This article was originally published in BU Today on December 11, 2019. By Megan Woolhouse.
Francisco Alarcon is an artist, he trained as a civil engineer, and he holds a graduate degree in architecture.
That makes him a bit of a unicorn. Alarcon is BU’s inaugural computational artist-in-residence, working with College of Engineering and College of Fine Arts students to explore high-tech artistic projects that use software algorithms, graphic design, fabrication tools, and cutting-edge robotics to create artistic images, video sculptures, and multidisciplinary artwork.
“I find I can listen to engineers and have something to offer them,” Alarcon says of his fall semester residency, which wraps up this month. “There are not that many engineers who collaborate with artists often for one reason: they don’t communicate in the same language.”
His work at BU helps further define the evolving genre of computational art. A video projection loop titled Narrative of a Wave (on display in the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering lobby until December 15) depicts an image of a blue wave suspended in air like a roiling magic carpet. Best seen at night, it’s a mesmerizing representation of water using computer-generated imaging; it is also a commentary on the historic difficulty programmers have faced creating a digital representation of a wave. (Alarcon uses several generations of old programming to make his point.)
Fields of study are often intellectual silos of knowledge, and this is especially so in the academic worlds of engineering and computer science, where artist residencies are unusual. That’s changing, as a growing number of computational artists work at the intersection of artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, philosophy, and the arts. Unlike digital artists, who create art with software, Alarcon says, computational artists look at the digital movement “with a critical lens.”
Alarcon has bridged various worlds in his residency, creating his own art, meeting with art students to help them advance their projects, or helping engineering faculty conceive narratives around art, not just product innovation.
“In one day, I visit three departments,” he says, of his visits up and down Comm Ave. “My conversation can change every three hours, because I’m having the same conversation with different audiences.”
In those conversations and workshops, he has challenged students to create public art, and he’s solicited proposals. In one workshop, students wanted to make a robot that would run around campus in a friendly—not scary—manner, which sparked a conversation about robotic aesthetics. Another student proposed building a cell phone app that would tell users how many different nationalities were nearby at any given moment. Alarcon, who is from Spain, says the students thought it would be cool to build and that he could help them “make it look better.” He says that instead, he challenged them to think about the sociopolitical implications of the work.