ME 289 offers artful side to Frost

Musical guests Dispatch, Yeasayer and Paper Void will draw large crowds to this year’s Frost Music and Arts Festival, but a more understated — while still integral — part of Saturday’s experience will be the student-created art installations and performance pieces that will be featured.

The driving force behind Frost’s arts showcase is the class ME289A/B: Interactive Art and Performance Design, a class offered through the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design’s ReDesigning Theater project. Led by instructors Michael Sturtz, director of ReDesigning Theater and mechanical engineering design lecturer, and Sasha Leitman ’05 M.A. ’06, the projects manager at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), the two-quarter class took students through the process of designing, proposing and building interactive art to be showcased at Frost this Saturday.

"Box of Stars" (above), by graduate student Cooper Newby, is composed of lights and mirrors. Festival attendees can experience three-dimensional space within two-dimensional frames. (Courtesy of Cooper Newby)

“Box of Stars” (above), by graduate student Cooper Newby, is composed of lights and mirrors. Festival attendees can experience three-dimensional space within two-dimensional frames. (Courtesy of Cooper Newby)

During the first quarter of the class, attended by both undergraduate and graduate students, students learned to plan, budget and craft proposals for their project ideas. Sturtz described the pitching process as a “sort of version of the American Idol,” as students presented their ideas and received feedback from a guest panel of experts ranging from artists to a co-founder of Burning Man to mechanical and structural engineers.

The class transitioned from designing to building this spring quarter, with students splitting their time between CCRMA and the Product Realization Lab (PRL), depending on the needs of their individual projects.

According to Sturtz, the most rewarding aspect of the course was forging a stronger connection between the Institute of Design (d.school) and the PRL, on-campus resources that don’t traditionally overlap.

“We were able to go from design thinking lessons at the d.school to MIG and TIG welding lessons in the PRL,” he said.

For first-year graduate student Cooper Newby, the course allowed him to explore the mixing of engineering with creativity. Newby’s art installation, “Box of Stars,” is an intricately-crafted cube composed of lights and infinity mirrors that gives the effect of an “infinite universe.”

“‘Box of Stars’ is a curiosity-inspiring project which kind of defies physics a little bit,” Newby said. “There are five infinity mirrors on the faces of the cube that warp with how you look at it. Festival attendees can experience three-dimensional space within two-dimensional frames.”

Extensive engineering and artistic experience was not a hard requirement for enrolling in the course, so Sturtz and Leitman spent the second quarter teaching the hands-on building skills and techniques necessary for building the designed art.

Sam Gussman ’16 cited ME289 as the first time he created an arts installation and said he did not have much of a technical background before the course.

Gussman’s “HOMER” (Hanging Objects Making Elliptical Rotations) is a kinetic sculpture that aims to recreate feelings of childhood innocence and fun. He described the installation as “a teeter-totter that also spins around 360 degrees and is shaped like the scales of justice.” There are giant hammocks on either end of the structure, and festival-goers can sit on the revolving seesaw and share the experience with their friends.

The art projects aren’t all installations, however. Frost’s sole performance piece, “Dizneylönd University,” was conceived by Jake Friedler ’15 and Laura Petree ’15, both core members of the theater group the Freeks. Over the course of the quarter, six actors developed their own characters based on famous Disney characters for “Dizneylönd University,” meant to be a study into immersive theater.

“We wanted to strip away all the traditional theatrical apparatuses until all you have left are these characters who are really good at playing and exhibiting these traits,” Friedler said.

Ultimately, Sturtz hopes that his students will take away from the class a better understanding of how to design for interaction.

“Designing for interaction sounds easy,” he said, “but to really make something that’s going to engage other people and draw their attention when they’re in the middle of a music festival and there’s all these other things going on, you have to really capture their imagination.”

Contact Minna Xiao at mxiao26@stanford.edu.

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