Gigantic corpse flowers take their name from the rotting stench they emit when they bloom—a two-day spectacle that happens once every few years. As for seeing or smelling one of these blooms in person, the likelihood is slim. Meanwhile, in a UC San Diego Department of Visual Arts research lab, an artist is creating life-size models of two varieties of the plant, which can grow to ten feet tall or more.
The purpose of this project is to explore ways of using emerging technologies to represent nature. This included the creation of two highly detailed, computer-processed, 1:1 reproductions of Amorphophallus titanum and Rafflesia arnoldii, which are both endangered species. To produce these models, the artist used a KUKA robotic mill that is guided by 3–D computer design and can carve complex forms.
The corpse flower project is one of many hybrids that have blossomed since the opening in 2012 of the Structural and Materials Engineering Building (SME) at UC San Diego. Equipped with cutting-edge technologies, SME is shared by the visual arts department and the Jacobs School of Engineering. In the months and years ahead, collaborations among engineers, visual artists, urban planners, computer scientists, and other specialists are likely to produce surprising new forms of art, analysis, and cultural intervention. A historical precedent is the famed Bauhaus movement in Germany in the early 1900s that brought artists, engineers, and architects under one roof. The result was modern architecture.
Planetaria, another hybrid effort at UC San Diego, relied on scholarly input from the Departments of Physics, Theatre and Dance, and Visual Arts for “Our Star Will Die Alone,” a multimedia presentation at the Without Walls (WoW) immersive theatre festival on campus in 2013. The musical score was composed in response to data derived from the wavelengths of light from a dying star.
In more terrestrial realms, interdisciplinary research in the visual arts department addresses the conditions and challenges of modern cities. At SME’s Center for Urban Ecology, architect, artist, and UC San Diego professor of visual arts Teddy Cruz is exploring how new synergies across engineering, architecture, urbanism, visual arts, and humanities can tackle global, socioeconomic, urban, and environmental issues through the lens of local and regional conditions. A recent workshop focused on waste and adaptive urbanization at informal settlements in Tijuana. Field trips on both sides of the border enabled participants to engage key community-based nonprofit organizations on issues of poverty, environmental degradation, and socioeconomic injustice.