UCLA Spotlight


Fabian Wagmister, Digital Arts

  • By Teri Michael, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Jul 1, 2001 8:00 AM

Six years ago, Fabian Wagmister would have listed himself in the sole category of "filmmaker."

Today, it's not that simple. Wagmister, an assistant professor in the School of Theater, Film and Television, now blends his extensive filmmaking background with knowledge in engineering and computer science. His efforts are giving the world new art forms that are being exhibited in museums in Germany, France and Latin America.

"It's exciting and challenging for me," says Wagmister of this transformation at the technological crossroads of film, electrical engineering and digital arts. "I was trained, and always thought of myself, as a filmmaker. Suddenly, I make other things that I'm just starting to understand."

Interdisciplinary collaborations with electrical engineers and other specialists on campus have spawned new excitement and energy for Wagmister. He beams when he talks about the recently established UCDARNET (University of California Digital Arts Network), a group of digital artists across the UC system working together to create new work that doesn't quite fit within typical departmental definitions.

"People from sculpture are working with people from film and people from electrical engineering," he explains. "And we're creating dynamic audiovisual interactive sculptures."

Much of Wagmister's work utilizes the human body as a method of control interfacing with art. For example, in "Invocation and Interference" (France 2000), a network of sensors and special software and hardware allow viewers to interact with a cyclical documentary with the movement of their bodies. Walking toward the video sequences displayed on any of seven monitors can result in a series of spontaneous zooms, tilts and pans. Through their actions the viewers construct a collaborative media collage. "Our bodies are our interface with reality," he says. "I have always been frustrated with both the passivity of traditional viewing experiences and the limited capacities of the computer mouse."

At the HyperMedia Studio, Wagmister's research project in the department of Film, Television, & Digital Media, these emerging modes of artistic expression are yielding exciting possibilities for the performing arts. Last spring's main stage production of Eugene Ionesco's Macbett involved an innovative collaboration between students from the departments of theater, electrical engineering, and computer science. By applying the HyperMedia Studio's intelligent "sensing and control" strategies to the stage environment, new creative relationships emerged between designers, actors, and the audiovisual aspects of the play.

Wagmister hails from a small town on the Argentine pampas. He began college as a law student but, after two years, most of which were spent in movie theaters, Wagmister went to UC Berkeley to study English, then UC Santa Cruz and finally UCLA for an M.A. in filmmaking. He stayed on to teach. Envisioning the future relevance of digital technology in the arts he was instrumental in creating UCLA's Laboratory of New Media.

Latin America and its peoples are always central to Wagmister's creative and intellectual work. He is particularly concerned about the impact of new technologies on the processes of formation of cultural identity.

To facilitate research about this complex dynamic process and to promote more educated adoption of the technology, Wagmister created the Program on Digital Cultures in UCLA's Latin American Center. Among its international projects, and in collaboration with Teatro del Sur, the Program recently established TaPeTe, Taller Performático Tecnológico, an experimental performance and technology laboratory based in Buenos Aires. Generous funding from the Doris Duke foundation will enable TaPeTe to invite artists from all over Latin America to participate in research and creation residencies at a first class facility.

Wagmister's interest in the social and political condition of Latin America is evident in his artworks. For example, Behind the Bars (1999) is an art installation on the experience of political oppression in Argentina and Chile in the '70s and '80s. Viewers walk through a "confrontational" prison cell environment. Their position within the space and direct touch of the bars, trigger transformations in emotional and narrative perspective, from the person on the outside looking into the cell to the person imprisoned.

"By exposing people's senses to shifting viewpoints about political concentration camps, I hoped to penetrate their passive viewing habits," explains Wagmister. Several people broke down and cried after experiencing the powerful piece when it was shown in Panama and Nicaragua.

"I call it relational art - making new connections through new interfaces, creating new types of relationships between the body, the environment and the artwork," Wagmister says.