Art Works Blog

Art (& Science) Talk with Pamela L. Jennings

Pamela L. Jennings. Photo courtesy of Ms. Jennings

Pamela L. Jennings is equal parts artist, engineer, and researcher. Her CV is extensive, covering everything from teaching positions in the arts to research projects in human-centered computing. As Director of the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Center for Research and Collaboration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Jennings works to create pathways between SAIC’s community and civic, academic, and industry partners. Prior to this, she led the National Science Foundation’s CreativeIT program that supported cross-disciplinary projects combining creativity, computer science, and information technology. As a veteran of the emerging art, science, and technology field, and a self-proclaimed “wizard behind the curtain,” she has big plans for its future.

The NEA caught up with Jennings over a 45-minute phone call to hear her perspective on what’s happening in the art-science community. We talked about media art in the early eighties to mid nineties, her time in Silicon Valley, and the rising STEM to STEAM movement. Here’s what she had to say.

NEA: Let’s start with your background. How did you develop an interest in media art and computing?

PAMELA JENNINGS: I’ve always been involved in various forms of art making/art creation, from visual arts to performing arts. My base visual art was photography, going back to junior high school. When I was a student at Oberlin College in the eighties, computers were not in abundance. We worked primarily on mainframes and word-processors, and quite frankly, I was critical about the impact of computers on society as I watched how anxious and impatient students got waiting for their dot-matrix printouts from the other side of the foreboding Plexiglas window. However, in 1990, I had the opportunity to do a residency at the Banff Centre in Canada. It was a combination of an internship and opportunity to work on my own creative explorations in video art, music composition, and sound synthesis. The main project I worked on was the completion of my thesis video, the silence that allows, for the New York University-International Center of Photography Master in Studio Art program. There was this incredible group of artists at that residency who were involved in what we call today the electronic arts, including Trimpin, Laura Kikauka, and Gordon Monahan. They were early pioneers who disassembled computers to build machines of their creative imaginaries, and I was wowed. This was the beginning of my pursuit of knowledge and involvement in the hybrid practice of the arts, engineering, and design. I also have to share that there were other artists at Banff during that residency who had tremendous influence on me, including feminist writer Tillie Olson, Fluxus artist Dick Higgins, and bad-boy Canadian painter Attila Richard Lukacs.

At that time, I was making experimental video art and electronic sound compositions. So, in essence, I was working with computers and technology, but not deconstructing technology. After that experience at Banff I decided that I wanted to learn more about multimedia as an artistic medium. The early to mid-1990s was a great time to enter into this burgeoning field because there were many opportunities to learn and leverage my new computational skills both for my artistic practice and paid gigs into what came to be known as the dot-com era. During that time I lived in New York City and as the dot-com industry started to rise, almost every major media conglomerate was trying to figure out how to use interactivity as a new medium for pushing content. I had the opportunity to work at Time Warner Interactive, NBC Interactive, Voyager, and a couple of smaller start-up companies [that] were developing CD-Roms and corporate websites. As a matter of fact, I worked on the first NBC Olympics website for the 1996 Atlanta Games. We were an HTML web farm in Rockefeller Center putting up photos, articles, and links in “real time” that were sent to us from the crew in Atlanta.

I would say that I am 70 percent self-taught. However, I found myself going back to school to learn more about computer programming and electronics. I started a Master’s degree in the New York University Interactive Telecommunications Program and finished an MFA in Computer Arts at the School of Visual Arts. In many ways, multimedia was the perfect format for me since I was already very engaged in image making through photography and video art, sound design and theater, and vocal arts. The rich medium of multimedia provided the tools for knitting these creative forms of expression together.

NEA: What led you to a career in research that has shared synergy across the arts and sciences?

JENNINGS: Long story short, I found myself with the requisite skills and ability and talents to be solicited for some interesting jobs in the more commercial sector. Although that wasn’t my main goal, the job opportunities were fresh and open to alternative perspectives and approaches. My goal was just to have great experiences working on cool projects. As I mentioned earlier, I returned to school and completed my MFA. When I graduated, I was recruited by IBM to work on a new cutting-edge (for that time period) corporate Internet project called alphaworks. From art school to IBM, this was an unusual path and to this day I don’t know how they were referred to me for the position.

The reason why I really liked the IBM project and decided to do it was because it was connecting IBM computer science research to the world beyond IBM. IBM has a world of research that is not intended to become part of a product. However, they wanted to leverage this giant research brain trust to make it available to outside developers to think about how to use it, license it, etc. IBM wasn’t necessarily thinking of open source, although some of the technologies went that way, particularly since this was all happening during the time period of the “birth of Java.” I liked the project because it connected me to IBM research, not because it was a dot-com initiative. We were moved to San Jose, California, to set up shop at the Almaden IBM Research Lab. While there, I spent substantial time working in one of the research labs that was then called the User System Ergonomics Research lab that focused on human-computer interaction interfaces of the future. Following my time at Almaden, I spent a couple of years at SRI International, another Silicon Valley think-tank where I worked at the Center for Technology in Learning, a cutting-edge research group that was developing technology and applications for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning in informal and formal settings. Today, we take PDAs or smartphones for granted. Back then, we were discovering and inventing new ways to integrate these tools into everyday life and learning.

My path is unusual. I was driven in those jobs by the opportunity to access, engage, and subvert ideas about how we develop and use computer technologies. Getting access to a lot of really interesting, cutting edge ideas---things that we might take for granted today, but at the time in those labs were truly groundbreaking---was my driver to flirting with corporate research think tanks.

I spent eight years at Carnegie Mellon University, following Silicon Valley, with a joint professorship in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) in the School of Computer Science and the School of Art in the College of Fine Arts. Prior to my position, there had been one other faculty member, Simon Penny, who had a joint professorship in art and robotics. I was the first to have an appointment between the School of Art and the HCII. After I left Carnegie Mellon, I spent a year at the Banff as director of the research program in Banff New Media Institute. While at Banff, I resurrected and restructured the Advanced Research Technology Lab, which had fallen to mothballs after a splendid nearly 10-year Banff New Media Institute run and about three-year research lab run. I hired an incredible international group of junior researchers from Austria, Colombia, Canada, and Hong Kong. We focused on software development, virtual and augmented reality projects, and rapid prototyping of complex systems.

After a year in Canada the opportunity to return to the States as a program director at the National Science Foundation was presented to me. Being a job that I simply couldn’t refuse, I moved to Arlington, Virginia, and took up the reigns as lead program director for the NSF CreativeIT program. Plus, Obama had just been elected, and this was no time to become an expatriate. To this day, I believe that the CreativeIT program was and is so far the only, federally funded program focused specifically on the integration of computer science, engineering, and creativity. We funded many wonderful projects. And perhaps someday, a published record will be made about the impact of that program.

NEA: Can you tell us about the CONSTRUCTS Toolkit that you developed and how it’s used?

JENNINGS: The CONSTRUCTS project is research I conceptually started more than 10 years ago with generous funding from the Rockefeller Foundation when Joan Shigekawa was the Director of the Culture and Creativity program. At that time, my interest was in the development and design of information technologies for use in public spaces, supporting the notion of the 21st-century public sphere. I was exposed to a fascinating breed of software and electrical engineers at places like IBM and SRI who were developing new methods for advanced technologies, such as software agents for asymmetric warfare and speech recognition engines. Some of those technologies we take for granted today, as they’ve become key components of our electronic devices, like the Apple Siri speech recognition engine and Accuweather data agents. But I was working with the computer scientists who were doing early development on those systems and I wanted to play with them. My work along these lines continued while I was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and eventually led to a grant from the National Science Foundation CreativeIT program resulting in the CONSTRUCTS project.

CONSTRUCTS is a construction toolkit that includes physical blocks that are shaped sort of like Tetris shapes. The physical blocks connect and form a wireless sensor network. Data from that network is sent to a computer application I call Construct/VizM that draws a 3D render in real-time of the physical construction as blocks are added and removed. The concept of CONSTRUCTS has swayed a bit from early concepts as a mixed-reality language game played with the blocks, and hopefully someday I will return to that application concept. The project has recently entered a new phase with my 2013 receipt of a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Grant. This grant presents the opportunity to transform the research generated with this project into a commercial product. My goal is to leverage this opportunity with CONSTRUCTS to support new creative technology projects.

NEA: While you were with NSF, you were integral to the joint NEA/NSF art and science workshops that happened in 2010. Right?

JENNINGS: Yes, when I moved to DC to start my position as program director in the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, I discovered much to my surprise that Joan Shigekawa had also recently moved to DC for her position as Senior Deputy Chairman at the NEA. After a great dinner and e-mail exchanges we agreed that this was an unprecedented opportunity for our two agencies to collaborate on a project. What made this perhaps historical is that to my knowledge, this was the first formal collaborative engagement for the two agencies. Whereas interagency collaborations are the norm in DC, it had not happened across the chasm of the NSF and the NEA. Realizing that there was a great opportunity afoot, we decided to convene a stakeholders’ meeting for the art, technology, and science community of practitioners and researchers.

Prefaced as a follow-on conversation initiated by the Beyond Productivity: Information, Technology, Innovation, and Creativity report that was written nearly ten years prior, we organized a joint highly interactive symposium based on the key convening questions, ‘Where are we now ten years later?’ and ‘How do we elevate the field to Federal awareness and support?’ The symposium was held at the NSF headquarters. It was a very strategic decision to hold this groundbreaking conversation at the home of perhaps the most powerful influencer of science and technology research and policy, globally. With more than 60 participants attending, we engaged in provocative discussions that led to the design of the symposium storymap that gave a graphic depiction of the gap analysis, issues, and opportunities for the research field. This was the first of a series of workshop/symposiums I funded as a program director at the NSF, including “Bridging STEM to STEAM” at [Rhode Island School of Design]; “Building a Network of Excellence” at [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute]; “Media Systems” at [University of California, Santa Cruz]; “Sketching in Hardware” at LAX, Los Angeles; and the SEAD workshops at University of North Carolina and the Maryland Institute College of Art. While at the NSF, I also co-funded many other projects across the entire range of research that falls under the umbrella of Human-Centered Computing. The NEA also sponsored additional workshops held at the NSF and elsewhere along with the topics discussed in our first joint symposium venture.

NEA: The intersection of art, science, and technology spans many different interests and movements. What kinds of collaborations or overlaps are you seeing take place?

JENNINGS: My focus on hybrid practice has been the nexus of art, design, and engineering. However, more creative practitioners and scientists are exploring the synergies and dissonances between creative practices and the natural sciences. STEAM (Science, Technology Engineering, Art, Mathematics) is a tricky acronym that takes on multiple definitions depending on the context in which it is being used. I was told once by Dr. Cora Marrett, deputy director of the NSF, that astronomers use the acronym STEAM. In the arts context, some use STEAM to talk about education and learning, and others use STEAM to talk about the entire phenomenon including professional creative and research practices. Regardless of how STEAM is defined, it brings forth opportunities for broader impacts and diversification of critical, technical, creative, and applied discovery and innovation. STEAM is comprised of hybrids like myself who refuse to succumb to boundaries and constraints in pursuit of new ideas and innovations. In other words, I am not an artist today and an engineer tomorrow. I think there are more and more people, particularly students, who are either defying discipline-honed boundaries, or are of a younger generation that does not know how to recognize a boundary (sometimes for better or for worse). When we can stop grappling with definitions and allegiances to forms of practice, we start to think and produce new concepts that have potential for much broader impact.

NEA: You’re currently acting on the steering committee of the Network for Science, Engineering, Arts & Design, known as SEAD. Can you tell us about SEAD’s mission and the role that you play?

JENNINGS: Yes, I funded the SEAD project and another sister effort called XSEAD with the specific goal of bootstrapping the U.S. SEAD community in forming stronger networks across institutions. What I observed over the years was that the U.S. lacked a national network. We know each other because we’re a tight-knit community, but we don’t network with each other. We don’t build upon each other’s strengths. This was opposite to what I observed in other countries, and particularly when I go to conferences like ISEA, the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts conference where flock-of-birds meetings are held across regional domains be it Europe, Canada, Asia, and even the African continent. However, in the U.S. we do not leverage our strengths. So that was kind of the ‘Aha!’ and ‘What can I do?’ moment. With my position at the NSF, I was able to bootstrap a process for the U.S., and out of that came the SEAD and XSEAD network building groups. SEAD has been more active in the public interface. And XSEAD was formed to develop an infrastructure framework to support the needs of a network. I was simply the wizard behind the curtain. [Laughs.]

NEA: In your opinion, how is the culture of this work changing and, vice versa, how is it transforming culture?

JENNINGS: Hmm. Wow. Sometimes I wonder if we’re transforming anything at all. [Laughs.] We just want to believe that we are! Looking at my own background, when I was in college in the 1980s only the really hip, cool kids knew what a computer could do creatively. They did some amazing work, but it was a very small group of college kids. Today students take the ability to use, consume, and design media, computers, and computation for granted. A computer is merely a tool for expression, like a pen, a paintbrush, or a pencil, as it should be. More schools today are starting, strengthening, or increasing their interactive technology and digital arts programs. Some of these schools have gone this path because it’s a natural additional to their academic portfolio, and others because it’s a potential large revenue stream. Youth today are weaned on technology and for many, see working in the field(s) that cross the arts, design, technology chasm as a natural direction. In terms of transforming culture, that’s a big question. What type of culture? World culture? Institutional culture? Culture of self? [Laughs.]

NEA: Right. You could look at it in any way that you wanted. World culture is more abstract, but however you see it.

JENNINGS: The NSF directorate I worked in, Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering, funded a body of research across disciplines that have tremendous impact on world society and culture. My division, the Intelligent Information Systems, was responsible for supporting important work ranging from education technologies, game interfaces, social media, robotics, vision systems, assistive technologies, big data, computational economics, etc. My primary group, Human-Centered Computing, funded a range of research crossing computer science, engineering, behavioral sciences, and design that explored, probed, and invented technologies and methodologies that have direct impact on society from the individual to the global. It was quite fascinating having the opportunity to be part of and to influence that machine for a couple of years with my vision of what I viewed as critical for the science and technology research in the United States.

NEA: What trends present the most interesting overlaps or potential future impacts?

JENNINGS: There are probably a couple of interesting trends. What’s happening right now in the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) community and hacker community, the sense of self-efficacy with the “black-box” world of electronics that this community is extending to everyday folks is very powerful. That is, the idea that anyone can take apart, try to understand, or rebuild technologies that are often handed to us de facto. We also have the open source rapid prototyping movement. I think it’s a little bit more of a niche than the people who are engaged in it really realize. But then again, that’s what we thought of desktop publishing in the early ‘90s.

NEA: What are you not seeing that you think should exist?

JENNINGS: We need more diversity in the field. By diversity, I am not talking about disciplines of practice and research. And I’m not talking about gender. I am specifically talking about ethnic and racial diversity. When I attend my professional meetings, such as the ACM Human-Centered Computing conference, I see more African-American graduate students and I can see that things are starting to change---a little bit. But in terms of mid- to senior-level people, it hasn’t changed. I can count on less than one hand the number of my African-American colleagues at this event and others that attract the engineers, makers, and tinkerers of tomorrow such as ISEA, [College Art Association], and smaller specialized workshops and symposiums. I send kudos to Mitch Resnick’s MIT Media Lab Lifelong Kindergarten group that has been a single-feed line of diversity into the creativity support tools domain. But we need more, I’m lonely---and getting tired!

It’s a no-brainer. Those of us, who find ourselves in various roles to be able to influence, design, or build these technologies, not only have an incredible creative tool at hand, but we have incredible power and influence in shaping society. An opportunity is lost when we don’t have diversity among the thinkers and makers. And we end up reiterating the known. Without the difference of ideas, opinions, and insights, like a programming loop with too much recursion, eventually our movement toward the future will crash. I would say if anything, I would want to see this change.

NEA: In the future, how do you foresee institutions fostering this type of creative research and artistic production?

JENNINGS: At SAIC, I’m leading the process of implementing an intellectual property (IP) policy. It’s an interesting opportunity and dilemma when the borders between the arts and business acumen intersect. This is perhaps the next great chasm to wrestle to the ground. For example, an IP policy does not mean that the institution and community values are shifting to monetize creativity. No, not at all. But what it does do is give the arts institution a tool to use when negotiating internally and with external partners the provisions by which new creative, innovative work can happen with the goal to protect the IP (in whatever format warranted---open source to revenue generating) of the artist. This is of particular importance as more corporate and large public organizations seek to partner with the arts and artists.

NEA: Lastly, do you have a favorite place to experience art?

JENNINGS: Well, of course, the Art Institute of Chicago. [Laughs.] It’s wonderful to have such a world-class resource right at my fingertips. However, what I find really fascinating is Chicago’s dedication to public art. I can walk in the downtown loop area and have a Picasso sculpture grace my left and Miró sculpture to the right. Around the corner, a Chagall mosaic sits under the shadow of the Chase building right in front of McDonalds. There is a European cultural feel in parts of the city, not because the three artists I just mentioned were European, but because their art is right there on the street, ready for children to climb on and use as a slide. Yes, and one must mention the Crown Fountain video sculpture and water fountain in Millennial Park. By the way, a little known fact, the Crown Fountain was a project of the staff, faculty, and visiting artists at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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