Austin's New Director of Digital Arts Pushes Programming Skills

U. of Texas at Austin

Bruce Pennycook
January 13, 2014

The University of Texas at Austin may be a little behind in creating a digital-arts program, but the scholar chosen to direct it is far from being behind in his work in the discipline.

"I've been involved with this since its inception, basically," says Bruce Pennycook, the new director of digital arts and a professor of music composition at the university. He says he was introduced to digital audio in 1974, and he earned a doctorate from the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University in the late 1970s.

The program he began leading in October pulls together all the digital arts taught in various departments under one interdisciplinary roof. Those arts include music, video games, film, photography, illustration, and even theater: anything that is either created or presented through digital means.

While he is primarily a composer, Mr. Pennycook, who is 64, says the ability of computers to produce so many disparate types of art is what keeps him fascinated with the field.

Sometimes digital-art tools are simply a convenience, he says, as when a music-notation program is used to create scores for a large orchestra. At other times, digital art can involve combining and distorting works created by more-­traditional means, or creating something totally new.

Mr. Pennycook is working on a project that he says will capture images of a crowd with drone cameras, transmit the images to his studio to be reprocessed and combined with improvisatory music, and then send the results back to the audience's mobile devices.

"The audience will be like the 'silent raves' in Amsterdam," where people danced while wearing headphones, a few years ago, he says. But the people in the crowd will be "watching themselves and hearing the music on their smartphones."

In his new role as director, Mr. Pennycook will foster the creation of digital-arts courses across the college's academic departments, and will lead the planning and design of a new interdisciplinary facility for the digital arts.

The idea for the effort emerged last summer, Mr. Pennycook says, when he and Douglas Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts, noticed how high a demand there was for digital-arts courses on the campus—and how many other universities had already created similar programs.

Nearly 200 such programs exist in the United States, says Edgar Huang, an associate professor of media arts and science at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, who tracks them.

"Students want this," Mr. Penny­cook says. "So we're not fighting upstream here. Today everybody has digital audio and music­-­making tools, video tools, and graphic tools on their laptops, tablets, or smartphones."

When Mr. Pennycook began working with digital arts, he says, computing was one of the main draws to the area. Since then, computer programs and apps have made it much easier to create art. Now it's hard to persuade students to embrace the programming side of the discipline.

"There is some resistance to the essence of programming, and I see that as a bit of a hurdle," he says.

Bringing digital arts under one umbrella is expected to help overcome that obstacle. For decades, Austin has offered a wide range of digital-arts courses, but having a formal program will help make an impression on prospective students.

"We were not behind on the ground," says Mr. Pennycook, "and now we've made our statement, too."