SAVANNAH MAY be famous for its historic preservation of the past, but for the past 11 years, it’s served as the cutting edge between art and technology. It makes sense that the PULSE Festival launched right around the same time as the opening of the Jepson Center for the Arts, a modern architectural wonder designed by the award-winning Moshe Safdie.
We spoke to Telfair Museums’ Senior Curator of Education Harry DeLorme about the origins of PULSE festival, past highlights and glimpses of what’s to come.
How did you decide to combine art and technology?
Harry DeLorme: Well, we started Pulse in 2007, less than a year after opening the Jepson. With the opening, I had installed some of the first interactive tech pieces and I wanted to build some programming around that so I had this little tech week with maybe three programs.
We had a family day, a concert with artist named Bubbly Fish who used Gameboys to make music and a handful of very small exhibits. We wound up having close to a thousand people come, and a lot of them were kids. We’re always trying to find a hook for one audience or another, and it turned out that tech is a great way to target young adults and teens. They were immersed in it and drawn to even before it became as omnipresent as it is now.
I mean, we started this before the iPhone came out!
Has the festival been prescient in both the art and tech realms?
What was happening in the art world at that time was we were seeing these new things coming to the foreground, new tools to experiment with, open source programs like processing, which a lot of artists use to create various interactive projects. I’m really fascinated by the way artists pick up new tools as soon as they come along. There’s a whole new world of possibility and that’s what’s exciting about artists using new technology.
We did one of the first exhibitions in the country of animated GIFs a few years ago, and began working with video games as a theme back in 2008 when Mary Flanagan, who’s a well-known artist and game designer, gave a lecture that year.
Video games are another important point of connection between young people and technology. Now games are used as a means for teaching technology, teaching coding; it’s an entry level to coding for kids. And we have galleries that show largely digital art.
Music has always been part of PULSE. How does it fit?
Artists use technology is such imaginative ways. One of the first years we brought in a chiptune artist, repurposing these old Gameboys and making 8-bit music. We had a group of SCAD professors and students who called themselves the Wiitles using Wii remotes as a performance tool.
We had an artist named Zemi17 working with was then called LEMUR—The League of Electronical Musical Urban Robots, which we featured for a couple of years. Pat Metheny ended up commissioning a whole orchestra of them at one point.
And this year we have music from a dinosaur skull! We also went back to the chiptune theme this year with Little Paw, who mixes the 8-bit with electric guitar.
And then there’s the fashion element...
We aren’t doing a lot with fashion this year, but we have in the past. We had Diana Eng in 2010 who was on Project Runway. She came and led a wearable technology workshop and lecture. Last year we were showing work from Armstrong's Fash Tech program, where students were making dresses with sound-responsive LEDs and stuff like that. Those have been really popular, and we'll probably do more.
How has the tech changed and its relationship to art?
Well, technology has obviously changed quite a bit. We try to present things as they're coming out. We were one of the first places in Savannah to present any kind of virtual reality projects. And now you can buy VR at Best Buy! But that's still an emerging technology, we're still haven't seen the end of it.
Other tools that have come along that artists have used at PULSE have been face recognition. Now it’s used by Facebook and other applications and social media.
Artificial Intelligence is another emerging field and this year is the first year we’re presenting AI art. In 2015 Google introduced the doorway to artificial intelligence with the Deep Dream Project so that artists could play around with it. People who were interested could play around with the same tools that the programmers were using, and we wind up with these incredibly trippy images. These are the completely non-commercial uses of AI; there are plenty of commercial uses.
Is the non-commercial aspect essential to the artistic notion of application of technology?
Some of these artists straddle the fence; they’re doing this kind of work for their day job and then create these things on the side. But that’s where the artists come in, to use these tools in the way that other people haven’t thought of.
Maybe they’ve been designed to do one thing, and the artist uses it for a totally different purpose. Maybe it raises something really interesting questions. Sometimes it’s just absurd fun.
PULSE is Jan. 11-15 at the Jepson Center.