ITMO: ITMO’s Art & Science Center Delivers Workshop on Combining Digital, Technological and Bio Art

Lecturers of ITMO’s have recently delivered a series of open workshops that focused on creating art items that combine biological and synthetic environments. The events were timed to coincide with the admission campaign for the center’s .

In today’s world, the borders between natural and artificial, real and digital are gradually dissipating. Bionics – the science of biologically-inspired engineering – is becoming the foundation of contemporary design and architecture. Another trend that’s currently on the rise is the use of 3D printers in construction, i.e. directly transferring digital structures into the real world.

The strict classification between bio-, technological, and digital art is also diminishing. Specialists from ITMO’s Art & Science Center have organized a special workshop series to showcase these changes. Over the course of two days, selected participants learned to create complex 3D landscapes using computers, recreate them in the real world, and finally populate them with living objects.

“The workshop had several goals,” explains Maria Kuptsova, a senior lecturer at ITMO University. “First, we timed it to coincide with the admission campaign, as we wanted to give potential students an understanding of the various fields of contemporary art. Secondly, we want to promote the knowledge and methods we create at the center, so that even those participants who won’t come to study with us will get to know us and maybe collaborate with us or influence our projects in the future.”

Step 1: Digital environment

The workshop consisted of three stages. In the course of the first, the participants became acquainted with the basics of creative programming. ITMO lecturer Vadim Smakhtin spoke about using special libraries to create complex digital structures.

“Our participants generated patterns created by special algorithmic units – robots – based on a set of rules,” comments the lecturer. “As robots are many and their actions can depend on each other’s, we ended up with some quite complex designs. On the whole, this is a classic example of the emergence of complexity from a set of simple properties.”

According to Daria Sinkova, a participant of the workshop, the lessons were adjusted to the participants’ varied levels of knowledge in the field.

“It was very good that the lectures that introduced us to this field came first, as we all had various backgrounds,” she notes. “Then we started working with the software Vadim showed us. We modeled the position of a point on a plane using various algorithms, changed the properties of the program’s operation, and did things on our own.”

Step 2: Transition to the physical reality

Designing patterns in a virtual reality was just the first stage. After that, the students gave their structures physical shape under the guidance of Maria Kuptsova.

“The participants converted their digital code into physical objects,” says Maria Kuptsova. “Making use of virtual programming methods, they exported their patterns into a 3D printing software.”

The printing was done at ITMO University’s FabLab. Over the course of several hours, the students watched as the digital environments they created turned into real polymer models.

“We were all deeply fascinated and stayed till evening in order to see how our designs came to life,” adds Daria Sinkova.

Step 3: Populating the technosphere

After the digital structures acquired their physical shapes, it was time for stage three. Under the guidance of lecturer Laura Rodriguez, the participants populated their art objects with slime mold – simple organisms that consist of a giant cell with numerous nuclei that is visible to the naked eye.

“We brought the slime mold from a forest near Moscow,” explains Laura Rodriguez. “It likes humid environments, which is why we placed moist material inside the structures so that the mold would have enough nutrition. Then we observed as the organism expanded along the polymer structure with the speed of about one centimeter every 12 hours.”

According to Daria Sinkova, the final part was what students remembered the most.

“With our own hands, we worked with the models that we earlier worked with on computers. This was so different from the experience we usually get when working with something on a screen!” she shares.

Afterword

According to the course’s organizers, the art objects created in the process show how complex the interactions between the natural and the synthetic can be and how the many authors – the artist, the algorithm, the program, and the simple organism – can create a complex hybrid structure.

“We built upon the theory that technologies can be the path between the digital and physical realities, between things biological and technological, physical and mental,” explains Vadim Smakhtin. “In this case, we used technologies as a bridge that offers a gentle transition from one dimension to the other, generating a shared, unified structure.”

The organizers also note that they delivered a similar workshop at the end of June, but with some changes: the participants first worked with biological objects, then combined them with artificial objects, and then converted their works into the digital format.

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