‘Unhangeable art’ at Paseo festival hinges on science

As one of the organizers of The Paseo said, artist-led workshops in the schools "breaks the gap" between the arts and the sciences, offering one-of-a-kind learning experiences from Ranchos to Questa.

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Kyle Evans grew up in Texas playing in a punk rock band, but Thursday morning (Sept. 24), he was at Taos High School teaching a handful of students about transistors, resistors and capacitors — just one of the many workshops led by performance artists in schools as part of the second Paseo art festival.

Evans gave the students a several cathode-ray tubes, or old bulky TVs made in the age before everything was digital. Their job was to use circuits, switches and coiled wires to hack the TVs, transforming them from second-hand junk into integral parts of Evans’ art instillation, de/RASTA.

In 2009, Agnes Chavez, one of the directors of the Paseo festival, created STEMarts Lab, a local organization that “breaks the gap between disciplines,” that is, between the arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

While STEMarts Labs has been around Taos for six years, bringing education to the fore was a central focus for the second year of the Paseo.

From Ranchos Elementary to the schools in Questa, Paseo and STEMarts Lab put local students and artists from around the world together in the days and weeks leading up to the Paseo, aiming to put schools’ educational goals to work in the context of innovative and unpredictable problem solving, AKA —art.

“It’s all an exploratory thing,” Evans told the class at Taos High School.

Explaining the difference between digital signals and analog transmission, he said “As an artist, you want to work with the most malleable materials.” For him, that’s analog TV and its beam of light that’s easy to manipulate.

As Chavez told The Taos News, the labs make kids “active creators in the art itself.” Like art, Chavez said education should have the same thread of hands-on and occasionally messy problem solving.

Performance art is built around concepts, she said, in much the same way science uses its theories and principles to continuously innovate and create.

While the high school students hacked the TVs, younger kids at Anansi Charter School played with petri dishes while learning about the curious world of bioluminescence.

Artist Abbey Hepner worked with glow-in-the-dark algae, which use the compounds luciferin and luciferase to light up in the night or the dark belly of the ocean, she explained.

As the students mixed together the compounds in the completely dark classroom, they shouted out their observations — “it’s like a flashlight,” “this thing gets dimmer and dimmer every second,” and “now it’s just normal.”

Volunteers walked around the room to talk about what the kids saw and what that means in the science they’d been studying.

But with the concepts under their belt, each were handed three petri dishes filled with gelatinous agar. Carefully (and in some cases not-so-carefully), the kids drew pictures into the soft material with the bioluminescent algae.

By Friday, when the petri dishes were put on display at the Paseo as part of Hepner’s installation, the bacteria had grown, bridging the kids’ science experiment with the artist’s vision of unhangeable art.

Other schools took on even more elaborate projects, using both high- and low-tech mediums. Students at Taos Integrated School of the Arts learned how to project video perfectly onto any surface, even a coffee cup.

Students from Taos Middle School flew drones during the Paseo itself, helping to document the event while using the live feed as art, too. And students at Enos Garcia Elementary worked with two artists from the East Coast about watersheds and how to represent ecosystems in low-tech art using twigs and branches.

The labs were a brief blip in the curriculum — ephemeral, like the performance art of the Paseo. But harnessing the power of experimentation and discovery is a lesson worth a lifetime.

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