SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
Kids excited about cyberspace’s digital art palette
PAM DIXON 01-Aug-1999 Sunday
Eyebeam Atelier As many kids will tell you, digital art isn’t just for grown-ups. But up until a year or two ago, finding opportunities for kids to learn the digital arts at a sophisticated level was nearly an impossible task.
While there have been many classes that teach kids how to use creative software, such as computerized painting programs, few classes have been taught with the help of established, active new-media artists. It’s the difference between learning how to paint from a qualified teacher or learning how to paint from, say, the equivalent of a Monet or a Georges Braque.
Enter Eyebeam Atelier, a nonprofit arts organization nestled in the artsy SoHo area of New York City. Eyebeam has an enviable array of high-level graphics programs and computers, the best available. It also has access to top new-media talent.
“The Atelier has an agenda to get people access to new-media tools,” says John Johnson, executive director of Eyebeam. And a big part of that agenda includes bringing in students of all ages.
College students are typically brought on as interns, up to about five at a time. Postgraduates are invited on as artists-in-residence, and high school students are brought into the “digital day camp,” an effort that was launched in 1998.
Digital day camp
An impressive program, the digital day camp is one of the first of its kind. The camp is free to the approximately 15 to 20 students accepted each year. The students, which include many from inner-city areas, go through a highly developed course of study focused on new-media art training in classes taught and influenced by new-media masters.
“Last year, we used a curriculum based on building students’ identities. Students kept a detailed journal and created their own Web sites,” says Beth Rosenberg, Eyebeam’s education director who formerly worked at the Guggenheim Museum.
This year, students at the day camp are studying the fundamentals of 3-D design, along with works of art that illustrate conflict, such as Picasso’s “Guernica.”
“This year we decided to work on a robotics program using the interactive programmable LEGOs,” notes Rosenberg. “We became interested in the LEGOs because some of our colleagues made a trip to the MIT Media Lab, and that’s where these were invented. We’re interested in using these tools to help students build objects based on showing expressions of character.”
The programmable LEGOs, called LEGO Mindstorms, are simply LEGO bricks with the addition of what is called an “RCX brick,” or “intelligent brick.” The RCX brick can interface with a computer and can be programmed to do an amazing number of actions. With the bricks, you can build a robot that walks, moves, beeps, flashes and a host of other things. It’s a synergistic combination of low-tech LEGOs and high-tech computer programming.
Rosenberg is working with 14 students this year, meeting three days a week for a month. She is using the robotics class to help her students analyze and work through the conflicts in Kosovo and at Columbine High School.
“The students are learning aesthetics and learning to program the robots they build. But they’re also learning to work in teams, to trust one another, and they are learning how to express themselves in a new medium.”
For the class, well-known new-media artists and researchers are coming in. Among them are two guest lecturers from the MIT Media Lab; artists from Razorfish, a high-profile new-media company; and UCSD graduate and new-media star Mark Tribe.
Open to kids
But it’s not just the lucky students at Eyebeam who can participate in team-oriented, 3-D robotic design. This fall, a national program called FIRST LEGO League is launching. The League, a nonprofit organization that has partnered with LEGO, invites participants from every corner of the United States to enter a robotics design competition.
“We are seeing ourselves as the international Little League of technology,” says Anna Maenhout, director of FIRST LEGO League, which plans to branch out to other countries in the next year or two. “Right now, for the current competition, we have about 120 teams entered. The big influx will come in August and September.”
The competition allows 1,000 teams to enter. FIRST LEGO League teams can be composed of seven to 10 members (ages 9 to 14). Teams can be created from neighborhood, school or church groups, or just among family and friends. Kids will design, build, program and test the robot they create. The entry fee of $310 per team covers all the LEGO Mindstorms materials needed, and as of September, each team will also be given its own Web site.
Kids living in or near San Diego have a decided advantage should they decide to enter the contest. That’s because the LEGO theme park in Carlsbad holds classes teaching a basic course in using the LEGO Mindstorms robotics, officially called the LEGO Mindstorms Robotics Invention System.
The classes, which are free with the price of park admission, run for 45 minutes and are available all day. The teachers are upbeat, and the rooms are equipped with 14 computers and plenty of robots to assemble, program and run.
Other kids’ Classes
Although it is fun, 3-D design is not the sole focus of digital art classes for kids. Other popular digital arts classes that are often taught for kids include aspects of computer-aided design, Web page design and computer-assisted filmmaking and analysis.
The San Diego Museum of Art has a museum art school that holds classes for adults and children. This summer, some of the classes had digital themes, especially the July Toonsville Class, taught by Luke Matjas, a UCSD visual-arts graduate with an impressive slate of exhibitions and artistic credits. The class walked students through the creation of a Claymation movie. They created sound and special effects, then some had their movies digitized and put on a Web site.
“In many cases, students have the technology at home, but haven’t thought of using it in an artistic way,” says Cindy Zimmerman, coordinator of the museum’s art-school classes. “Many students’ parents own video cameras, but until the class, they may not have thought of filming frame by frame, or of having their own Web site with animated shorts that they have created.”
This fall, the museum art school will hold Saturday and after-school classes with a “Star Wars” theme, tying in with the museum’s “Star Wars” exhibit. So far, several of the kids’ classes have a digital aspect. For those, Matjas will be back on hand to teach. One of his planned classes is a thoughtful, fun look at visual resolution.
“We’ll use the museum’s collection to look at specific paintings and show how some artists’ ideas have formed the fundamental base of today’s art,” says Matjas.
“For instance, at the end of the 19th century, there was a post-impressionist — Seurat — who used a technique called pointillism. It involves the juxtaposition of tiny dots of color. Today, computer monitors and TV use that same technology to create actual images.” During the class, students will be creating their own designs based on grids, refining Seurat’s early techniques.
Just a few miles away from Balboa Park, the Children’s Museum is offering a design class through the end of the month. The class, taught by San Diego researcher and inventor Van Philips, employs 3-D design principles to walk kids through the process of designing a state-of-the-art prosthetic. The class is free with admission.
Next year, more new-media opportunities for kids promise to be available. “Eyebeam was approached by a venture capital company in Los Angeles to do a digital day camp in that city,” says Johnson. “I was hoping that it could be this summer, but it didn’t come through in time. So, it will be next summer.”
The San Diego Museum of Art has a commitment to getting the equipment they need for increased new-media education. Currently, it’s short by about five workstations.
“It’s all about creating a cyberculture for the arts in which kids are empowered and can understand these technologies,” says Zimmerman. “We need to create opportunities where kids can make the work of the future. We hope to facilitate that.”
Pam Dixon’s column on arts and technology appears the first Sunday of each month.