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New Program Connects Arts with Science

The new Media Arts + Sciences Program Debuts Oct. 30

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The labs at Duke's new Media Arts + Sciences headquarters in Smith Warehouse have plenty of windows, an intentional feature to emphasize the transparency of work being done there. Photo by Jack Edinger.

Hans J. Van Miegroet wants to expand on the traditional college lecture by bringing theory and practice together.

He wants to expand creativity in the student experience and better provide the immersion many arts and humanities students need to grasp subject matter that is more complex, multifaceted and faster moving than ever.

So Van Miegroet and Duke are turning to Media Arts + Sciences, a new program aiming to harness big, new ideas stemming from arts and humanities scholarship and marry them to the natural sciences and social sciences using eight laboratories now housed in Smith Warehouse. Van Miegroet, chair of Duke's Art, Art History and Visual Studies department, designed the new program on principles set forth by the Bauhaus, a German design school in the 1920s that mixed architecture with myriad other disciplines in one place.

"This isn't just a research project for a few professors," said Van Miegroet, the program's director. "Teaching is a collective enterprise and project-based, which is why we need this space. We want to move away from these 50-minute classroom slots where students don't have enough time to learn through team work and experimentation."

Media Arts + Sciences will be unveiled at an Oct. 30 reception.

Carved into 15,000 square feet of sleek, remodeled space in bays 10 and 11 on the second floor of Smith Warehouse, this new program provides space for seven ongoing Duke projects such as the Wired! Lab, where faculty and students create digital models and animations of cities, architectural structures, and sculpture, and the Duke Art, Law and Markets Initiative – where experts in art, economics and law analyze the international art landscape. It also houses the Dig@Lab, a new archaeological venture that uses digital tools to re-create ancient civilizations, as well as lab space for both undergrads and graduate students, respectively.

There may soon be new degrees offered as well. The university is currently reviewing proposals for both a one-year master's degree as well as a PhD to be granted through the program.

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The geography of this venture -- everyone under one roof -- is important, Van Miegroet said. The academic backgrounds of affiliated faculty vary widely -- from art, art history and visual studies to literature, classical studies, music and information sciences. Fifteen faculty members have relocated to offices within the program's space, and an open floor plan and plenty of windows create an intentional transparency, Van Miegroet said.

"Proximity matters; that's a key concept," he said. "It's the atmosphere like a little town, where you can look through the windows and really see what’s going on."

Of course, in an actual little town, you might peer into a shop window and see a baker making bread or a barber cutting hair. Here, you might see a graduate student tinkering with a drone used to take aerial photographs for digital archaeology or surveillance, or a professor tinkering with a computer rendering of a medieval or Renaissance Venetian church.

The program is a natural successor to the Duke Visual Studies Initiative, a six-year project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The new program is also supported by Mellon and counters the aged stereotype of humanities scholarship as a solitary -- lonesome, even -- endeavor.

"Traditionally, humanists have done their work independently and autonomously," said Mark Olson, an assistant professor of art, art history and visual studies involved in both the Wired! Lab and the S-1 Speculative Sensation Lab. "That's changing to tackle pressing questions about what it means to be human today. It requires some collaboration."

Students and faculty working in any of the eight labs will have, as a resource, a four-person team based in the same space. The Visualization and Interactive Systems team includes a data visualization coordinator, a research scientist, a research programmer and an information technologist.

This easy access to scientific and data expertise is another way to better prepare humanities students and make them more marketable.

"Our students need to understand the sciences," Van Miegroet said. "The placement prospects for these people? Anywhere. Everywhere."