Creating Artists Who Understand Technology, and Engineers Who Understand Art


“Our class is full of engineers who have been able to overcome their fears of performance art, and performance or theater people or others who have managed to overcome fear of technology,” says Martin Brooke, who teaches Performance and Technology with Tommy DeFrantz and Tyler Walters.

The interdisciplinary course evolved through a series of grants that led to several Bass Connections projects.

Brooke, who is associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, had gotten to know Walters, a former lead dancer of the Joffrey Ballet who teaches in the Dance program at Duke. Teaming up for a grant from the Center for Instructional Technology, they taught an engineering class.

“We asked students to design canes, floors and chairs, and it went very well,” Brooke says.

Next, Brooke and Walters expanded their collaboration by reaching out to DeFrantz, a recently-hired professor of African and African American Studies, Dance and Theater Studies. They developed a course with support from the Provost’s Undergraduate Team-Teaching Initiative (PUTTI), which encouraged faculty from different disciplines to devise new problem-focused courses.

“The Performance and Technology class here at Duke is really trying to introduce students to the connection and collaboration between artists and engineering,” says DeFrantz. “And probably most importantly, it gives students a chance to actually engage in making things.”pt1-638“Creating artists who understand technology, and engineers who understand art, is what our class and project are all about,” says Brooke.

In 2013 Duke’s Bass Connections initiative provided a way to take the collaboration further and involve graduate students. For the past two years Brooke, DeFrantz and Walters led a project team called Live Processing and Live Art. This year’s project, Machine Society Interfaces, adds Guillermo Sapiro to the team.

“The Bass Connections team does things that spin out of the class and we take further,” Brooke explains. Each small group of students designs and builds a machine and choreographs a way for themselves or others to interact with it. The groups perform their works at the annual ChoreoLab.

Brooke has been thinking about how to evaluate the impact of these efforts. “Craig Roberts and I have exchanged visits to our labs thinking about how to measure the outcomes,” he notes. “If you use video for instruction, how do you measure if it’s effective or not? If we teach students in a class where they learn technology in a performance environment, how do we tell that it ends up being better than if they were just taught technology another way? How do we tell if the technology had an impact on the artists?”

In the meantime, Brooke continues to forge new collaborations with his Dance colleagues. “We have a grant to do a thing on John Hope Franklin…it’s really cool!”