A new interactive art exhibit at Keuka College marries traditional artistic mediums with new technologies.


In 1967, theorist Marshall McLuhan published his classic work with its signature theme “the medium is the message.”

Artists Liz Brownell of Victor and Barron Naegel of Rochester see compelling parallels in their own exhibit, which uses a first-generation iPad to introduce viewers to a fusion of old and new technologies and new approaches to art and work.

The exhibit, “Reconfiguring Another Way,” runs through March 2 at Lightner Gallery in Lightner Library, with an artists’ reception, open to the public, scheduled for Thurs. Feb. 23, from 4:15-6 p.m. The exhibit features many of Naegel’s limited-palette drawings and Brownell’s layered mixed-media designs alongside their signature creation: PORTOISE.

Last year Naegel and Brownell received a $500 “SOS” grant, or special opportunity stipend, funded through New York State’s Council on the Arts (NYSCA), to purchase a first-generation iPad and other art supplies used in creation of PORTOISE, which is taken from the words “portal” and “tortoise.”
The three-foot wide sculpture, resembling a sea tortoise, houses the iPad, which is programmed with a variety of apps and artistic works conceived by Naegel and Brownell.

“The whole thing is a portal to another dimension of creativity and working,” Naegel explained, “a tongue-in-cheek nod to an old version of silica (clay). New technology is heavily based in ways of working with silica.”

According to Brownell, “people can fear new technology a lot of the time, so we wanted a less ‘threatening,’ tangible way for people to interact with it.”
As such, one of the works young children may enjoy discovering on PORTOISE is the Sesame Street e-book, The Monster at the End of This Book, which Brownell raves is a favorite of her own children. The furry blue puppet, Grover, serves as narrator and guide as pages of the book turn onscreen.

Both Brownell and Naegel are art professors at Finger Lakes Community College. Brownell has been working in mixed media since graduating from college in 1992, and said she had been eager to explore a new medium: video. PORTOISE also includes video shorts Brownell built in Photoshop and edited in iMovie, accompanied with the electronica music of David McGuire, another FLCC professor.

At one gallery, where the work has shown before, the curators opted to have McGuire’s music playing continuously throughout the exhibit.

“Barron and I listened to two albums over and over again and I built the imagery to go with the music,” Brownell explained, using the touchscreen to pull up one of McGuire’s compositions, Ancestors Around Us. As such, her design of that particular mini-movie was “more a reaction to the music and the theme.”
PORTOISE also contains a popular app, Sketchbook Pro, which enables a user to interact and draw with the software.

Naegel pointed out that one should not lose sight of what the predecessor to a technology has been. For example, the predecessor to a stylus and computer touch screen is pencil and paper, he said.

“If they don’t have a sense of respect for the tool that came before, [making new art] is not going to work. It’s not a sense of one supplanting the other, but synthesizing, working together. The notion of throwing out one [artistic medium] for the other is not productive. We both believe the philosophy that you need both.”

Indeed, PORTOISE is not showcased alone, but included among other “still” works of both artists. Some of Naegel’s drawings, done both in traditional media, or on Sketchbook Pro, will be on display, as well as sculptures – many featuring book-like elements—and the original small-scale prototype for PORTOISE, which he crafted when the two first applied for the grant.

Similarly, one of Brownell’s mixed-media designs uses fingerprints and portions of McLuhan’s text to prompt a viewer to think about what his or her story might be.

“In getting people to think about what we [define as] a book, now there‘s a new kind of book, a new way of [presenting and sharing] books, but does that change what the book is?” asked Brownell.

While both artists would like to share PORTOISE with more people at other venues, they are already thinking of how to improve and “upgrade” the experience, as well as the works created on it. Naegel said a second-generation iPad would add a few more “bells and whistles” to the experience, given the iPad 2 has more memory storage to hold more videos or other intereactive art, and features a web cam too.

“As you’re working on it, you see areas you want to improve, re-work and modify,” Naegel said. “Making this, we’re already thinking of the next generation, not of the iPad, but of PORTOISE.”