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Media Arts and Technology

Graduate Program

University of California Santa Barbara




How can we harness the precision of machines for the creativity of individuals? Digital fabrication tools promise quality production in low volume and are now accessible in maker spaces worldwide. However, the maker context is very different from the historical industrial settings in which digital fabrication was developed. Yet these differences have not led to many changes in contemporary tools. I argue that personal fabrication requires a rethinking of production infrastructure, and in this talk outline a research roadmap for machine agency.


Nadya directs the Machine Agency at the University of Washington where she is an assistant professor in Human-Centered Design and Engineering. Machines and systems Nadya has built are shared widely including at SCF, CHI, SIGGRAPH, and TEI. Nadya is an active member of the global fab lab community, making digital fabrication more accessible with better CAD/CAM tools and developing open source hardware machines and control systems. She on the board of the Open Source Hardware Association, half of the design studio James and the Giant Peek, plays drum machines and synths in the band Construction and got her PhD at MIT in the Center for Bits and Atoms.

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Many forms of life in the natural world have the extraordinary capacity to sense their environments, to learn, and to remember, just as humans do, even though they are vastly different from us. In this dissertation, I presented novel techniques developed to exhibit an interactive abstract virtual reality experience that invites viewers to see the natural world from a different perspective. I developed the vertex displacement and color turbulence approaches to showcase organisms. The organisms can also modulate their shapes according to the volumes and frequencies of sound. Furthermore, the experience displays turbulent flow on the organisms’ surface to demonstrate the concept of energy flow, or vitality, among all organisms in the natural world. Another novel feature is that viewers can interact with the surface colors through ray casting from a handheld controller.



Reinforcement learning (RL) is an efficient class of sequential decision-making algorithms that have achieved remarkable success in a broad range of applications, such as robotic manipulations, strategic games, or autonomous driving. The most well-known example of reinforcement learning is AlphaGo, a computer program that plays the board game Go and outperforms top human Go players. Unlike other two major machine learning categories, supervised learning and unsupervised learning, in which media artists are actively engaged, reinforcement learning has resulted in very few creative applications. Generative art is usually driven, in whole or in part, by autonomous systems that are derived from a set of rules. Interestingly, an RL policy can be seen as an autonomous system where the rules are learned by interacting with its environment. Regardless of its initial purpose, reinforcement learning has the potential to expand the boundary of generative art. However, an approach of applying reinforcement learning to generative art does not yet exist and the current RL tools require an in-depth understanding of RL concepts.

To bridge the gap, the first part of the dissertation introduces a conceptual framework to adapt reinforcement learning for generative art. The framework proposes a term RL-based generative art to denote a novel form of generative art of which the use of RL agents is the key element. The creative process of RL-based generative art and possible emergent behaviors are discussed in the framework. This leads to a discussion of several author's related practices on generative art, deep learning art, and reinforcement learning. The second part introduces RL5, a JavaScript library for rapidly prototyping RL environments and training RL policies in web browsers. The library combines RL algorithms and RL environments into one framework and is fully compatible with p5.js. RL5 is developed with a particular focus on simplicity to favor (re)usability of RL algorithms and development of RL environments. Specifically, the library implemented three RL algorithms, Tabular Q-learning, REINFORCE, and DDPG, to cover all the three families of model-free RL, and nine RL environments that six of them address autonomous agents in steering behaviors, which can be used as building blocks for complex systems. Finally, the author demonstrates how to apply RL5 for pedagogical and creative applications through four different use cases.



Deep convolutional neural networks (CNNs) have become one of the most commonly used machine learning tools. Their ubiquity, however, has also given rise to a new class of technical images: images that are not processed but produced by such networks. Parallel to the unprecedented rise of image processing with deep convolutional neural networks, CNN-based machine learning systems have emerged that act as image-making machines. However, rather than picking up on the analytical challenges that these systems present, research in media philosophy and the digital humanities has been almost exclusively preoccupied with broad and general critiques of artificial intelligence as a speculative technology.

At the same time, neural network images have become an essential part of the public perception of artificial intelligence because they act as image interfaces, as gateways to otherwise inherently opaque technical systems that are not only complex but which require an entirely different set of analytical tools. Exactly because of this inherent opacity, generative machine learning in its current form started as visualization - "deep dream", for instance, is really feature visualization without specific optimization targets.

From this hybrid origin emerge significant questions of representation and interpretation that are not only aesthetic in nature: with the increasing utilization of image-making CNNs in the sciences they turn into epistemological questions about invention, discovery, and the location of knowledge.

Neural network images should thus not only be considered a "natural" domain of humanist inquiry, but their analysis and critique is as relevant - and increasingly as political - as the analysis of explicit bias in AI systems that has received much more recognition in the past few years. The dissertation thus presents the first comprehensive analysis of neural network images and their epistemic, aesthetic, and, by extension, political implications, from the hybrid perspective of media philosophy and the digital humanities.


Sensing the World – Exploring Wearable Technology through Soft Robotics

Disciplines: Biomimicry, Pneumatic Architecture, Media Arts & Technology, Human-Computer Interaction.

Conventional wearable robots designed with rigid materials, such as metal and hard plastic, are often limited by their lower flexibility, functionality, and biological compatibility. With sensory technology and novel materials, can we rethink the wearable device as a soft and organic interface? Sensing the world is connecting the body (or mechanics), the brain (or controller), and the environment. In this course, we will focus on the emerging field of soft robotics, bringing together research and applications of wearable technology. We will introduce the concept of computational morphology in soft robotics and study the design principles using 3D modeling tools. Specific topics include body architecture, pneumatic architecture, soft mechanism, smart material, biomimicry design, geometrical morphology, sensory technology, embodied intelligence, wearable computing, and human-robot interaction. We will also discuss the soft wearable applications in art, communication, fitness, entertainment, medicine, and sports, and so on. Through a series of hands-on activities, students will explore digital fabrication, soft motion mechanisms, soft actuation, and wearable sensors. By the end of the course, students will design, modeling, and build of a wearable device, and analysis the human-robot interaction.

Director Dr. JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, chief designer of the three-story facility on the UC Santa Barbara campus, says the intersection of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics has facilitated exciting new avenues for scientific discovery.

"But it is their strong desire to welcome research partners and collaborations of all kinds, that leads the AlloSphere to make a real difference in the local community".

Goleta’s Finest is a 70-year old tradition honoring remarkable individuals whose contributions have enhanced the Goleta community.

The 2019 award recipients will be honored with a formal celebration on Nov. 23 from 6 to 9:30 p.m. at the beautiful Ritz-Carlton Bacara.


Photos: George Legrady. James Bay Cree, Fort George, James Bay, 1973, Quebec, Canada.

The award is for an upcoming publication titled "James Bay Cree Culture & Architecture", a monograph of documentary photographs created in four coastal Cree First Nation villages in sub-arctic James Bay in 1973. The publication is to consist of introductory texts, approximately 180 black and white photographs of everyday scenes in the Cree communities just prior to their legal negotiations over infrastructure autonomy and land rights in response to the construction of the James Bay Hydro-electric project on traditional hunting lands.


"System 319" at the Venice Biennale.

Marko Peljhan’s work revolves around two fundamental aspects of the world today: the technological developments in communication, transport, and surveillance; and the highly complex systems of political, economic, and military power driving such developments and employing them in administration, control, production or military applications. The potentials of technology are introduced into art as a way of confronting the systems of governance and their strategies. Peljhan’s art has thus evolved into a process involving a cartography of "signal territories," an analysis of the role of technology in society, particularly as it relates to power structures, a reflection on the possibilities of a different, creative and resistant use of technological means, and, ultimately, the creation of socially useful models of resistant behaviors in the contemporary social system. The theatrical dimension of Peljhan’s art plays a crucial role in this; his best-known project Makrolab can in this sense be interpreted as a technological laboratory and a social stage based on the concept of micro-performance.

At the Venice Biennale, Peljhan will present a work from his Resolution series. This series, which has evolved over some 20 years, proposes some specific material and applicable solutions to certain problems in society. It is the artist’s response to the state in which the world finds itself today, calling for a rediscovery of space and a utopian response to the rapid changes in the environment. In this sense, the autonomous vessel produced as part of the "Here we go again… SYSTEM 317" project is a colonizing, apocalyptic and pirating tool of sorts. In it, Peljhan brings together his vision, the potential for and the impossibility of a final exit from our rapidly deteriorating planetary conditions in a process he calls “reverse conversion.” He first employed this methodology in his "TRUST-SYSTEM" series, which focused on the conversion of cruise missile technology and later, unmanned systems for civil counter-reconnaissance. The artist proposes the construction of a counter-privateering machine intended for the days when the world’s great empires find themselves, once again, in confrontation—and one characterized by a grave lack of responsibility together with great destructive potential.


The X-43A Hypersonic Experimental (Hyper-X) Vehicle in Benefield Aenechoic Facility at Edwards Air Force Base radio January 2000. Photo: Tom Tschida. Image courtesy of NASA.

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About MAT

Media Arts and Technology (MAT) at UCSB is a transdisciplinary graduate program that fuses emergent media, computer science, engineering, electronic music and digital art research, practice, production, and theory. Created by faculty in both the College of Engineering and the College of Letters and Science, MAT offers an unparalleled opportunity for working at the frontiers of art, science, and technology, where new art forms are born and new expressive media are invented.

In MAT, we seek to define and to create the future of media art and media technology. Our research explores the limits of what is possible in technologically sophisticated art and media, both from an artistic and an engineering viewpoint. Combining art, science, engineering, and theory, MAT graduate studies provide students with a combination of critical and technical tools that prepare them for leadership roles in artistic, engineering, production/direction, educational, and research contexts.

The program offers Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in Media Arts and Technology. MAT students may focus on an area of emphasis (multimedia engineering, electronic music and sound design, or visual and spatial arts), but all students should strive to transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries and work with other students and faculty in collaborative, multidisciplinary research projects and courses.

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