Interactive Art at MOXI

Abstract Virtual Worlds and Music from Your Fingerprints

Branna Burke, visiting from Ventura, experiences Blortasia, a virtual-reality exhibit at the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation (MOXI)

Paul Wellman

Branna Burke, visiting from Ventura, experiences Blortasia, a virtual-reality exhibit at the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation (MOXI)

From his perch at the check-in desk of the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation (aka MOXI), SBCC student and museum staffer Brian Miguel sees thousands of people take their first steps into the facility every week. “No matter what kind of day they’ve been having,” Miguel told me, “when people come through the door, I see them lighten up and smile.” As MOXI moves toward its third year as the major family destination of the new lower State Street, the museum offers seven tracks of exploration and innovation, each suitable for all ages and designed to stimulate interest not only in science but in an experimental, process-oriented way of approaching the world.

Nowhere is this aspect of the museum’s mission more apparent than in the Interactive Media Track, where visiting artists install tech-enabled work for periods of approximately four months. Director of Exhibits Sean O’Brien and Curator of Interactive Media Marco Pinter are a pair of UCSB PhDs — in education and media arts and technology, respectively — who are dedicated to bringing the best contemporary artwork that employs interactive technology to Santa Barbara. The current exhibits are Blortasia, a virtual-reality experience by the Oscar-winning special-effects master Kevin Mack, and Digiti Sonus, a generative multimedia display by Yoon Han that turns your fingerprint into images and, eventually, music. After a gauzy, cloud-like projected black-and-white image of your fingerprint appears on the wall, you touch another screen that sends ripples through the unique patterns of your fingertips. These ripples in turn generate the music that you hear, an audible rendering of your unique identity. And, if you are worried about what’s happening to that data, rest assured that artist Yoon Han cares about your privacy; none of the fingerprint information is stored or transmitted anywhere but onto the walls and through the speakers.

For O’Brien and Pinter, the advent of MOXI has led to a doctoral candidate’s dream come true — a job in your field immediately after graduation. There’s a distinct connection between MOXI and the science research being done at UCSB, and it shows up in all kinds of ways. At the museum’s popular Afterparty event in early July, Dr. Emily Jacobs of the UCSB Neuroscience Research Institute made a personal appearance behind a table loaded with actual brains. Interested patrons could don surgical gloves and take them in their hands. These weren’t human brains, but the study that Jacobs is currently conducting in her lab does concern people. After hefting a couple of animal brains, I was given a sheet of paper detailing how I could become a paid subject in her lab’s study of hormones and cognition. In exchange for filling out a medical history, taking a brain-scan MRI, doing some learning and memory tasks, and, oh, right, a few teaspoons of blood, you could earn up to $125 and assist the advancement of neuroscience.

Back in the museum during the day, I waited in line for a chance to travel through Blortasia, the colorful, abstract 3D virtual world created by special-effects wizard Kevin Mack. Mack has quite a pedigree: His father animated the “Rite of Spring” sequence in Disney’s classic film Fantasia. With the aid of state-of-the-art goggles, headphones, and handheld motion controllers, the son has gone the father one dimension better. Blortasia allows participants to immerse themselves in a constantly shifting landscape of brightly colored vortices, each flying piece a unique work of instantaneous art.

Visitors to MOXI, which costs $15 per visit for adults and $10 for children, with kids under 3 free, can enjoy these exhibits, plus much more, every day, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. If you are a K-12 educator with a valid ID, it’s also free, and there are significant discounts available for individuals and families who are willing to become members. Also, if you haven’t yet attended one of the museum’s popular evening events known as the Afterparty, the next one is on August 17, 7-10 p.m., but get your tickets early, as they consistently sell out.