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Faculty Profile: Shawn Brixey

Changing the Landscape of Art

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted October 7, 1998

Shawn BrixeyShawn Brixey, the first new faculty hire in the Department of Art Practice since 1989, sees his role on campus as an "ambassador of digital goodwill."

He has come to Berkeley to head the New Genre Program and develop a Laboratory for Advanced Research in Art and Technology. He's also part of the UC President's Digital Arts Planning Group, charged with developing graduate programs in digital art throughout the UC system.

At 37, Brixey has already built new genre/digital media programs at three other universities: Washington, Kentucky, and Michigan. With an MS in advanced visual studies from MIT, a BA in sculpture and experimental media from the Kansas City Art Institute, and a background rich in international art-technology exhibits, Brixey is well-qualified for his new position on campus.

Berkeley's New Genre Program will develop conceptual, technical and artistic courses to run concurrently, he says.

"I want our students to have the tools and opportunities to pioneer the use of emerging technologies, and I want to nurture the new forms of human expression that will evolve from them," says Brixey. "I want to open the creative wealth of the Department of Art Practice to Berkeley's celebrated intellectual community. I look forward to collaborating with the brilliant scientists and humanists here."

This semester Brixey is teaching an introductory course on new genres. About a third of the students are art majors; the rest come from fields like biology, architecture, engineering and the humanities. "Some of the most innovative digital media work is done by this interdisciplinary mixing of students," he says.

Before he'd even finished his MS, Brixey was invited to exhibit at Documenta in Germany -- "the Academy Awards of the art world," as he describes it. His installation/performance piece, "Sky Chasm," used ultra-sensitive holographic instruments to convert minute fluctuations in a viewer's presence into light and sound.

Ice CrystalsFor the '98 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Brixey created "Alchymeia," a genetically engineered ice crystal installation using human hormones. Built in Seattle, it was explored virtually on the Internet using telepresence -- the experience of being present in a real physical location remote from one's actual physical location. Alchymeia's web site logged about 30,000 hits a day during the Olympics, and those cyber visitors took up to 40,000 images from the site each day, Brixey discovered. Its web site still exists at

"Technology is changing the landscape the artist addresses," says Brixey. "Artists need to be open to new tools, like the computer. Fields like telepresence are growing dramatically. Artists of the future may create right on the web. In 100 years, galleries and art museums as we now know them may disappear."

Brixey describes his work as "riding along the fabric of the way the universe is put together. All my work is based on some aspect of nature. We're million-year creatures, not hundred-year creatures. We have deep physical and spiritual connections to so many features of the universe. I plumb them for poetic opportunities. I ask my students, 'what are the two types of design?' They answer, 'man-made and nature-made.' Then they realize that man is nature-made."

Asked what drew him to Berkeley, Brixey says, "my colleagues here offered me a great deal of artistic and creative freedom. I find the healthy skepticism at Berkeley concerning the impact of new media refreshing. And after a few years in Seattle, the climate was a big consideration."

Brixey and Ken Goldberg, associate professor of industrial engineering and operations research, have been mutual admirers for years. "The Bay Area has the ideal blend of resources for Brixey's work," says Goldberg. "His new studio/laboratory should be a major addition to the campus.''

Brixey is also collaborating with Brandon Muramatsu, a computer programmer in mechanical engineering, to set up a high-end Macintosh lab for 3D modeling, computer animation, digital film and multimedia. Brixey has brought about $500,000 worth of his own equipment to Berkeley, including Mac and SGI computers, lasers, lenses, fiber optics and stereo microscopy gear. Funders of Brixey's work include the NIH, NEA, Intel, Silicon Graphics, Apple Computer, IBM GMBH, Leica and Hughes Aircraft.

His current project is Epicycle, a large-scale telepresence art installation using digital satellite transmission of live video images of the sky from earth's 24 time zones. Epicycle will be part of EXPO/2000 World's Fair in Hanover, Germany.

"Shawn Brixey is a dream hire for us at Berkeley," says Dean of Humanities Ralph Hexter. "A dynamic artist in demand internationally, he is an entrepreneurial program builder and inspiring teacher. His arrival on campus offers students in Art Practice and beyond the opportunity to work at the emerging interface of art and technology."


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