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He has become a familiar sight around campus — a lanky guy in sunglasses and cap who waits until dark, rides his giant tricycle up to a building, busts out a projector and starts blasting colorful, eye-catching 3-D images onto the existing architecture.
Travis Powell, 23, a student in DU’s Emergent Digital Practices (EDP) program, is the mastermind behind the traveling exhibit known as Mobile Projection DU. His vehicle mashes 19th and 21st century together in a bizarrely practical whole. Black matte-painted 2x4s have been measured, sawed and nailed together to support sophisticated mechanical equipment and software. Powell, who endlessly tinkers with the contraption, is hoping to add a mobile generator, having found himself without access to electrical outlets on more than one occasion.
“He just needs little feathers to make it look like a flight simulator. That would totally complete the Leonardo da Vinci aspect,” says Laleh Mehran, a professor and graduate director for the five-year-old EDP program. “It’s quite a funny sight to see this 6’5” guy on this thing, which is basically like a Pee-wee Herman bike. People always ask me, ‘Is he one of your students?’”
Elegance and tradition have their places in more established disciplines. Emergent Digital Practices—which embraces everything from socially conscious video games to public art and scholarly critique—is another beast entirely. A fusion of DU’s former Digital Media Studies and Electronic Media Arts & Design programs, EDP has evolved just about as rapidly as the tools and theories it builds upon, forcing students and teachers to constantly update their thinking about the ways in which art and technology interact.
“Failure is deeply embedded as a part of our process,” says Rafael Fajardo, an associate professor and director for EDP. “We want folks to fail, or we expect them to fail at first—to fail fast, fail often, and then, to quote Beckett, ‘Fail better.’”
Fajardo, Mehran and Associate Professor Christopher Coleman are among the EDP program’s small core of faculty members. All three are accomplished artists and engineers who have worked with major civic organizations, galleries, museums and international software groups on innovative art projects that often involve students. EDP has been a collaborator on several downtown Denver events, including 2016’s SuperNova, an outdoor festival of digital animation and art, and 2014’s OhHeckYeah, a series of interactive video games designed to build community.
“My experience of the projects that have come out of [EDP] is that there is incredible fluidity between their role as art, invention and idea generators,” says Adam Lerner, director and “chief animator” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. “Art truly becomes a form of research, and projects always intersect with practical issues.”
The second floor of the Shwayder Art Building is home to a cluster of EDP workspaces with names like the Cloud, C-Cubed Studios, the Nexus and the Node. The spaces graft tech sensibilities onto fine art and design practices, providing hands-on experience with the technology that is increasingly defining global commerce, culture and politics. A configurable space for installation and performance art, featuring 12 speakers and eight projectors, adjoins a workspace for wearable technology and 3-D printing. A computer lab with the latest in Apple hardware overlooks a lounge area where students and faculty gather to discuss their work.
“I like that [EDP has] an all-encompassing approach to media and culture studies, including historical and philosophical theory,” says Alessandra Pearson, a 27-year-old graduate student in the program. “We’re getting hands-on with all sorts of different things. I have no idea exactly where this is going to lead. But I’m under the impression, based on the amount we’re being exposed to, that whatever you come into it thinking you’re going to do will definitely evolve.”
Granted, most college programs are designed to lead students through a mixture of the practical and the abstract. But EDP tosses them a machete to cut through fertile yet uncharted fields, including data visualization, “humane” video games, open-source educational software, nonprofit smartphone apps and disruptive social media.
Alumni and current students include entrepreneurs like Gabriel Walford, who founded the hip digital marketing company BausCode; Bryan Waddell, a partner and creative director at Cleveland tech company CivitasNow; Matilda Asuzu, technology specialist for Denver’s Arapahoe Library District; and working artists Cory Metcalf and Sarah Richter.
“I’m doing a bachelor of fine arts, so all of my time is spent in EDP,” says 21-year-old Ben Efram, who plans to graduate in 2017 with plenty of real-world experience in interactive art installations. “We’ve done pieces that try to make spaces more lively and active, like during winter quarter last year, when we 3-D modeled a mountain outside the Ellie Caulkins Opera House [in downtown Denver]. We had a webcam booth set up, and people could get their faces projected up onto this giant structure along 14th Street.”
The classroom dynamic—projects, essays and grades—is still present in EDP, but so is a collaborative push that introduces students directly to real-world nonprofits and software companies.
“I really like how EDP gets you face-to-face with clients,” says Efram, who started at DU as a theater major before switching to EDP. “And the classes deal with diverse forms of art, so that enables us to get diverse clients. It definitely motivates you to do your best.”
Despite its relatively low mainstream profile, EDP is already well established in the Rocky Mountain region’s academic, artistic and tech circles. Count Ivar Zeile, director of Plus Gallery and Denver Digerati, among the program’s proponents.
“EDP is the only focused program that I know of in the state that’s really pushing the intersection of technology and art in ways that are concurrent with today’s most progressive new-media movements,” Zeile says. “Their impressive faculty is not only constantly gaining international recognition for their efforts, but paving the way for students who are proving themselves across state and national lines. I’ve learned so much through my intersections with their students the last five years, and I am thankful for the tremendous role they play in our community.”