Anyone interested in understanding our brave new world that blends art and technology need not look any further than the work of UCLA’s Rebecca Allen. As returning Chair of the university’s Design Media Arts department (a department which she founded in the 1990s), she presides over one of the nation’s premier interactive design programs that offers both B.A. and M.F.A. degrees.
Allen is no stranger to raising eyebrows with her rare ability and inclination to marry both hemispheres of the brain. A fervent traditional animator as a student, she embarked on CG animation at its cusp; she later tackled research projects at MIT and NYIT that were years ahead of their time. Her research work for corporate clients was visionary in scope, seeking ways to best utilize new technology for interaction, art and games. Allen’s work has earned her high praises through the years including an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Design, and her art is permanently housed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and Centre Gorges Pompidou in Paris.
We eagerly caught up with Allen to bring you our latest Q&A. We asked her about her work, the students she teaches at UCLA’s Design Media Arts department, and what most intrigues her in her field. We hope you enjoy!
ACR: You have melded art with technology throughout your career, Rebecca. Were you always drawn to both?
Rebecca Allen, Chair, UCLA's Design Media Arts Department[/caption]
Rebecca Allen: It came to me while I was studying animation at Rhode Island School of Design as an undergrad. Two things inspired me to bring art and technology together. First, I thought it was so important that artists become involved deeply in the new technologies of the day (this was in the 1970s). I looked back to the industrial age artists like futurists and Bauhaus who tackled how artists and designers could address the machine age of their time. They ended up using new tools of industry to make their art, as well as to make art relevant to what was happening in society. I was motivated to do that with computers.
The second part was that as I was working with animation- traditional 2D animation- and I was flirting with experimental animation. I experienced firsthand the huge amount of labor involved in bringing just a few minutes’ worth of animation to life with hand drawn techniques. Brown University was virtually across the street from us at RISD and they were doing pioneering work in early computer animation which piqued my interest.
ACR: So you decided to adopt utterly new technologies for animating at the time. I can’t imagine what your teachers and mentors must have thought at the time.
RA: Everyone thought I was crazy. We were allowed to take independent study and I defined for myself a computer animation study at Brown where I worked with a computer scientist and mathematician. They didn’t understand why I would couple animation with computers… they thought that art had nothing to do with computers. In my obstinate way, I went ahead and did it anyway. I was very disappointed in how art has been reluctant to tackle new technology… in my mind, art should be pioneering.
ACR: At what point did you decide that you could take your experiences with art and technology and marry them while teaching a new generation how to work with it all?
RA: For graduate work, I went to MIT to what is now known as the MIT Media Lab; they had just started a graduate program and I was one of the first of three students. Then I went to the Computer Graphics Lab at New York Institute of Technology which was world renown for the research they were doing and 3D animation. Ed Catmull was the original director there. After 6 years there, I decided to move to LA and had an opportunity to teach a course on CG animation in the design department at UCLA... that was 1986. Since then, I’ve come and gone through years of teaching and working and researching. There was so much going on in the ‘90s with tech and art and animation. I joined Virgin Interactive Entertainment and focused on games for a while as a 3D visionary.
UCLA wanted to do more of what I was doing- integrating technology with design- and they approached me to come back and I became the Founding Chair of DMA with the idea that tech can mesh with media art in the context of an art perspective rather than a programming one.
ACR: DMA has an incredibly diverse group of students. What sorts of educational backgrounds and interests do your students come from?
RA: The undergrads tend to focus on design; our MFA students often focus on media arts- though that certainly varies from year to year. We get students in the MFA program from design fields, architecture, media arts, arts, animation and film making, game design, computer scientists and engineers. We touch on all those areas so we tend to appeal to a variety of students.
ACR: That must be tough teaching to such varying interests and strengths…
RA: I love working one on one with students because you can really fine tune things to their abilities and interests. But it is tricky when students come in at the Masters level with different kinds of experiences. We recently initiated a pre-course for students to give them some experience and background on using certain equipment. We like all students- undergrad and graduate- to be familiar with programming.
ACR: What are some ways that your students integrate their diverse interests to tell stories in a new way?
RA: We push them to experiment- even graduate students who have their areas of work and tools they like to use already. We remind them that they need to get out of their box to go further. We’re so fortunate in that UCLA is a top research university, as well, so they have all the tools available to them to do just that.
ACR: And they have phenomenal faculty not only in your department but in other departments, as well…
RA: I think that’s a great advantage here at UCLA. The level and variety of expertise that our faculty have in so many different disciplines is tough to beat. They are often hybrids themselves, familiar with a number of areas. We have students cross over or collaborate across departments. We have an amazing arts program here with theater/film/TV, performance/dance, fine art, music that they often take advantage of. Ultimately, we want them to be well-rounded and our faculty reflects that.
ACR: Given the rapid rate of technological change, is it difficult to determine what to include in the curriculum?
RA: It’s a challenge. In this ever changing landscape, we are always looking ahead. For instance, 3D printing is now so important… it’s based on designing something virtually and then printing it physically. That mix of virtual and physical is getting stronger and our tools reflect that. Even in games- an area that no one talked about in academia previously- we jumped on and got involved in early. We’re constantly reevaluating and looking at our curriculum and ensuring we’re on the leading edge of this research environment. As faculty, we also have to keep learning new things and even learning from our students!
ACR: Good point. How are today’s students different from previous generations that you’ve taught?
RA: It’s all changed over the years. In the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, we were introducing computers to most of our students. Now, we’re amazed at the sophistication of their skills in their portfolios, even at the high school level. Most of our students have done a lot of creative work on the computer, but interestingly some haven’t had the physical making experience that we used to see all the time. A lot of students want to make things physically and have the ability to go between the virtual and physical worlds with more fluidity.
I have three grad students currently working in ceramics even though they’re very skilled in other areas. One came from a math degree and he’s been into fermentation and growing various mushrooms which he integrates into his ceramics and then he integrates that into technology. So it’s a very exciting time for them to develop all of those skills.
I also see more interest in students as activists and using their art to make a point whether it’s social or political. That’s refreshing to see.
ACR: How do you foster conscientious, socially-aware artists?
RA: From my perspective, a lot of it comes from the students themselves. We aren’t promoting it per say but all the faculty are open to students taking those kinds of approaches. It’s tricky being an activist artist and learning how to get your message across, so we offer guidance.
ACR: How has your perspective of art and technology changed since your own days as a student?
RA: Today, I’m more cautious and critical of the technology and how it’s being used than I was when I was just starting out. What is the experience? What does it do for people? In working with my students, it’s important to help them think more about the technology- the good and bad of it- and explore those ideas.
I’m dedicated to augmented reality and mixing the physical with the virtual. I wasn’t so interested in this earlier in my career but now that I see what’s going on- everyone is on their technology devices and there are very real struggles that take us away from the physical world. I’m interested in how we can create a world that seamlessly integrates these simultaneous realities better. As problematic as technology can be, it’s here to stay and we can create good and beautifully designed experiences that connect people with it.
ACR: Speaking of that, what’s on the interactive media horizon that most excites you?
RA: I was recently a director of Nokia’s research labs and my interest is in wearable technology. I think we’re going to see a lot of changes happening in that field that will tie into mobile technologies. Trying to understand where the artist and designer can fit into that new area is very exciting.
I also love the fact that displays are now up to 4000 resolution and looking beyond! I always dreamt that one day my work might be displayed on very high quality resolutions like a painting and now I’m watching that unfold. Virtual reality, which is cyclical and was around in the ‘80s and ‘90s, is coming back around but better than ever before with more opportunities. I think it opens up into a very immersive experience that blends the physical and virtual.
And then, doing work for social good is important to me and exciting. I’m looking at projects and involved in things that take advantage of my creative and tech background to come up with new ways to help people and the world.
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.