Brixey builds star, program

It took Michelangelo four years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Professor Shawn Brixey has already worked that long on his next piece of art, a star suspended in a glass of water.

Brixey, associate director of the Center for Digital and Experimental Media (DX arts), combines science and art to create new works that, instead of using paint, use things like light, snow and stars.

The project to create a star in a glass of water, called Eon, uses sonoluminescence, a process physicists cannot explain that converts sound in water directly into light.

"We are developing strategies for injecting human expression ... into the fabric of the universe," said Brixey. "If we are talking about works that stand the test of time, we can point to the pyramids, but where we are going from here is not just bricks and mortar."

The bricks and mortar Brixey uses are the same materials used to build the universe. He has used gravity to create a tiny galaxy that he can control with his voice. He has encoded a snowflake so that instead of carrying the history of its fall through the atmosphere, it will carry the history of a human life, like a portrait.

"The expressive part of [humans] that we have carried since the beginning, I don't think has media allegiance," said Brixey. "My artwork required me to explore tool sets that were not available in art."

Brixey, trained as an artist and sculptor at the Kansas City Art Institute, had to go to MIT to learn the science to make his artistic vision possible. Most of his projects take five years to complete, but Eon has been in progress much longer. The equipment needed to move the project from laboratory to museum is being built, but Brixey is already anticipating its unveiling.

"When you see a star in a glass of water there will be a sense of awe and wonder and [you] may not be sure why," said Brixey.

Even before Eon is complete, people are watching with awe and wonder. The UW is watching the return of a faculty member who left the University in 1998, defying brain drain, and the building of a DX arts program in a time that budget cuts seem to preclude innovation.

Brixey came to UW in 1994 as the first hire in cross-disciplinary arts.

According to Brixey, he believed he was brought to the UW to build a novel art and technology program. However, he soon found such innovation was not easy. As grant dollars flowed in, the program began to grow in leaps and bounds. The inevitable stressors of rapid change emerged, Brixey said.

"The University was not quite ready to innovate to the level where my expectations were and where the student interests and demands were," said Brixey.

During those tedious days, Richard Karpen, director of DX arts, got an offer from a European university and Brixey was recruited by UC-Berkeley.

"It wasn't that we didn't like the UW," said Karpen. "It's just that we didn't see the opportunity to reach a new level here."

Karpen decided to stay at the UW, but Brixey's offer was too good to pass up. It was Berkeley's first hire in the arts in decades and Brixey was mandated to absolutely transform the program.

"It's like being called up by the Yankees," said Brixey. "I have never seen more money, more space. They are really high rollers."

Brixey went on to found the school's Digital Media Program and began to put together a system-wide doctoral program. But the optimism and growth in the California system met budget cuts and the same anxiety the UW had gone through a few years earlier. The doctoral program was watered down to meet the political interests of various departments, and the process of forming a pioneering program began to stall.

"I began to see the political and institutional inertia set in and the time it would take to undo it would be five or 10 more precious years," said Brixey.

Meanwhile, UW was heading in the opposite direction. During Brixey's last three months at UW, he and Karpen crafted a proposal to get money from the University Initiative Fund (UIF).

The UIF reallocates permanent state resources to fund innovative programs. The UIF taxes most university program's operating budgets at a rate of 1 percent and has reallocated $26 million since 1997.

The planned Center for Digital and Experimental Media fit this description perfectly and the center was awarded $700,000 annually in the 2001 round of UIF monies.

"Without the UIF, [the center for digital arts] probably would have been impossible," said Michael Halleran, associate dean of arts and humanities.

Over the next few years, the UW put digital arts on the top of the priorities list and Karpen began to build the center. Then, with the resources provided by the UIF as bait, Karpen and the UW went to find faculty. They recruited Juan Pampin, a composer from Stanford, and brought Brixey back.

Watching the long-awaited innovation from a distance proved too much of a temptation for Brixey. He packed his bags and moved back to Seattle.

"The prospect of designing a new program from the ground up and to do something that will change the world of art. That is what brought [Brixey] and [Pampin] here and what keeps me here," said Karpen.

With Brixey and Pampin on board, the DX arts program is searching for another full-time faculty member, who will be hired in March to begin next year. Meanwhile, the doctoral program was just approved by the Board of Regents and a DX arts bachelor's program is in the final stages of approval at the Higher Education Committee Board.

The UIF program granted DX arts money in the last year of the fund before the program was suspended indefinitely. Brixey is thankful for the opportunity it provided him.

"One of my greatest works of art will be the collaboration I have here in building the DX arts program," said Brixey. "I step on campus every day and I feel supremely blessed that I can be part of it ... I can be part of something truly groundbreaking."

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