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January 10, 2002 Hexagram links Concordia, UQAM in the digital arts



by Barbara Black

The creativity of Quebecers will provide the inspiration and raw material for an ambitious enterprise called Hexagram, or the Institute for Research and Creation in Media Arts and Technologies.

The $7-million project, which brings together artists and researchers at Concordia and the Université du Québec à Montréal, was launched at ExCentris, the glamorous cinema complex on St. Laurent Blvd., on Dec. 10.

Quebec cabinet minister Pauline Marois was on hand for the launch, and spoke warmly about the project’s bright future. Hexagram has a $6-million startup grant from the Valorisation Recherche Québec funding agency, and the government has topped that up with another $1 million. Daniel Lamarre, president of the Cirque du Soleil, is chair of the Hexagram board.

Sixty professors and about 250 graduate students will be involved in the project. It’s not easy for the technologically challenged to grasp what Hexagram will do because its mandate is so open-ended, but a video shown at the launch gave some tantalizing glimpses.

There are eight areas of activity, each involving researcher/creators from both Concordia and UQAM: interactive performance and sound; interactive television and virtual communities; robotic arts and artificial intelligence; adaptive, broadband and wireless video; emerging cinema and virtual characters; interactive textiles and wearable computers; advanced digital imaging and rapid prototyping; and immersive environments, virtual reality and digital gaming.

No new building is envisaged for Hexagram; all its resources will be poured into the work itself. Concordia Dean of Fine Arts Christopher Jackson will be the project’s interim executive director.

Exceptional artistic talent in Quebec

In his speech at the launch, Jackson said that such a visionary project could only be carried out in Quebec, with its remarkable diversity and creativity.

Rector Frederick Lowy added that Hexagram is likely to be a catalyst for brain gain, attracting artistic and technological talent to the city. The Cirque du Soleil’s Lamarre saw the project as an incubator for talent, and said he will work to ensure that its research is applicable to the cultural industry.

The two universities make natural allies in this enterprise. Concordia has the largest university faculty of fine arts in Canada, and the best. While about 15 per cent of Concordia students overall claim French as their first language, a fairly steady figure over many years, roughly 34 per cent of the students in the Faculty of Fine Arts are francophone. For its part, UQAM has a strong communications program.

To give just one example of the daring thinking going on among Hexagram researchers, Ingrid Bachmann, who teaches in the Fibres unit of the Studio Arts Department, was recently interviewed on the local CBC radio program Art Talks.

She spoke of building tiny computers into our clothes and accessories so that they could be activated by motion, giving off light or sound, even animation — pockets that display messages as the wearer walks by.

Bachmann and her colleagues are thinking about giving computers the tactile surfaces of fabrics, experimenting with conductive inks, imbedding solar panels in fabric.

Artists are already using computer technology in installations, works that engage the gallery-goer not only as a spectator but as a participant, and this trend is likely to intensify as artists seek to provoke us to see the world around us in new ways.

In fact, the movement signalled by the launch of Hexagram goes further still. Bachmann says that artists want not simply to make use of technology, but to shape it and use it as a “generative force.”

An interview with Dean of Fine Arts Christopher Jackson