A major in ones, with a minor in zeros

Technocultural studies, UC Davis’ newest discipline, brings students to the intersection of art and technology

The men of Matmos, Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt, perform with mouse ears and whistles.

The men of Matmos, Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt, perform with mouse ears and whistles.

Courtesy Of UC Davis TCS Department

Inside the Mondavi Center, cartoon violence was translated into poetry. On November 12, 2004, a crowd of 100 students and music fans crammed the seats of the Mondavi’s Studio Theatre to witness an event hosted by UC Davis’ new technocultural-studies program. Onstage, San Francisco avant-electronica duo Matmos concocted a soundtrack for poet Monica Youn’s live recitation of her odes to George Herriman’s classic comic strip Krazy Kat. Black-and-white images of the cartoon faded in and out from a large screen behind the artists. Martin Schmidt walloped beats on a two-by-four and bricks with a tack hammer. When the performance slowed down, he elicited mews from a slide guitar. His partner, Drew Daniel, crunched and skittered raw, electronic noises with a laptop computer and a bank of synthesizers. At times, he stretched Youn’s voice into ghostlike aural hallucinations.

To honor Herriman’s brick-throwing character, Ignatz Mouse, Schmidt uncannily imitated the sound of an occupied rat cage with bells, whistles, and marbles in his mouth. Daniel wore a mouse suit. Youn read poetry that meditated on images she associated with Ignatz’s experiences as an East Coast drifter seeking liberty in the virgin Southwest. During her solo performance, Daniel triggered recordings of her poetry that simultaneously played alongside the live Youn. Somehow, both voices were clearly intelligible.

After the hour-long performance, the artists fielded questions from the audience. The musicians recalled their early years of playing in the back of San Francisco bars to utterly indifferent patrons. Schmidt also mentioned a gig with Björk, when the band’s computer crashed onstage before hundreds of thousands of people. When asked about the film clips of Krazy Kat shown that night, Schmidt said that visual attraction is sometimes necessary to keep onlookers interested. He used a sports bar as an example. “You know how you’re talking to someone, and there’s something on TV behind you? No matter what show is on, notice how that person’s eyes go like this,” Schmidt said, darting his eyes left to right and causing some chuckles.

The offhand quip about television images affecting human behavior was a perfect example of the sort of phenomenon the technocultural-studies (TCS) program hopes to explore. Last fall, the university made TCS an official major for undergraduates who want to study theories about technology’s impact on their lives, while generating their own technologically enhanced projects: films, music, Web sites, photography, animation or interactive installations.

A faculty of veteran avant-garde artists is onboard to prepare students for the endeavor. Such mavericks include pioneering video artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson, who shot her 1997 film Conceiving Ada with digital sets and created the art installation “Synthia,” a computer-generated woman whose behavior is affected by the stock market’s ups and downs. Also on staff is Bob Ostertag, who broke ground in the use of audio samples in politically charged music. In his 1992 piece with the Kronos Quartet, “All the Rage,” he mixed sound samples from a San Francisco gay-rights protest that turned into a riot with the sounds of the avant-classic group slashing its strings.

In January 2004, Ostertag performed a more current piece, “Between Science and Garbage,” at UC Davis for the TCS students. An improvised collaboration with filmmaker Pierre Hébert, the performance set out to prove that any cutting-edge technology soon will be trash. Hébert scribbled on a chalkboard and paper, blew dust off a mirror and toyed with other pieces of garbage. He then scanned the results to produce digital images. Ostertag recorded the noises of Hébert’s actions and mutated them by drawing on an electronic board.

Ultimately, the TCS faculty hopes not only to play host to these sorts of experimental art events, but also to foster the creation of new digital-media performances from their students. “Once we get up and going, we want to create a scene more than anything else,” said TCS Program Director Douglas Kahn. “We’re convinced that the best education happens outside of a classroom.”

Kahn and associate director Jesse Drew are committed to community outreach and promise more public events after the program gets situated with enough staffing and facilities. “We’re living out of boxes right now,” Kahn said. The TCS staff currently is awaiting the $1.5 million renovation of its facility in the campus’s Art Annex. The new facility—which will house classrooms, computer labs and a recording studio—is set to open in the fall of 2006.

“I think that our students are definitely excited that we’re here,” said Drew. “We’re also interested in reaching out to community-college and high-school students in Sacramento. I want to let people know that we exist.”

Jesse Drew and Douglas Kahn might be living out of boxes, but you can bet those boxes have computer access.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Leeson has loftier expectations for the program. “We want to create a world-class think tank in thought and practice,” she said. Leeson has been involved with the program since Elizabeth Langland, dean of the division of humanities, arts and cultural studies at UC Davis, began sketching out the idea five years ago. Leeson explained that the TCS program stemmed from the University of California Digital Arts Research Network and San Francisco State University’s Inter-Arts Center. Leeson, Kahn and Drew all have been instructors at the Inter-Arts Center, which is considered by many to be America’s premier multidisciplinary experimental-arts program.

“We had the same philosophy,” Kahn said about the Inter-Arts days. “It’s not just the ‘how’ of technology, but the ‘why’ of things and ‘why bother?’”

But TCS isn’t all theory. “This used to be academic, but it has now become vocational,” Kahn said, as he described a visit to Pixar Animation Studios, creators of Toy Story and The Incredibles. “[At Pixar], they are interested in people who have strengths not just in certain places, but across the map.” The multidisciplinary, high-tech focus of the TCS program could be vital preparation for the jobs of the future.

TCS classes have been taught on campus since the winter quarter of 2004, when the program was being tested for university approval. A handful of classes currently are in session, exploring subjects like technoculture theory, digital cinema and the sort of high-end software used by professional visual and sound artists. Among these offerings is Kahn’s course, titled Technoculture and the Popular Imagination. On a recent visit, the art historian was lecturing on the various cultural responses to America’s Atomic Age. Examples he cited in class included the concept of cyborgs, atomic-bomb rings given away as prizes in Kix cereal, the “Afro-futurism” of George Clinton, and the hiring of ex-Nazi scientist Heinz Haber to narrate the Disney film Our Friend the Atom.

Associate professor Fran Dyson is teaching an introductory class on technocultural theories, in which students focus on the ideas behind media technology—studying how the use of color, ethnicity, fear and concepts of economic class promote stereotypes in advertising. “Everyone has amazing media literacy, but it’s not something that we look at closely,” said Dyson. “[The students] know all of that. They just need the theoretical tools to unlock some of what they see.”

During Ostertag’s Introduction to Technoculture class, the professor led a discussion about the different reactions artists have had to technological progress. He introduced the students to the Web site of the Yes Men, two media pranksters who copied the World Trade Organization (WTO) Web site and even successfully posed as WTO spokesmen at conferences around the world in 1999. Later, Ostertag showed a video clip from the Survival Research Laboratories, a San Francisco-based performance troupe that builds giant robots out of jet engines and then pits them against one another. On the video, spectators protected by glasses and headphones smiled at the destruction. “Would you call this a ‘concert’?” Ostertag asked his students.

Student Arthur Gies told SN&R, “It’s interesting how [Ostertag] is presenting students, who are right out of high school, with things that they didn’t know existed.” During the class, Gies and his group demonstrated “You Should Know!”—an online trivia game they designed to convey the message that too many people know more about pop culture than about what’s occurring in Iraq. Gies, a junior, said the TCS program was too incomplete for him to declare himself a major in it. “I’m curious to see what the major will be in a few years,” he said.

In his History of Sound in the Arts class, Kahn used his Apple iPod to teach how recording technology affects the way people perceive what music could be—from Thomas Edison’s phonograph experiments through contemporary composers who create purposefully glitch-riddled CDs.

During a class break, Kahn played Milan Kní?ák’s “Composition No.1,” in which the director of the Czech Republic’s National Gallery chopped up records and glued them back together. The resultant sound is best described as a busted radio picking up every signal across the land. Kahn also played “Reagan Speaks for Himself,” a tape cut-up that he made of Bill Moyers’ 1980 interview with Ronald Reagan. In the recording, the president is reduced to a bumbling buffoon who struggles to answer questions about his age and the national poverty level.

“[Kahn] is taking it a step further in showing the historical context and covering all the angles,” said student and KDVS 90.3 DJ Eloise Leigh. “A lot of this music is underplayed, even on alternative radio.”

Later, Kahn told the class how he discovered the avant-garde music path that led to his becoming a university administrator. When he was a teenager, he entered a record shop to seek “modern music” and fished out Variations for a Door and a Sigh by French composer Pierre Henry. What he heard—manipulated recordings of a creaking door having a 45-minute conversation with a sighing person—planted a seed. “You can imagine what Mom and Dad thought when I slapped this on the hi-fi,” Kahn told his class.