By Ken Shulman | Art at MIT
One student admitted that motorbikes always scared them. Amy Huynh, a first-year student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program, says, “I didn’t respond to the usual way of teaching electrical engineering and coding.”
Huynh and his friends found different ways to master coding and circuitry during the Independent Activity Period course Introduction to Physical Computing for Artists — a class created by Student Art Association (SAA) instructor Timothy Lee and offered for the first time last January. During the four-week course, students learn to use circuits, wires, motors, sensors, and displays by developing their own works of kinetic art.
“It’s a different approach to learning about art, and about circuits,” said Lee, who joined the SAA faculty last June after completing his MFA at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Some classes can push technology too fast. Here we seek to remove barriers to learning, create collaborative environments, and frame technology within the broader concept of making art. For many students, this is a very effective way to learn.”
Lee graduated from Wesleyan University with three concurrent majors in neuroscience, biology, and studio art. “I don’t have much free time,” says Lee, who originally intended to enter medical school before deciding to follow his passion for art. “But I benefit from studying science and art. Just as I almost always benefit from learning from my friends. I drew on both experiences in designing and teaching this class.”
On this January evening, the third of four scheduled classes, Lee leads his students through drills to create an MVP—the minimum viable product of their art project. MVP, he explained, serves as an artist’s proof of concept. “This is the smallest single unit that can demonstrate that your project is doable,” he says. “That you have minimal working hardware and software which shows that your project can be adapted to your vision. Our work here is different from pure robotics or pure electronics. Here, the technology and coding need not be perfect. They need to support your aesthetic and conceptual goals. And here, these things can be fun too.”
Lee distributed various electronics to students according to their specific needs—cables, soldering irons, resistors, servo motors, and Arduino components. The students have acquired knowledge of coding and the Arduino language in the first two class sessions. Sophomore Shua Cho designed an evening gown embellished with flowers that would open and close continuously. The MVP is a collection of three flowers, mounted on a single post which, when raised and lowered, opens and closes the stitched flowers. He enlisted Lee’s help to attach a servo motor – an electronic motor that alternates between 0, 90, and 180 degrees – onto the pole. Two other students, working on a similar problem, immediately pulled up their chairs beside Cho and Lee to join in on the discussion.
The instructor suggested that they observe the wheel dynamics of an ancient train’s locomotive. A student calls up a picture on their laptop. Then, as a group, they came up with a solution for Cho – a wire and glue assembly that would attach the servo motor to the central pole, opening and closing the flower. It’s improvisational, even awkward. But it worked, and proved that the flower-covered kinetic dress project was worth it.
“This is one of the things I love about MIT,” said senior aeronautical and astronautical engineering Hannah Munguia. His project was a pair of hands that, when triggered by a motion sensor, would clap when someone walked by. “People raise their hands when they don’t understand something. And other people come to help. The students here trust each other, and are willing to collaborate.”
Cho, who enjoys exploring the intersection of fashion and engineering, came across Lee’s work on Instagram long before he decided to enroll at MIT. “And now I have the opportunity to study with him,” said Cho, who works at Infinite — MIT fashion magazine — and took classes in mechanical engineering and design. “I find that having a creative project like this, with a purpose, is the best way for me to learn. I feel it strengthens my neural pathways, and I know it helps me retain information. I find myself walking down the street or in my room, thinking about possible solutions for this dress. It never feels like work.”
For Lee, who studied the art of computing during his master’s program, the course was already a successful experiment. He wants to offer a full version of “Introduction to Physical Computing for Artists” during the school year. With 10 sessions instead of four, he says, students will be able to complete their projects, instead of stopping at the MVP.
“Before coming to MIT, I had only taught at an arts institution,” said Lee. “Here, I need to revise my focus, to redefine the value of art education for students who are unlikely to pursue art as a profession. For me, that new definition is selecting a group of skills that are necessary in making this type of art, but also applicable to other fields and fields. Skills such as sensitivity to materials, tactile dexterity, and abstract thinking. Why not learn this skill in an experimental, visual-based, sometimes slightly uncomfortable setting. And why not learn that you don’t have to be an artist to make art. You just have to be passionate about it.