Engineering Electrifies Art

Fall 2002

In the wired worldview of Wesley Smith ’02, the scientific method becomes the first step toward artistic expression.

After building controlled environments, Wesley Smith ’02 used a large format camera to capture his ideas on film.
After building controlled environments, Wesley Smith ’02 used a large format camera to capture his ideas on film.

Wesley Smith ’02 creates the circuits to connect art and engineering; he’s drawn more to the similarities between the disciplines than to their differences. The Dallas, Texas, native double-majored in electrical engineering and French. He received the John Boswell Whitehead Award for outstanding achievement in electrical engineering and was one of two Hopkins seniors to share the 2002 Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts, honoring his photography. His work garnered a $1,500 prize.

“I’m interested in the encroachment of perception through technological devices,” Smith says. Most people see the Internet is a tool for speeding and improving communications, but it can be more than that, he says, pointing to a perfect example he has seen: an installation that used the Internet to “transmit seismic waves from one place in the world to another.” The seismic wave signals were processed as audio signals and fed through big speakers and subwoofers “so that as a seismic event occurred in one part of the world, it could be experienced in another.

“For years, people have been using technology to influence art,” Smith continues. Now, he believes, there is an opportunity for the technologically minded to use art to transform how we use technology. This is one reason why he is now pursuing a master’s in fine art at the Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. While at Hopkins, he took a semester off to study photography in Paris at the École Nationale Supériere des Arts Décoratifs, one of the most prominent French schools for studio arts; he found the works of Man Ray especially inspiring.

“I’ve always been doing things with art,” Smith observes, “and I’ve also always liked electrical engineering.” The more he thought about the possibilities of artistic expression, the more his interest in electrical engineering was piqued. As his artistic explorations incorporated more and more “time-based elements,” he began experimenting with electronic sensors. Using sensors, he explains, makes it possible to use “certain situations or actions to trigger events.”

Smith admits that it sometimes could be tough as a student of electrical engineering to keep focused on his art. During his junior year, he took an interdisciplinary course offered jointly though Hopkins, the Peabody Institute, and MICA. Called Intermedia Studio, the course provided the rare opportunity to collaborate with creative thinkers working across a wide range of disciplines. The idea of Intermedia Studio is to bring together “musicians from Peabody, visual artists from MICA, and engineers from the Whiting School” to create works that use technology in new forms of expression. During the show that capped the class experience, Smith unveiled a piece using “sensors that emit infrared signals to create a sound and visual ‘landscape’ for a room.”

For his senior design piece, Smith created an installation that employed sensors connected to sound-generating devices. As an individual moved through the space, the sensors picked up the movement and “reacted to the movement with an auditory response.” Each person thus “created” a different auditory experience; in effect, each event was a unique work of art. Some might consider this kind of art “interactive,” but that is a word Smith uses rarely, and only with caution. “You have to be careful with interaction,” he insists, as if to distance himself from any attempt to make art that depends upon the participation of the viewer. “I like using data from the real world. I try to make it possible to experience something that is not natural to the human being.”

Smith seems intent on bridging the gap between art and engineering, even in his approach to art projects. “The way I work is to pose a question using the scientific method,” he says, “and then look for an artistic way to solve it.” This leads to some interesting results. His senior exam show, for example, began an attempt to “express a perception of space, how that relates to a person’s body, and how it changes in response to different modes.” It’s all about the intersection between self and other—a very artistic question—mediated by technology.

Exploring the boundaries of engineering and art represents a challenging career path for a newly graduated engineer. But Smith is determined. At MICA, he is completing the coursework to make the leap from electrical engineering to fine art. “I’m taking a class on audio for installation pieces,” he says. He plans to use the experience to “continue the exploration of how art can illuminate lives dominated in so many ways by technology. Art serves as a pathway to understanding how to use technology for our benefit,” the ingenious artist notes. “I want to try to do this as a career. I’m not sure how, but things tend to work out when you keep focused on your goals.”