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Art & Technology: a Perfect Union?

His father is a computer expert and his mother a pianist, so the fact that musician Tod Machover hovers on a radical intersection between art and technology is no surprise.

The very names of each of his projects evoke the effort to synthesize creativity and engineering: the multimedia music project "Brain Opera" in 1996, and now his environmental museum sound piece, "Meteor Music," which was unveiled last month. (It is part of the Meteorite Museum in Essen, Germany, but is available to experience on the Internet.)

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The music can be summarized as a 45-minute work in eight movements, with a movement for each of the museum's rooms.

Since the actual experience is determined by the pace of the individual moving through the space, it also represents the frontiers to which artists and technological innovations have taken society in such a way that old labels simply fall away.

Mr. Machover points out that nobody involved with the new work knows what to call it. "Is it a museum, a concert, or a theme park?" he asks without offering an answer.

Conversations with artists and engineers across the disciplines reveal that this shedding of old definitions in favor of new concepts is the inevitable result of the marriage of art and technology.

Indeed, from the "high art" world of Machover's "Meteor Music" to the everyday entertainment of Disneyland's newest take on Tomorrowland in Los Angeles, it is clear that the dance between artists and technology continues to both provoke and benefit the rest of society, according to the University of Detroit's John Staudenmaier, an expert on the history of technology.

He observes that the relationship between artists and technology is crucial. Modern experience, he says, "is an exaltation of technology," one that is reliant on progress and change. It is here, he maintains, that the artist plays two important roles.

First, it is the aesthetic impulse that leads to the all-important process of design innovation.

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Second, and probably more fundamental for modern society, it is the artist who gives "people the contemplative space to breathe in." In other words, says the professor, artists help us understand who we are and what we are doing with all the technology that surrounds us.

Companies on the cutting edge of high-tech culture continue to recognize the fundamental importance of the first role, the artistic impulse.

John Hughes, the president of Rhythm & Hues, the high-tech animation firm that made Hollywood's "Babe" talk, notes that while he clearly needs up-to-the-moment technical talent, he looks for artists first.

"I can teach them the technology," he observes. "I can't teach them that artistic sensibility that drives our industry."

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose next PBS series is devoted to one of the master artists of this century, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, notes that architecture is the perfect intersection of the artistic impulse and technology. His interest in the famous designer was sparked by the observation that "architecture is art that is constantly acting upon all of us."

Mr. Burns observes that Wright was obsessed with new materials of his time, experimenting with both the old and the new in an attempt to discover the best of both.

While many who have lived in a Wright-designed house will be the first to point out that his houses are infamous for falling apart, it was also this constant push against the limits of his designs and materials that produced a modern architectural masterpiece, New York's Guggenheim Museum.

While nobody is arguing that Disneyland is high art, it is certainly a mecca for creative talent and a signpost for the uses of technology in popular culture.

In the new Tomorrowland, unveiled in May, Disney Imagineers (as Disney dubs its innovators) introduced a new, more sophisticated interaction between technology and society. The rides are not super- high-tech; rather, "Rocket Rods" aspires to show what might be next for a high-powered automobile. The technology center, in the midst of the rides, introduces everything from "smart kitchens" to the Internet.

This, says Imagineer Bruce Gordon, was a deliberate effort to demystify technology while at the same time using it to entertain. It shows how all-important and pervasive technology has become in modern life, which segues directly into an investigation of the second half of the Detroit professor's equation - understanding the uses of invention.

"People need to become aware of the technological support their lives require," explains Mr. Gordon, elaborating that this is the only way that we as a culture can move beyond seeing technology as a hindrance. "Our VCRs are getting in our way today," he laughs, adding that we've got to get past this stage because what's coming next is much more complicated.

At a recent gathering at the Los Angeles Getty Center devoted to the issue of interaction between artists and their materials, the underlying assumption was that artists give identity to a culture. Therefore, the materials artists use become defining in terms of a culture's self-image and also what remains for posterity.

Miguel Angel Corzo, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, pointed out that it is artists who give us information about a 4,000-year-old Iraqi culture, "but it is the unknown engineers who created the clay tablets that ensured the information endured."

A collaboration between magicians Penn and Teller and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Laboratory, in Cambridge, Mass., aimed at creating a more touch-sensitive chair for one of their magic acts, led to the creation of various useful technologies, among them "smart air bags," able to tell the difference between groceries and small children in the seat.

As technical innovation accelerates around us, showing up in virtually every aspect of modern life, MIT design professor Jon Maeda says that another label will fall away: the separation between artists and technologists.

He observes that students he now works with move easily within the creative and the technical spheres. He predicts that we will eventually be able to think and work across all the disciplines.

"The old distinctions are dropping away," muses Mr. Maeda. In the future, he says, technology will not be a separate challenge, but an invisible part of the creative process, with artist and technologist working seamlessly as one individual, like the Old Master Leonardo da Vinci.

"Not a bad role model," Maeda laughs.

* Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is:

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