A feature article in the November 9 issue of the East Bay Express explores Professor Ken Goldberg and his work integrating art and engineering.
East Bay Express: Back before people started sorting each other into “left-brain” and “right-brain” types, humanity loved a well-rounded nerd. These were guys like Aristotle (philosopher, zoologist), Leonardo da Vinci (artist, engineer), and Ben Franklin (inventor, statesman), who were equally at home with the physical sciences and the world of arts and letters. They were good at everything, and that was cool.
But the age of the polymath eventually ceded to the modern era of the überspecialist, where scholars are under pressure to do one thing and do it well. Such is the division between arts and sciences that many of the world’s brightest minds rarely share a campus, much less a common technical language or funding source. It’s not antipathy or even lack of curiosity. Nonetheless, the humanities and sciences have become like awkward adolescents at the junior high prom, staring at each other across the gym, waiting to see who has the guts to venture across the floor and ask someone to dance.
UC Berkeley professor Ken Goldberg not only keeps crossing that gymnasium floor, he has pretty much set up camp at half-court. There are not many people who can pull down half-million-dollar awards from the National Science Foundation for cutting-edge engineering research, and also be invited to show at the Whitney Biennial, a revered exhibition hosted by Manhattan’s Whitney Museum of American Art. There are even fewer who accomplished both with robots.
By vocation a professor of industrial engineering and computer science, by avocation a pioneer of Internet-based robotic art, the 44-year-old Goldberg maintains two résumés, two sets of students, two kinds of scholarly publications, and two fan bases. There are undergrads in his database-design classes with no clue their professor has a life beyond advanced number crunching, and there are grad students who have moved across the country to collaborate with Goldberg on his art projects. He describes the constant switching between his two modes of thought as a sort of perpetual cognitive dissonance — albeit an enjoyable one. “I can be the most optimistic gung-ho engineer one day and then be the very cynical critical artist an hour later,” he says. “I kind of go back and forth. There’s never this synthesis, but I like that. Sometimes I feel creatively just drained and then I can go work on a research paper or work on a problem that’s equations.”
But straddling the two worlds has its challenges. Goldberg’s colleagues, for one, haven’t always known what to make of his double life; nor, in fact, has he. If the engineer’s impulse is to embrace technology, and the artist’s is to critique it, then what happens when you are both?