A&E

Monsters, machines, music and more

L.A.S.T. Festival explores intriguing intersections between science and art

"When somebody asks a child, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' it's like a trick question," Piero Scaruffi mused, on the notion of an art/science divide. "It's very unnatural. Young people like to play music and write poetry and yet they're good at math and chemistry, so they're forced to choose."

As its name implies, the L.A.S.T. (an acronym for Life/Art/Science/Tech) Festival reflects Scaruffi's multidisciplinary interests. The annual art and science festival is sponsored by Stanford University and was founded by lecturer, scientist, author and arts critic Scaruffi, who sees great value in bringing together luminaries in both the scientific and artistic worlds, as well as making their work accessible to the general public (admission to the event is free). This year -- the event's fifth year running -- the two-day festival will be held at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) on March 23-24 and will explore everything from robotic reptiles to music made by machines.

"Art and science have become so separated, so divided. If you go back in time, to the Renaissance, to Ancient Greece, any center that had a boom of creativity had a boom of both art and science," Scaruffi said. "It's a modern thing that we created a very specialized society." Scaruffi, a native of Italy, studied mathematics at university and has done extensive work on artificial intelligence and cognitive science, published numerous books and is a prolific historian and critic of pop, rock, avant garde and jazz music, among other artistic endeavors.

The L.A.S.T. festival is an outgrowth of the popular LASER (Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous) series of lectures he founded back in 2008, which have since been expanded to cities and universities around the world. Though the talks have been successful, Scaruffi was not fully satisfied by the format.

"Art is meant to be experienced. Much of this is interactive, so artists giving a talk about it is sort of a contradiction in terms," he said. "Why not have a weekend-long event of art, science and tech where people can actually play?" Thus, the L.A.S.T. Festival, which usually involves a number of LASER alumni, was born.

"I pick the best speakers I know that are shaping our society today," Scaruffi said. The L.A.S.T. Festival seeks to break the "don't touch" taboo that surrounds many art installations and museum exhibitions by offering interactive, high-tech works for the public to encounter, in addition to live performances, workshops and the aforementioned lectures, with topics including artificial intelligence, machine learning, neuroscience, virtual reality, biomedicine and much more.

"I try to think, 'What are the topics that we really need to discuss?' Then I invite the best I can find; each one is a different story," Scaruffi said.

This year, the festival is connected to Stanford's "Frankenstein@200" initiative, a yearlong series of programs, classes and events celebrating the anniversary of Mary Shelley's seminal science-fiction monster story about creating life in a laboratory and its continued ethical, scientific and cultural significance.

Some of the scientists presenting at this year's festival, for example, will discuss the concept of "monsters," and what differentiates human consciousness from artificial. Some will cover the intersection between health care and technology, such as Michael Snyder, who will speak about wearable sensors that can predict and warn about illness.

Artist and professor emeritus Joel Slayton is the curator for the art exhibition portion of the festival. Though he's directed many exhibitions and arts organizations over the course of his career, he said that L.A.S.T. is something extra special. He kept a number of qualities in mind when selecting artists to be involved.

"I look for both emerging artists and mature established artists, and in this particular case there's the context of the national accelerator at SLAC, the context of the Frankenstein@200 Initiative," he said, adding that more than 20 exhibition artists, plus several performing artists, will be involved, most of them funding their own travel to the event and working out of interest in the nonprofit festival's ideas rather than for monetary gain.

All of the artists were asked to submit proposals that connected to the Frankenstein theme.

"The way that I framed that was to simply say that almost anything that we create can become monstrous. You hope for the best but you never know just how that will play out," he said. "The story of humankind is partly a history of all these twists and turns of technological innovation. All these artists are innovators, exploring this complex relationship of what it means to create something new and what the consequences are. I selected works that were mysterious and in some ways unpredictable."

One of the first he invited this year is experimental philosopher and conceptual artist Jonathon Keats, who's presenting a project called "Free Will (Placebo)," which involves setting up a dispensary on site and fulfilling prescriptions for "a placebo for free will that may be taken orally." This placebo "may or may not affect the way you view the rest of the festival," Slayton said. "It's an ironic but really beautiful concept and presentation."

Bio-artist Amy Karle will present her "Feast of Eternity," a 3-D print of a human skull that utilizes crystallization mimicking cell growth, which will "represent the mystery, delicacy and preciousness of life."

Kathleen Deck's "Re-thinking Extinction" introduces a robotic California desert tortoise called "Robo-tort," a mechanical reptile on a mission. The real tortoises are threatened with extinction thanks to human-created climate change and habitat destruction. Deck's "monster" tortoise, it is hypothesized, could aid its flesh-and-blood counterparts by helping them migrate to cooler climes, herding them northward.

Musical performances include work by percussionist Andrew Blanton, who sends audio drum signals through audience members' cell phones -- making each person a speaker in the show -- and Rob Hamilton and Chris Platz of Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).

The festival changes location each year, but this year's residence at SLAC, with its long history of scientific breakthroughs and continued importance as a site of innovation, makes it particularly intriguing.

"It's pretty amazing, this caliber of artists participating in something free and public," Slayton said, reflecting on L.A.S.T.'s growth over the past few years. "It started out small and it's turning into something else, much like Frankenstein," he laughed, "and nobody knows quite what."

What: L.A.S.T. Festival

When: Friday, March 23, 6-9 p.m.; Saturday, March 24, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Where: SLAC, 2575 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park.

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to L.A.S.T. Festival

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