Change doesn’t come easily in universities. When it happens, it can be through unexpected paths. My involvement in art and technology is one such example.
One day in the early 90’s, I was sitting in my office at UNM. I had recently returned from sabbatical in London and was teaching Computer Graphics in the Computer Science Department. A longhaired, shaggy young man walked in and sat down. His name was Thomas Keller. He told me he was a serious artist and had just moved back to New Mexico from San Diego. He said he was interested in learning about computer graphics and had been told I was the one to see about the area.
Making Partnerships, Excelling as a Team
I put him in contact with Jim Pinkerton, a new graduate student of mine who recently arrived at UNM from MIT. The two of them immediately became close friends. At that time, Jim was on a research assistantship at Sandia National Labs with the virtual reality group and somehow got Thomas involved as well. The two of them then became interested in computer animation, which then was in its infancy.
At that time the first modern graphics workstations had become available from Silicon Graphics, Inc. However, they were very expensive and the only ones in NM were at Sandia. Jim and Thomas, along with some of my other students on assistantships, managed to get access to almost every SGI workstation at Sandia during nights and weekends. Their “production company” was aptly named “Too Stupid to Sleep Productions.” The group went on to create an animated movie called “I think, therefore I am.”
By that time they had finished and shown the movie, they had generated so much interest in computer animation; they decided to teach a class. There were no such classes at UNM, nor in many other universities at that time. Thomas lacked any official status at UNM and Jim was not supposed to do more than his RA. I stepped in and agreed to offer a special topics course in the area through Computer Science, which was already taught to an incredibly diverse bunch of students, artists and technologists. Since the course was under my name, I felt compelled to give a couple of lectures but it was really their baby.
Taking Off, Building Futures
The course’s immediate effects were amazing. Students who took the course were grabbed up and hired immediately by some of the major animation houses. I became a minor hero to the Fine Arts students since they were able to go from working at Kinko’s to places like Disney and DreamWorks. Thomas and some of the students were able to get venture capital to start a company with offices on Times Square. The course wound up being cross-listed by Computer Science, Media Arts and Studio Arts. I remained the instructor of record for at least fifteen years, although the course was actually taught first by the ex-students of Thomas and Jim and later by their students. I believe the present instructors are the fourth generation from “parents” Thomas and Jim. The course now remains a popular choice even after 20+ years.
That was just the start of a major interdisciplinary effort in the creative arts. Largely on the basis of the successful course and some other efforts I had been involved in to assist the College of Fine Arts with technology, I was asked to become director of the their new Arts Technology Center. With ATC we were able to bring in some major interdisciplinary grants from the National Science Foundation, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations that included such diverse organizations as the IAIA, the National Hispanic Cultural Center and Lodestar Astronomy Center. It also gave me the contacts to establish a group of over 30 faculty from eight colleges at UNM to put together the proposal for UNM’s Art, Research, Technology and Science Laboratory (ARTSLab) which was seeded with $3M from the State of New Mexico. It became a unique center combining teaching, research and economic development in creative areas.
Looking Ahead, Lessons Learned
There are many lessons to be learned here. One is to never close your office door; you never know who might walk through. Second is the power of serendipity. Unexpected things happen; take advantage of them. Third, although universities tend to be conservative and reward narrowness, the archaic institution of tenure does give you the opportunity to step away and do something different, regardless of what your colleagues and administrators might think. The only risk is that if you are successful, they may take credit for it.
Postscript: Tragically, Thomas Keller passed away at 38. The Thomas Keller Memorial Scholarship at UNM supports New Mexico students who are interested in combining art and technology.