SAIC's Claudia Hart wages war on the separation between technology and femininity
by Anjulie Rao (MA 2014)
At one time, not so long ago, femininity and technology were seen as two disparate entities. Femininity represented emotion—in direct contrast with the stoic, cold qualities of computer science, motion graphics, and engineering. Today, women have made their marks in these fields, contributing to innovations in tremendous (yet arguably still-lacking) numbers. As an artist, SAIC faculty member Claudia Hart (Film, Video, New Media, and Animation) has paved her own, unique path into the field of 3D animation, resulting in a body of work that dissolves the misleading separation between femininity and technology.
Trained as an art historian and architect, Hart veered into writing about design, securing an editorial position with ID magazine in 1979. She says, "I wanted the publication to focus on intersections of art and technology, which didn't totally exist. At that point, computers were the size of a room; they were still mainframes, but it was possible to find folks who were thinking along those lines. And I was taken up by a very interesting gang of people."
This "gang" included artists Dan Graham and Dennis Oppenheim, for whom she worked as she developed her own artistic practice. After exhibiting at the Pat Hearn Gallery in New York's East Village in the late '80s and early '90s, she moved to Berlin where she lived and worked for 10 years. One of her painting catalogues—A Child's Machiavelli—was published as an illustrated book by Penguin Editions just as Pixar's Toy Story appeared in theaters. The movie struck Hart: "I studied art history and my expertise was in Renaissance, so this constructed perspective, the sculptural quality, and the fact that it was a hybrid of both totally seized and inspired me. I thought: I want to know how to do that." While initially, she thought she might animate her book, she soon moved in a very different direction.
After taking a class in 3D animation in the mid '90s, Hart purchased an early PC for $8,000—what it took at the time to harness the processing power for virtual imaging. She began teaching in tech-oriented animation programs soon after. She describes, "When I started teaching, there was no context for 3D animation in contemporary art. It was a form of scientific visualization; it was used primarily by the Department of Defense for flight simulators, in 3D shooter games, and for Pixar movies."
In this context, Hart discovered the dichotomy of femininity and technology. According to Hart, the US government was, essentially, "giving" the new 3D graphics technology to private industries, with hopes that citizens would develop the product. "It was actually a military strategy documented by scientists and sociologists to put advanced technologies into commercial industry in order to speed up the development. The idea was to then bring it back into the military for war game simulations," she explains.
Not thrilled with the violence inherent in these methods, Hart developed her own romantic rebellions to combat the aggressive iconography associated with the technology. She continues, "I started working in a kind of hyper-feminine way. I was dealing with ideas of beauty in the context of first-person shooter games that were fast and violent and pornographic. In resistance, I started making slow sensual work, focusing on the female body." One example of this slow, feminine work is Hart's Machina (2004)—a 3D-animated work that displays a classical, nude odalisque familiar in the history of Renaissance painting, languidly and subtly moving while lounging on a divan. While the piece portrays, "the compressed time and space of a painting," it is difficult to neglect the heightened sensuality of the woman's infrequent gaze.
In 2007 Hart moved to Chicago to teach at SAIC. In this environment she worked with students who "wanted to be artists"—unlike the game designers and Pixar hopefuls she once instructed. She developed a program of courses called Experimental 3D, which merged animation with performance, sculpture, painting, installation, and other disciplines.
In 2012 she received a grant from SAIC's Earl and Brenda Shapiro Center for Research and Collaboration when she proposed a collaboration with her students that would result in a final piece that in conceptual structure, resembled an exquisite cadaver. Hart designed a character and passed the data to 24 students to complete with their own aesthetics. She decided to use ragdoll technology—the realistic, simulation technology used in mass-market war games to kill characters. According to Hart, a designer builds a "puppet," gives it dynamic and physical qualities, and then submits it to forces. She explains, "If you're going to kill in real time, you want the character to writhe in agony so you can feel that you've really killed it. It conveys the feeling that the virtual avatar is acting in spontaneous ways."
With this technology, she simulated a virtual character trying to "break out" of the virtual world and into the real one. Each student created his or her own iteration of this virtual "breakout." And what resulted were 24 different interpretations from your "typical" SAIC student, which is of course a totally atypical one. And none was violent. There was a lot editorializing happening. But nobody was joyfully committing murder," says Hart.
This final piece, titled On Synchronics: Song of the Avatars, was posted on Vimeo, resulting in a spontaneous takeoff and bringing the work to museum exhibitions in Korea and Germany, a festival in Hong Kong, a gallery in Brooklyn, and the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center where Hart is currently an honorary fellow. Both haunting and twisted, the work extracts intense sympathy from viewers. The 3D avatar shows no human emotion as it is subjected to violence, yet the final product is startling and affective.
In her most recent work, The Alices, Hart has taken her feminized technology to a new level, flipping it completely: "Before, I was choreographing avatars as if they were performance artists. What I started to do was to choreograph humans as if they were avatars," she explains.
The Alices is a multilayered performance-installation and opera that utilizes augmented-reality objects programmed by SAIC Assistant Professor Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (Visual Communication Design), with an original score by University of California, Berkeley Professor Edmund Campion. Originally performed at the Arts Club of Chicago, six "cloned," choreographed Alices re-enact the famous tea scene inAlice in Wonderland in a surreal, grotesque manner. "I used procedural animation techniques on living people," says Hart. "So that made them extremely weird. They therefore shared the uncanny qualities of computer-simulated avatars, which seem so eerily human. I now choreograph humans that seem eerily robotic."
Hart continues to expand The Alices with other materials such as augmented reality fabric for her upcoming The Alices Walking, which also uses choreographed models, fashion, sound, and food to produce a performance. "This is avatar performance," Hart remarks.
"I want people to look at these works, to feel for the avatars, and to feel emotionally connected to them," states Hart. "My form of resistance to this corporatized, violent, high-tech gaming was initially about sex and sensuality. But it has expanded into something that's also emotional and that makes you feel empathy; something that you're moved by." Hart produces feminized technology that is more than just a bridge between women and the sciences. It is a comment on how humans create, experience, and connect to one another—that the technological revolution is not just something that is made, it is something that affects the way we feel about the world and about each other.
Claudia Hart (in collaboration with composer Edmund Campion) will present The Alices Walking, a-fashion-show-cum-opera, on Sunday, March 9, at the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center, 520 W. 21st St., New York, NY. Hart's solo exhibition, including "augmented-reality" wearables and "peep-hole" computer graphics, will follow in May at Bitforms Gallery, 529 W. 20th St., New York, NY.
Hart will also open The New Romantics— a 30-person group show co-curated with SAIC alumni Nicholas O'Brien (BFA 2007) and Katie Torn (MFA 2012)—in April at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center.
On Synchronics: Song of the Avatars will open Saturday, June 7, at Transfer Gallery, 1030 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, NY.