added.

“There’s so much happening. And there’s so many different things, and they’re all really exciting,” Thompson said. “And if you open that door and you look down, it’s just this spiraling wormhole of exciting things happening.”

Who knows what they’ll come up with next.



blog comments powered by Disqus