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Founded nearly two centuries ago in upstate New York, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) cultivates the next generation of innovative leaders in science and technology fields. Its standout programs in engineering and computer science make it easy to overlook RPI’s art offerings including tempting Electronic Arts programs that our readers will find of particular interest.
Shawn Lawson serves as Professor of Computer Visualization at RPI as well as Director of its Electronic Arts graduate program. Throughout Lawson’s own education and work as a computational artist, he has merged the fine arts with computer graphics in a manner that epitomizes the dual nature of our increasingly digital world. His computational brawn coupled with his creative brain symbiotically link the two often-thought disparate fields. To get an inside look at Rensselaer’s Electronic Art offerings, we caught up with Lawson recently for our latest Q&A. Enjoy!
ACR: Shawn, you serve as the Graduate Program Director of Electronic Arts at Rensselaer while also teaching a wide range of courses at the undergraduate level. What attracted you initially to Rensselaer’s program?
Shawn Lawson: The Arts Department here at Rensselaer is a secret enclave tucked in the Hudson Valley region. RPI is known for being a strong technology and engineering school, so most are surprised to find out that we have one of the oldest and highly ranked Electronic Arts graduate programs in the country. Existing within an R1 (research) institute, we tend to attract exceptionally talented students. Plus, the faculty here are incredibly interdisciplinary and world renowned in their respective fields. The discussion surrounding Arts + Sciences or STEM to STEAM has been around for decades. For the arts faculty here, we accept it as fact. As such, we simply just get to it.
One of the things I value most is the low department walls and incentives for collaborations both within the department and across campus. We're looking ahead at what the New Polytechnic is, and what that means for educating students. How does one prepare a student for future careers that may not yet exist? Why not teach them to invent those careers...
ACR: Undergrads will find two electronic arts options at Rensselaer: the interdisciplinary Electronic Media, Arts & Communication (EMAC) B.S. program and the Electronic Arts (EArts) B.S. What student is best suited to each program?
SL: There is a lot of overlap in core animation sequence of courses but the primary distinction between the two majors is their surrounding collection of courses. I think the best separation I can make between the two is by asking, ‘Design or Art’?
EMAC, having course requirements in written and visual communication, lends itself to be more design-like or client-driven. Frequently, students in EMAC dual major or minor with Computer Science, Business, and Engineering areas. Alumni head into positions that require motion graphics, video editing, freelancing, storyboarding, web graphics, and technical director (rigging, crowds, vfx, pipeline and tool building).
Whereas EArts students are driven by personal vision. This major has more focus on traditional courses: drawing, sculpture, Art History. Frequent dual majors or minors here are Computer Science, IT Web Science, Biology, and Games Simulations Arts and Science. Most of these students go on to graduate programs, technical director (vfx), technical lighting, game asset development, independent artists. The EArts major is a little less structured regarding which exact courses must be taken, so some personal tailoring is possible. Both EMAC and EArt complete a two course Creative Seminar sequence (Senior Thesis) where they are required to publicly exhibit their work.
ACR: On the graduate front, what degree programs are available at RPI within the electronic arts framework?
SL: We offer a practice based PhD in Electronic Arts. The MFA in Electronic Arts is undergoing redesign/rethought. In general, the MFA is considered the terminal degree in the Arts, but there is some push to say that the PhD should be the terminal degree. The MFA is typically a studio practice based degree and not as theoretical/philosophical as one would do in an MA program, which then typically leads to a PhD.
In other countries, the PhD in Arts has existed for a while but in the US Rensselaer is one of the first to offer it. We look at our PhD offering as taking the leadership role in defining a practice based PhD degree in the Arts. The concept of practice-research is quite new in academia. It doesn't fall into quantitative or qualitative methods. Arts practice-research as a method in itself is our goal. We do adhere to established PhD milestones and require a dissertation that is part practice and part written.
ACR: Your background is a great example of the cross-pollination and interdisciplinary nature of the digital arts today. Some people see the arts and sciences as distinctly opposite. What’s your perspective, Shawn?
SL: I feel like early education tries to make the division between right and left brain, whereas I see each field of study asking similar questions but through different lenses or processes. My perspective is to take a combination of approaches to research questions that couldn't be answered with a single approach. I've spent a lot of time in studio practices and time learning more mathematical and computational sciences; then I apply those studio practice techniques in computer science contexts and vice-versa, algorithmic processes in the studio context. The two sides are really only different when we permit them to be that way.
ACR: How did you hone your diverse skills and synthesize them into computational art?
SL: It’s been quite a roundabout trip. I’ve always enjoyed both arts and math. When I attended Carnegie Mellon University for Fine Arts, they had both a computer animation and a computer science department. This was before the internet explosion; we had dial-in internet connections with landing pads like AOL and Compuserve. My plan at CMU was to try to sneak into the computer science graphics lab that Andy Witkin had. Alas, the year I started at CMU Pixar swooped in and the graphics lab was no more.
A friend suggested I take the first offering of a course titled “Building Virtual Worlds” with Professor Randy Pausch. One thing lead to another and I found myself working first as a student and then as an artist-in-residence in his virtual reality research lab, Stage3, on the Alice Project. I also spent a semester studying abroad at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, a summer internship at Walt Disney Imagineering, virtual reality projects with Profitt Lab at the University of Virginia, virtual reality research projects for DARPA, and so on. Most of these were a result of being embedded as an artist in Randy's computer science research group.
When my Stage3 artist in residence term was closing, I was accepted to School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in the Art and Technology Studies program. This was an amazing opportunity to meet and work with new colleagues and faculty. Here the merger of arts and technology was expected and critiqued.
ACR: You leverage software to create art. Why does coding excite you artistically, and what opportunities does it present to you as a creative thinker?
SL: In a move to “open mouth and insert foot,” coding can be boring and monotonous- although it doesn’t have to be that way. The top computer science programs in the country are actively trying to address this issue. They are very good at tracking students through their program and finding where the issues are. One of the stumbling blocks they have found is the question, ‘Why?’ What is the purpose of completing some mundane computer science task other than to prove one could do it?
Something we're beginning to test here at RPI with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities is a more humanistic and ethical purpose to computer science 1 assignments. For example, using census data sets to learn iteration through loops and then learning about how census data can be used for election maps or representative distribution. In this way, we’re matching relatable content to the computation.
For me, code is my media. I find coding as a way to explore complex ideas or arrive at visual results quickly. Additionally, I think nearly everyone in the creative coding field writes their own tools and software simply because what they need just doesn't exist. Again, back to the ‘Why?’, if I was writing code to duplicate something that already exists I would be quite bored. But, in my case, the why is to generate on-the-fly computer graphics for visual performance or to visualize concepts like infinity, limits, and mobius transformations.
ACR: You’ve referred to the live-coding art you do as risky, saying that there’s ample opportunity for things to go wrong during a performance. What’s it like to work with a temperamental or uncertain medium?
SL: It’s quite risky and often a performance will end when the software or hardware crashes. In the culture of live-coding, a crash is more frequently the result of pushing the limits of software and hardware to and over the breaking point. The core live-coding community is very DIY and open source, so popular platforms are worked on by many brilliant people who all want to use something stable since this is what they use in their own artistic practice and research.
Software is logical and will do exactly as it is instructed to do. The fallibility resides with the user. Writing code is hard. Writing code in front of other people is anxiety ridden. Writing code in front of other people for an amazing visual or sonic experience is dreadfully difficult. Computer languages aren't really designed for this kind of usage. The opportunity to make simple mistakes abound. Compound this with wanting to move through editing code quickly so that there aren't long moments of repetition/in-action in a performance. I think it comes down to knowing your limits and working within them. Having a sense of how fast you can code with minimal errors. Being prepared with rehearsed content. And not experimenting on stage, but exploring ideas in the studio.
ACR: We spoke briefly about your past work on VR with Randy Pausch. What are the present day limitations that virtual reality faces?
SL: Arguably, we're in fourth-wave VR. Ivan Sutherland with the first head-mounted display (HMD) 1960's. Jaron Lanier with VPL Research in the 1980's. Disney and Randy Pausch in the late 1990's. Then again with the Oculus and Vive in the 2010's. The limitations certainly have changed quite a bit over the years, but I think the biggest limitation is us. I see a lot of mistakes we made in the past coming up again and again. We could do better by writing the history and not repeating our missteps.
I don't believe we have invented what the medium of VR is uniquely capable of that is not an experience we could create by some other means. This was Randy's rationale for naming his research group Stage3. In first stage of any new media, it's a struggle to do anything. In the second stage of any new media, we recreate other media within the media (VR experience of a museum), in the third stage of any new media, we do what could not have been done before. Someone may counter that with VR so that we can put the guest anywhere. Again, though, looking at the history, humans have been coming up with ways of creating sensorial immersion for hundreds of years - giving guests the experience of feeling like they were in other worlds.
ACR: As an educator, how do you approach a nascent technology like VR in the classroom and ensure students will be able to meet the needs of the future?
SL: I try to focus on creativity, critical thinking, and becoming a self-learner. Software and hardware both come and go, so we aim to teach the theory of why something works the way it works and not just the tool itself. In my experience of CGI, I've watched some of the incredibly human-time-intensive tasks slowly become solved or made easier. As examples, UV un-mapping, rigging, skinning, texture painting. Or watching some technologies disappear almost entirely from production pipelines like NURBS modeling. There's a real danger here of knowledge loss.
I'm seeing new professionals who are too accustomed to pressing the auto UV unfold and layout options without knowing how to layout the UVs of a model by hand. Frequently there are instances where the topology distortion from 3D to 2D, contiguousness of fewer UV islands, and inside/outside projection are critical to stages later in an asset pipeline. I don't believe we're teaching and learning anything by pressing "auto" buttons.
ACR: Last but not least, Shawn, what do value most about Rensselaer’s approach to the digital arts that you’d like to share?
SL: I think we see digital media arts existing in the same ecosystem with traditional media (visual and sonic), film, social practices, movement, performance, architecture, and so on. Everything interconnects with everything else. We would like our alumni to be T-shaped: a broad cap of knowledge in many areas with a depth in their primary focus. Miss the cap and students are too narrow to communicate or empathize with others. Miss the depth and they're not developed enough to make substantial contributions on their future game teams or research groups. This model has been working quite well for us.
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.