Merging art and technology


A new postgraduate research centre at TCD aims to combine art, technology and entrepreneurship, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

ART, TECHNOLOGY and entrepreneurship may not seem to be likely bedfellows at first glance, but Trinity College Dublin’s new Arts Technology Research Laboratory (ATRL) for postgraduate study and scholarship hopes to change this perception.

“Creating new businesses and new forms of art at the same time – I don’t think those are antithetical,” says TCD drama lecturer Matthew Causey, an authority on performance and technology and the director of the recently opened lab.

With a PhD from Stanford University in California – widely viewed as the academic powerhouse underlying Silicon Valley’s success – Causey says he has seen at first hand how Stanford and leading Valley research centres such as the Palo Alto Research Centre (Parc) fuel innovation by encouraging links between technology and other disciplines.

Even the lab’s location suggests a fresh way of viewing the possible outcomes of blending art and technology: the 650sq m centre is spread across two levels of the Trinity Technology and Enterprise Campus on Pearse Street and sits alongside a range of art studios and technology start-ups in the old brick warehouses of Ringsend.

Prof Kevin Rockett, head of TCD’s school of drama, film and music (which serves as the academic home of the lab), has said the goal of the new facility is to “stimulate a new generation of arts technologists of high academic standard and entrepreneurial in spirit who will be an essential element in the future of Irish artistic practice and the information economy as part of the next phase of this country’s economic development”.

That may seem a lofty – and daunting – goal, but Causey notes that immersive computer games, online spaces like Second Life, and motion-sensitive games consoles like the Nintendo Wii are examples of commercial areas that marry technology with elements of performance and artistic design.

Causey describes the lab, which operates in partnership with the departments of computer science and engineering, as “a team effort”, and says it will offer students working in disciplines that blur the humanities and technology the chance to move on to doctoral work in the area.

TCD has two established MSc programmes based in the computer science and engineering departments – in mobile and ubiquitous computing and interactive digital media – that are likely to feed potential PhD students into the lab. Also likely to produce PhD students for the lab is an MPhil in music and media technologies based in the school of drama, film and music.

“I’d like to take the cream of the crop, those students who already have their MSc and want to move into a PhD,” says Causey.

The lab is also likely to draw arts and humanities students with an interest in digital culture and technology.

The PhD programme starts in September next year in association with the Long Room Hub, TCD’s arts and humanities research centre. There are plans for collaborations with other universities, including the Huston school of film and digital media at NUI Galway and the sonic arts research centre at Queen’s University Belfast. The lab should also fit into the proposed “innovation academy” resulting from the merger of TCD and UCD’s research programmes, announced in March.

But right now, the empty, just-completed facility smells of fresh paint and new carpet, as well as the distinct scent of new Macintosh computers and electronics equipment. It also houses a multipurpose, multimedia auditorium for performance, recording, installations and lectures; a sound recording studio; two digital editing suites; and a seminar room. There are workstations for up to 30 postgraduate research and PhD students, and some cubicles for research scholars and academics. Causey says the centre can support about 24 PhD students annually, taking in about six new students each year.

Built with a €1.7 million grant from the Higher Education Authority, the centre was an abandoned warehouse with pigeons in the rafters only a year ago. Now, Causey says, it fulfils a dream he carried for years of providing a multidisciplinary research space in which the art of technology and the technology of art can find expression.

He adds that he hopes collaborations with the technology industry, for example with Google or Microsoft, will be a part of the lab’s future.

But will there be jobs for its graduates?“For arts technologists – yes, there is a demand. Yes, there will be those who go straight into teaching or any of the arts forms, but I imagine there will be any number of industries that would want students with a background in performance and technology,” he says.

“They’ll have the fallback skills to go into the area of information technology, but I would hope they will have the visionary skills to go into companies and contribute in a creative way, or even start their own businesses.”

Causey says he believes people are beginning to understand the potential of arts, technology and research, and are seeing “the viability of partnering with different industries”.

“It’s a rich and robust area,” he says. “Our culture is shaped by arts and technology.”