In the performing arts, research fuels creativity

Expanding the boundaries of knowledge in dance, theater and other performing arts requires research of a different stripe.

It's Friday night and Cuong Vu is hard at work in his research lab. The lights are dim. Alcohol flows freely. So does the applause. This jazz club where Vu is performing is not your ordinary lab—unless you’re a jazz musician.

“For the music I play, which is improvisation-based, performing in front of an audience is where I do most of my research,” says Vu, a jazz trumpeter who is UW assistant professor of music and Donald E. Petersen Endowed Professor in the Arts. “Every time I play for an audience, I’m going into uncharted territory and making new discoveries.”

Vu’s venue for research may be unusual, but his focus on artistic discovery is not. Across campus, faculty from the performing arts constantly push boundaries. They invent new movement vocabulary in dance. Develop fresh approaches to theater production. Design new technologies for public art. Whatever the project, research fuels their creative process.

“While research in other disciplines tends to be about producing knowledge, arts research is often about generating culture,” says Tad Hirsch, assistant professor of interaction design, who collaborated with scientists at high-tech companies before joining the UW School of Art faculty in 2011. At Intel, where Hirsch spent three years, his role was to challenge underlying assumptions about the technologies being developed, imagining new uses that would not have occurred to his more technically oriented colleagues.

“At a place like Intel, research is typically used to make products more efficient,” Hirsch says. “But for artists and designers, there is this little space between research and production. It’s this space of inspiration. You cast about for inspiration that will allow you to go beyond the obvious response. It can lead to the unexpected.”

The questions we ask are not so much about making lives easier, but about why our lives are what they are. What we’re really after is making something poetic.

Juan Pampin, director of DXARTS

Unexpected would be a good description of Sanctum, an interactive public artwork created by DXARTS professors Juan Pampin and James Coupe, Donald E. Petersen Endowed Faculty Fellow, that is now on display at the Henry Art Gallery through 2015. The artwork creates ever-changing narratives and images on large LCD monitors outside the gallery, using Facebook status updates from individuals whose age and gender match those of passing pedestrians. The carefully researched, high-tech aspects of the piece—complex mathematical algorithms, facial recognition software, an ultrasound speaker system—are mostly invisible to viewers.

“Developing this has been a huge research project,” says Pampin, director of DXARTS, whose team included 13 faculty, staff and graduate students. “It’s not something that could be produced by one artist in a studio. Sanctum could only be produced in a research environment like DXARTS, with Ph.D. students, postdoctoral students, research scientists and engineers.”

The ultrasound speakers developed for Sanctum show potential for broader application—such as gaming or in shopping, tracking people at points of sale—and have since been patented by the UW Center for Commercialization. Yet for Pampin, the focus remains the artwork. “All of our research is artistically driven,” he explains. “We develop new technology to do the kinds of things we want to do artistically. That the technology can be used for other purposes is simply a byproduct.”

Not all arts research is steeped in technology. Deborah Trout, assistant professor of drama, often turns to archival texts and images for her work as a costume designer at the Seattle Children’s Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Opera and other regional venues. She might explore the fashions of 17th century European aristocracy for one production and capture the look of 1950s scientists for another. “One of the fabulous things about my career is that each play is a different world,” says Trout. “I’m always learning about new occupations, cultures or time periods. My research starts with a careful reading of the text to figure out who are these people, when are these people and where are these people. That leads to the greatest challenge—designing the unique style of each production’s world.”

For theater director Valerie Curtis-Newton, professor of drama and Donald E. Petersen Endowed Professor in the Arts, every project starts with finding material that moves her. “I have to fall a little bit in love,” she says. After exploring the playwright’s intentions, she then shapes the production based on her own vision. Like a symphony conductor or a producer in a music studio, her work is essential but mostly invisible to audiences. And she sees all of it—conversations with the playwright, planning with designers, working with actors—as a research process.

“I’m not going to publish a book, but I do productions that are evaluated by critics and audiences,” says Curtis-Newton, who directed productions at Intiman Theatre and Seattle Public Theatre this summer. “This work is my research. I teach at a Research 1 institution, and I take that part of the University’s mission as seriously as a scientist or doctor.”

Jürg Koch’s research requires little more than human bodies and a sprung floor in a dance studio. Koch, assistant professor of dance and Donald E. Petersen Endowed Faculty Fellow, choreographed an ambitious new version of Rite of Spring earlier this year, involving 24 dancers ranging in age from 9 to 70. He viewed previous productions of Rite where video was available, but most of his research involved developing processes for choreographing movements for dancers of varying abilities. Through these processes, dancers generated their own material, suited to their abilities but they reflected very specific movement ideas and content that Koch was after.

Before using his processes on Rite of Spring dancers, Koch tested their efficacy during a one-quarter research course, which was open to students with a range of dance ability, including those with no previous dance training at all. The course itself was an experiment. While students often expect to be taught “steps and counts,” here they were asked to apply different tasks, generate material and assess what the material evokes. “It was a chance to see what was working, what wasn’t, what needed to be changed or abandoned,” Koch explains. “It was challenging for some students to see that I didn’t have the answers—that I was still looking for answers and that we would generate a lot of material that might never be used. But I think it was a valuable lesson.”

Composer Richard Karpen, director of the School of Music and Aura Bonell Morrison Endowed Professor of Music, would like to see more students involved in arts-based faculty research, much as they are in the sciences. His own early experience apprenticing with an established composer has convinced him that the model works. After studying with the composer for several years and developing “mutual trust and a shared sense of criteria for high quality work,” Karpen was asked to assist on a large-scale, multifaceted composition set to premier at a major international festival. “It was so much more challenging and demanding than anything I could have come up with myself at that stage,” Karpen recalls. “It was one of the key transformational experiences in my life.”

Yet students in the arts often balk at working toward someone else’s creative vision. “You do get push-back from students who don’t see assisting in faculty art projects as being part of their education, “admits Karpen, whose recent work features collaborations with musicians and actors using improvisation and real-time electronic media. “You don’t get that same push-back in the sciences.”

Even without apprenticeships, students benefit when faculty are immersed in research, says Art Professor Rebecca Cummins, whose public artworks include unique sundial installations at the Montlake Branch of the Seattle Public Library and The Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco. Cummins believes that pushing herself artistically translates to better teaching.

Art is experiential knowledge. It is neither more nor less subjective, complex or difficult to acquire than scientific knowledge.

Richard Karpen, director of the School of Music

“When faculty create work, we are grappling with similar issues and processes that our students struggle with, and it’s good for them to see that,” says Cummins. “It’s the unknown. You’re setting yourself a problem that you don’t have an answer to, and you are continually challenging conceptual, technical and aesthetic aspects. We all fail at stages along the way. That’s just part of the process. Things need to be altered or reconsidered, and often what results can be more powerful. It’s torture and excitement. It’s what compels us and it’s also … well, sometimes uncomfortable.”

That description likely resonates with scientists. While the disciplines are strikingly different, the arduous, exhilarating process of discovery is very much the same. “Art and science are both creative acts,” says Karpen. “Both require experimentation, methodology and rigorous discipline. Art is experiential knowledge. It is neither more nor less subjective, complex or difficult to acquire than scientific knowledge.”

Roman Camarda, ’13, knows this firsthand. While pursuing a double major in biochemistry and photomedia, he worked in a faculty microbiology lab and conducted independent research for his photomedia honors thesis. “For a long time, I thought I had these two disparate interests,” says Camarda, now a graduate student in biomedical science at UC San Francisco. “All my science classes were at the south end of campus and all my art classes were at the north end, so the transition was literal. But in the past year, I’ve been able to see how my artistic and scientific interests relate.”

While Camarda finds many similarities between art and science research, he does acknowledge differences. “In my art, I don’t start with a hypothesis, and I never, ever make conclusions,” he says. “I just jump into the experimental process, which leads to creation of a work, which leads to a new question. In science, conclusions are important. But in art, you have the freedom to not make conclusions because the artistic process doesn’t depend on it.”

That, says Juan Pampin, is what makes research in the arts so unusual. “When we do research, our goal is not functionality,” he says. “The questions we ask are not so much about making lives easier, but about why our lives are what they are. What we’re really after is making something poetic.”