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A Glimpse of Art's High-Tech Future

A Glimpse of Art's High-Tech Future

Week-long CHAT Festival celebrates a combination of the physical and the virtual

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Film images move across the walls of the Nasher Museum of Art during the showing of "A China of Many Senses." Photo by Megan Morr.

Durham, NC - In a quirky role reversal, the Nasher Museum of Art itself served as the canvas Monday evening for a work of art projected upon it.

"A China of Many Senses," a film created by Duke professors William Seaman and Todd Berreth, was the featured attraction for the start of the 2012 CHAT Festival, a biennial celebration of digital art and technology Duke is hosting this week.

The festival, which runs through Thursday at venues on East and West campuses and Smith Warehouse, celebrates connections between technology, arts and the humanities. It will include exhibits, panel discussions and evening art walks featuring work by faculty and students from Duke, N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A full schedule is available here.

As the sun set Monday evening, visitors stood on the Nasher lawn and gawked at the ever-changing mashup of images from China's past and present projected against two exterior walls at least 40 feet high.

The film, Seaman said, is an example of the constantly changing and boundary-pushing state of art today.

"It's made with a computer ... but it doesn't look like a computer has much to do with it," he said. "I think we're at a very interesting moment in the history of art."

The festival, held first two years ago at UNC-Chapel Hill, is all about interesting moments. It is a project-based initiative, more about rough-edged works in progress than fine-tuned scholarly publication. To attract exhibitors, festival director Victoria Szabo's pitch was basically: Come and talk about your work.

Among the technical wizardry on display this week is a mobile application that creates a virtual guidebook that leverages GPS data to "float" images to your iPad or smart phone. The technology is called augmented reality.

Here's an example: You're in an art gallery, smartphone in hand, camera on. As you approach an exhibit you look through the viewfinder and presto: an image appears. It's not actually there, but it's floating on your screen, a representation of a nearby exhibit. The closer you are to the exhibit, the bigger the image gets. You touch the image, and a box pops up. With a touch, you can then get more information on the exhibit or even be re-routed to a website with details about the artist or the project's backstory.

This technology will be on display at art walks on East and West campuses and in the Smith Warehouse starting tonight. Participants simply download a free mobile app called LAYAR, which lets users dictate the route by moving with their handheld, GPS-enabled devices.

"It combines the virtual and physical worlds," said Szabo. "If you're walking around campus, or around the city, you can learn additional information without losing the physical specificity of where you are."

The technology isn't perfect yet, which, for this festival, is part of the point. As Szabo tested the mobile application just days before the festival kicked off, it crashed on her.

"Some things at the festival are polished, but a lot of things people will see are works in progress," Szabo said. "Augmented reality is just starting out. We don't know how well it will work as a way-finding device. It's more of an experiment now."

In this and other exhibits, technology is both pushing boundaries and forcing people to re-think some things, said Scott Lindroth, Duke's vice provost for the arts.

"Technology has gotten us to question some fundamental assumptions," Lindroth said. "What is an artist? What is a performer? It's tremendously exciting to have the CHAT Festival -- to take stock of where we are and where we're going in the future."

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