It’s curiosity that bridges the gaps between art and science (part 2)

This is the second part of an interview with Subtle Technologies’ Founder, Jim Ruxton.

Megan:  What lessons have you learned in previous years that you apply today?

Jim: I think one of the most important lessons is to delegate as much as possible. I sometimes still find this difficult but it’s an important lesson. I’ve pretty well done everything at Subtle Technologies from acting as MC to being videographer to fixing artists electronics at the last minute. The whole Subtle Technologies team is amazing at pitching in whenever needed which is awesome and so important to running a smooth event.

Megan: With so many people and so many events happening, sometimes festivals of this nature throw curve-balls at the organizers. What’s the most surprising thing to have happen at a previous Subtle Technologies Festival?

Jim: I remember one year one of our presenters couldn’t make it at the last minute. It just so happened that the boyfriend of one of the presenters who was there was Rafael Lazano Hemmer. He is one of Canada’s foremost media artists. He pitched in and did a spontaneous presentation that was amazing. These are the kind of surprises I don’t mind happening.

Megan: What are you really excited about for this Subtle Technologies festival?

Jim: That’s a difficult question. I am excited about so many things including the exhibition, performance and screening. While all the presentations at our symposium will be interesting I’m intrigued by a couple that I’m really looking forward to hearing more about. I’m curious about the presentation by the Italian musician and nanotechnology researcher Riccardo Castagna entitled “Biomatic Virus – Viral Sound”. He has such a diverse range of interests and the idea of creating a musical virus containing biological information is intriguing to me. I’m also looking forward to hearing more about Timothy Senior’s project “Toward the Memory Tower” . Timothy is a neuroscience researcher who has created a fully immersive virtual reality environment that explores memory traces during sleep. I’m really interested in hearing from scientists looking for novel ways to explore and describe their science. I’m definitely a kid in a candy factory at Subtle Technologies.

It’s curiosity that bridges the gaps between art and science (part 1)

Subtle Technologies’ Founder, artist and former engineer Jim Ruxton shares what artists and scientists have in common, how last-minute calamities can yield the best surprises, and what we have to look forward to at the festival this year. Interview by Megan DePutter.

Megan: The scope of the festival –  “blurring the boundaries between art and science” – sounds incredibly wide. How do you determine which presenters to have at a festival?

Jim: It’s true, it is a broad scope. In past years we have focused on specific themes. This year we are opening the doors to art and science in general. Our first few years also were programmed across the entire art science spectrum, so we are returning to our roots this year. As in past years, we put out a call for submissions. Based on the numerous submissions, myself and our jury choose those presentations that will give an interesting perspective of some of the latest ideas and trends in art and science. From our chosen submissions themes begin to emerge.

We also have a poster session so those presentations that don’t quit fit into our presentation program may fit into our poster session. Our goal is to try and include a wide range of topics to generate conversations across disciplines. We also have curators who independently put together various programs such as exhibitions, performances and screenings with my input.

Megan: The arts and sciences cultures are often alienated from each other, and each contains many subgroups within themselves. How do you attend to these differences; in other words, how do you bridge these very distant worlds?

Jim: I think Subtle Technologies bridges these distant worlds by celebrating what artists and scientists have in common. Both artists and scientists share the joy of discovery, wonder and exploration. They are both involved in the process of trying to describe nature and the world around them. Also I think scientists are often surprised at Subtle Technologies by the keen interest artists and the general public have in their work. Often it is this curiosity that helps to bridge gaps. Many of the artists that present at our festival are very technically savvy. Scientists are interested to see the level of engagement artists have with some of the tools and techniques often used by scientists.

Megan: What is the most challenging thing about pulling together a festival of this type? Were there skills you had to pick up that were foreign to you as an engineer / artist?

Jim: I think there are many challenges. Some of which are being overcome as we bring more team members on board. Financing the festival has been a challenge. Our festival sits between art and science so it is often difficult to find funders that understand that. Typically an organization is either art or science based. This makes communicating about Subtle Technologies difficult as well. It would be so much easier if we were just a dance or film festival. Over the years I have certainly picked up skills at writing grants. Now that we have our Managing Director, Jen Dodd, on board many of the things I previously had to do have been taken off my plate so I can focus on programming. Another major challenge I have faced in the past is convincing scientists that they should come and present their work at Subtle Technologies. That has been a tough sell as scientists typically talkeabout their work at specific scientific conferences. I’ve gotten better at this over the years.

How can we build a city that thinks like the web?

This guest post by Dan Misener on the event he’ll be part of at Subtle Tech this year is a cross-post from his blog.

People have different names for it: the networked city, the real-time city, the smart city, “a city that thinks like the web.” Call it what you want, the idea of improving the places we live through technology, open data, and connectivity is definitely hotting up these days.

MIT has an entire lab dedicated to the exploration of that idea, where researchers attach tiny cell phones to trash, and build award-winning networked bicycle wheels.

Events like the Cognitive Cities Conference in Berlin attract a diverse collection of “urban planners, designers, technology geeks, environmental experts, public officials, urban gardening enthusiasts and cultural influencers,” where high fliers like Adam Greenfield are treated a bit like rock stars (if rock stars were obsessed with ubiquitous computing).

The networked city is also fertile ground for artistic work, like John Ewing’s Virtual Street Cornersproject, which transformed two street-level shopfronts into a large-scale videoconference last year.

But running alongside the potential benefits of a networked city are risks (like overextended surveillance and control) and unintended consequences (like crime maps’ impact on housing prices). And though much of the underlying technology for networked cities exists today, we don’t yet have well-established social norms and protocols for living in such places. Our fluid, contextual notions of public and private often bump up against the binary on/off nature of digital technology in all sorts of surprising and unexpected ways.

All this to say, I’m really excited to explore some of these issues soon with three big thinkers: Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing), Mark Surman (Mozilla) and Sara Diamond (OCAD University). I’m moderating a panel discussion with them on June 4, called “How can we build a city that thinks like the web?” Of course, we’ll address the titular question, with the requisite follow-up, ”Should we build a city that thinks like the web?”

It’s free and open to the public, but pre-registration is required.

Hope to see you there. Really looking forward to it.


The making of “PHENOMENA”

A guest post by Roberta Buiani, on her project to put together this year’s extraordinary evening of film, “PHENOMENA: A Journey Around Audiovisual Art-Science“.

At the beginning of February, solicited by Jim, I contacted Marco Mancuso to invite him to participate in the Subtle Technologies Festival.  Jim had been very impressed by a series of screenings that Marco had put together for a conference at the University of Rome. Their title: “Hidden Worlds.”

While I would have been very pleased to see the curator from Milan and editor of Digicult and Digimag here in Toronto, I thought I would ask him if he had any thoughts or suggestions to make this program more intriguing. From then on, a series of discussions, proposals and negotiations started to jump back and forth between the two of us until we settled on the program that will be screened on June 2.

While a much more comprehensive program had been proposed with a panel of artists and scientist and a live performance, almost a conference in itself, it was way too financially ambitious for Subtle Technologies (and didn’t fit the schedule!). However, the program we ended up with is certainly not a second choice: when Marco proposed that we invite Claudia to present her program of experimental videos I realized how the two programs together, in fact, could have worked perfectly, since they conceptually and aesthetically complement each other. Thus, the fact that this event is happening, and it is happening in the current format makes me very proud: the program has been programmed in the spirit of the Festival, that is, through collaboration, negotiations and critical exchange between curator and organizer.

Now that the program has been confirmed and our guests will be in Toronto in less than three weeks, I am happy to confirm that this year Subtle Technologies Festival is set to start with a program of screenings specially prepared for the occasion by two internationally accomplished guests: Italian artists and curators Marco Mancuso and Claudia D’Alonzo.

Exploring the sometimes mysterious world of scientific experimentation and the occurrence of natural phenomena as seen through the lens of artists and performers, Marco’s and Claudia’s work is actually an excellent way to kick off the festival. In fact, while their programs have been conceived to work together, they are, nonetheless, very different. Together, they work diametrically: Mancuso’s “Hidden Worlds” is a collection of videos where scientific phenomena acquire aesthetic qualities when they are seen from a particular angle or they are exposed to a particular light. The collaborative work of artists and scientists become here an occasion for exchange, mutual engagement and the discovery of new aspects that characterize the phenomena observed. Claudia’s “Quando l’Occhio Trema” comes from an opposite perspective, but ends up with similar results. Her intervention looks at the way in which artists have explored the phenomenon of flickering from a variety of angles: scientific, aesthetic or methodological. In this case, the artistic work is potentially turned into a tool helping scientific research.

Magnets as Medium for Art

All of us can say that magnets have gripped our imagination at some point in our life. I  still get a kick out of taking two magnets and bringing them together with like poles facing each other, either North to North or South to South. Sure it’s great to feel two magnets attract each other but personally I enjoy the invisible force that repels two magnets as you bring them together. In recent years, experimenting with magnets has become even more dramatic with the easy availability of rare earth magnets. I buy my Neodymium Iron Boron magnets from Digikey. You can get some nice ones for as little as $0.32 each.  Earlier this year rare earth materials were in the news when China placed an export limit on the materials used to make rare earth magnets. There is no question that magnetics play an important role in almost every area of science and technology.  Artists have also embraced the use of magnets in their work.

Magnetic Wall 3 by Jenny Lear

This year we are very excited to have California based artist, Jenny Lear join us at Subtle Technologies. Jenny is a textile artist who has been integrating magnetics with fabric to create “Ferrofabric”. Her magnetic materials have been integrated into jewelery,  furniture, surface design and accessories. Jenny will talk about this work that ranges from ferrous velvet to magnetic tiles and the Scumbag, a handbag designed with layers of magnetic gunk. She will also talk about her work on hacking into magnetic stripes on credit cards and demonstrate a DIY technique of exposing the magnetic code. I’m really looking forward to seeing Jenny’s work and learning more about the potential of magnets in art making.

“Matter Matters” a public lecture by Manuel De Landa

For those of you reading this from Toronto I wanted to let you know about an interesting lecture at MOCCA this week. Thursday May 5th at 7 PM Deleuzian  philosopher Manuel De Landa will be giving a public lecture.  De Landa is a filmmaker, computer artist, philosopher and the author of a number of books including War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002), and A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (2006).

A New Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity


His work focuses on a number of subjects such as economics, nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, geology, architecture, self-organizing autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and life, history of science, nonlinear dynamics, and linguistics.  In his talk Thursday evening (from the flyer) ” De Landa will look at how morphogenesis — the birth of form — has become a central theme in many scientific disciplines. It can be entirely spontaneous, as in the genesis of geological, meteorological or biological forms, or it can involve human beings as agents. De Landa’s talk will focus on natural morphogenesis, arguing that a deeper knowledge of its secrets can be of great help to artists and designers, opening up a new reservoir of expressive resources” .  We tried having him come to Subtle Technologies in the past but it didn’t work out at the time so I’m really excited he will be in Toronto this week.

Manuel De Landa is Adjunct Professor at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Gilles Deleuze Chair of Contemporary Philosophy and Science at the European Graduate School EGS, he was Adjunct Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University (New York). He currently lectures extensively in the United States and Europe, and is lecturer at the Canisius College (Buffalo, NY) and at the University of Philadelphia.

The talk is being presented by The Joan & Martin Goldfarb Summer Institute in Visual Arts at York University and MOCCA

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