Digital fitness

Prospectives ’12, the University of Nevada, Reno’s technological art festival, gets bigger as it demonstrates how the world keeps getting smaller

An image from “04302011,” a video projection by Sophie Kahn.

An image from “04302011,” a video projection by Sophie Kahn.


Prospectives ’12 runs through Nov. 2, with the bulk of the performances on Oct. 18-19. For more information, visit

Back when artists first started using computers en masse, “computer art” was its own medium. You made it with a clunky mouse on a small screen, and it trended toward a decidedly pre-ironic, old-school bitmappy look, a la ’80s arcade games like Asteroids. This was in the early ’90s, when only the deeply nerdiest academics knew about the internet. Mark Zuckerberg was just out of kindergarten and hadn’t yet founded Facebook, so if you wanted to use group interaction as part of your art piece, there was a good chance you were still doing it by snail mail or gathering audiences in a black box theater for live performances, sans digital anything.

One of the next major iterations of digital art as a medium was digital photography, still a cutting edge phenomenon just a decade ago but now so integrated into the field of photography that it’s dropped the hyphenated prefix “digital,” and gone back to its maiden name, just “photography.”

Not a single artist presents pixilated drawings or film-free camera technologies in Prospectives 12, a festival of digital art presented at venues around Reno.

“The emphasis of the festival is to celebrate the diversity of using computers as a tool as opposed to a medium,” says Joseph DeLappe, Digital Media Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno and one of the festival’s organizers.

So what qualifies as digital art that uses technology as a tool?

“It’s very broad,” says DeLappe. “As long as the work somehow involved intrinsically in its creation some element of digital processes, it qualifies. That can range from highly processed works in the gallery to video work shot using digital media.”

He and a selection committee reviewed proposals by graduate and doctoral students from universities and art schools around the world and selected 40 of them to present their work in Reno.

DeLappe is hesitant to identify strong aesthetic or thematic trends among them. In that regard, digital art is “anything goes.”

While “digital art” could be pretty much anything, though, a lot of the artists share a common interest in interactivity or interconnectivity of one sort or another. It could be among cultures, between individuals, or between things that might not even seem related.

Rena Katz, a student at Parsons/The New School for Design in New York, sets up sound stations in the streets. Passersby listen to recordings of demonstration chants from national boundary lines where there are conflicts and walls (Israel/Palestine; U.S./Mexico border). Listeners choose a chant they like, Katz coaches them on tone and inflection, they rehearse, then they perform the chants online.

Another example: New York University’s Phan Visutyothapibal lets sound dictate the movements of his organic, geometric, animated images. In the piece, he plans to show sounds that come from his own heart beating, and the resulting video images are what he calls “a synesthetic view of a human heartbeat.”

Visutyothapibal’s “synesthetic” refers to synesthesia, the process by which the brain cross-wires sensory pathways, making it feel like a person is hearing colors or seeing sounds. With the multi-sensory potential of technological equipment, synesthetic systems seem like a natural avenue for digital artists to explore.

Artists in the festival have found several other ways to play around with this neurological phenomenon, using it a metaphor for social structures or an interactive way to cross-reference movement, sounds and visuals.

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Louisiana State University’s Nick Hwang describes his project with this invitation: “Add, move, and replace the cubes. Their placement and number affect the sound.”

Clinton Sleeper, a former Reno resident who’s now a student at Simon Frazer University in Canada, is planning a performance where he deals and shuffles playing cards and translates each card’s movement into a sound, which gets incorporated into a sound collage.

In a live performance at the Nevada Museum of Art, David Simons from New York University augments the sound from an older-than-your-grandfather “technologically experimental” musical instrument, the theremin, with an algorithm that creates feedback, which gets mixed back into the performance.

Prospectives is a triennial event that’s been held since 2006. DeLappe reports that the event’s spirit has remained constant, but that it’s seen two main changes.

One is a growth spurt.

“This is our most ambitious festival to date, for sure,” he says. He and a review committee received 84 entries from Master’s of Fine Arts and doctoral students around the world and selected 40 to showcase their work. That's about twice as many as the second festival in 2009.

The event has also made some strides in growing into the potential of its high-tech venues. When it began in 2006, for example, organizers were hoping to make use of the projection dome at the Fleischmann Planetarium, just a few buildings over from the art department on campus.

“Producing video for full-dome projection is a pretty specific process,” DeLappe says, and no one submitted anything that year. In 2009, they screened a demo reel of full-dome-specific work, which DeLappe says may not have represented the best in cutting edge art pieces, but it gave audiences and artists a sense of what full-dome could do.

“We also started showing sound pieces in there,” DeLappe notes. “That was really something. It was really intense because basically you’re sitting in the space in the dark [listening to sound art.]”

This year, the planetarium is the most talked about venue—others include UNR’s Sheppard Gallery and the Nevada Museum of Art.

Prospectives is, on one hand, a gathering of academics. Of the 40 participating artists, the university plans to fly in 27. Travel for artists comprised the biggest chunk of the event’s budget. Some artists were too expensive to import or just not available to attend, and a few of those are being Skyped in from Hong Kong, the UK, Estonia and Ohio.

“Part of the requirement for them is attending everything. I like to call it kind of a temporary community of media artists,” says DeLappe.

While a large part of the goal is to help grad-school artists connect with their peers, each presentation is also open to the public, despite the fact that many take place during banker’s hours.

As a potential festival-goer, don’t be fooled by the lack of a detailed program. It may require some detailed research on the festival’s site—and maybe YouTube, Google and Vimeo—to figure out where to go when and what exactly it is you’ll be attending. The event does have a Facebook page,

Many presentations are listed just by artist’s name, so you might be shooting in the dark when deciding which events to attend.

If you’re not game for that level of randomness, your best bet is to drop by the Fleischmann Planetarium on Oct. 16, 6 p.m. and Oct. 17, 7 p.m. But fear not: shooting in the dark is a perfectly good strategy here. The artists’ proposals ranged from pretty cool if slightly inscrutable to extremely, eye-openingly cool. Plus, this is likely your only chance to catch a lot of these artists in Reno any time soon.