Museum exhibit uses technology and math to make art

TRAVERSE CITY – Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but at one area museum, art is now in the hand that holds the video game controller.

Walk into the Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City and you'll see the expected clean, neutral setting, with pale wood floors, representational art expertly hung on the walls, a children's area, an auditorium and a gift store. Typical museum fare. Now, look again.

A life-sized metallic sculpture of an alligator placed off center in the lowest section of a recessed floor hints that this otherwise quiet space is interested in provoking thought, and not just visual meditation, within its visitors.

Walk on and prepare to think a little harder. Thanks to a new exhibit, Museum Center visitors can watch huge three-dimensional sharks swim directly at Russell Chatham's lovely landscapes which just happen to be traditionally exhibited in the adjoining space. Visitors can also experience what it feels like to stand inside a giant florescent Slinky toy, marvel as a lime-colored snake-like image coils around them and itself in an impossibly symmetrical formation, and select any number of screen choices liquid with colors and textures and wonder whether they may have arrived inside of a video game.

These images fill three walls and the ceiling of a large box big enough for ten people or more to stand inside of. Don a pair of paper 3-D glasses, select the image to view, work the controller and you are an instant video artist. There are those sharks again, swimming in attack mode at Mr. Chatham's polite prairie horizons and riverbanks. The effect is a little disconcerting, which is kind of the point of CANVAS.

CANVAS, which stands for Collaborative Advanced Navigation Virtual Art Studio, is in reality (a word used sparingly here) a room-sized, four-sided, immersive space developed by mathematicians at the University of Illinois' Beckman Institute. The developers intended it not as a work of art in itself but rather as tool for people to create their own works. Just like math is not the solution to problems but rather a method to the solution, and computer software is not always the product or service itself but the means to create the product or service, so CANVAS is not the creation but the brushes and paint, in digital form.

But is this really "art?" Ask the museum's director and you will be answered with a series of questions meant to provoke thought within the person who asked the question in the first place. "These are mathematical visualizations," says Eugene Jenneman. "But are these works of art? It is an interesting question. Are we designed by nature to appreciate beauty in mathematical forms because mathematics is a part of the physical structure of nature? Does it really matter?"

Not to the Dennos Museum's volunteers, the young audience the new exhibit has attracted, nor to the two electricians called to the museum on this particular day to fix some wiring. These two men quickly made their way to the CANVAS room as soon as their work was completed. One held the controller, the other turned around slowly, 360 degrees, head staring straight upward, watching the pulses of images his colleague was creating. "Cool. I've never been to a museum before."

A sentiment that thoroughly satisfies Mr. Jenneman. He first viewed the CANVAS installation at the University of Illinois' Krannert Art Museum and immediately thought about bringing it to the Dennos. Especially captivating was the idea that the technology used could have the potential to offer artists a new way of presenting their work. Besides the three-dimensional floor-to-ceiling screen, the exhibit also includes one, two and three dimensional pieces created by mathematicians using printing technology usually found only in industrial applications. These type printers build objects layer by layer; there is the "Minimal Flower 3," the "Interlocked Tori" and a Zoetrope, an aged technology used to show 3D images in early films. Some of these pieces can be used to try to explain one of mathematics biggest mysteries – String Theory – to the layman. The effect of that could be profound, according to Jenneman.

"(This) is related to our understanding of the universe and envisions dimensions beyond the fourth dimension of time," he said.

If you want to try your hand at video art, the Dennos Museum Center is located on the campus of Northwestern Michigan College and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children and is free to Museum members. More information is available on their website, www.dennosmuseumorg.