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Raleigh Art Exhibit Sees, Feels And Responds To You

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Karolina Sobecka, Sniff, 2009, Rear projection CG dog, custom computer software. Courtesy of the artist At most museums, you look at what's on display, maybe read about it, and move on. But imagine an exhibit that's completely dependent on you, the visitor. That's the case at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh. It's called "Born Digital." The exhibit uses cameras and computer software to see and respond to your actions. Similar exhibits are also on the radar of some Charlotte museums. Before you even walk into the museum, you're already interacting with the art. In the front window right next to the door, there's a computer-generated dog waiting to greet you. It'll follow you, hop around on its hind legs, and sometimes it'll even bark. Then once you open the front door, you enter a high-tech world that's a far cry from traditional art galleries. Elysia Borowy-Reeder is the museum's executive director and the curator of "Born Digital." "At museum settings, the mantra is: 'Do not touch.' Well here, we encourage people to interact and touch," said Borowy-Reeder. That's right - you're supposed to touch some of the art. As an example, Borowy-Reeder led a tour to a little, hanging garden. Dangling from wooden rafters are six living plants, their long stems stretching toward the ground. Above the rafters are speakers hooked up to the plants. This is where it turns kind of magic. "The plants pick up on your aura, and when you touch them, you can make an interactive, musical plant concert," Borowy-Reeder said. "So you really have to step into the exhibit to get the plants singing." The small tour didn't hesitate, and the garden immediately turned into a cacophony of musical notes - some soft, some screeching. The loudest sound came when one visitor hugged a plant. "I think it feels the love," Johmachiel James laughed. He drove from Wilmington with his wife, Brandi, to experience "Born Digital." She reached for another plant. "It's already making noise and I'm not even touching it," Brandi James said. "Then as I touch it - yeah," she laughed as the music intensified. "You can hear when I touch it because it actually gets a little bit louder." French artists created the piece. It's called "akousmaflore," and this is its American premiere. Scenocosme's Akousmaflore installation, 2011. Mixed Media. Courtesy of the artists. Think of "Born Digital" as the natural evolution of art. As technology changes, so does art - and the artists. Dennis Rosenfeld is an example. He's one of a handful of artists behind the exhibit. He's been doing computer programming for a decade but just got his art degree a few years ago. "Art is expanding," Rosenfeld said. "It's not like people are putting down their paint brushes. But this is a growing category that will become part of the broader idea of what art is." Rosenfeld said a program to teach that kind of art wasn't available when he got his degree, but he thinks it will be at art schools across the country in 10 years. That could lead to exhibits like "Born Digital" in a lot more museums. "We are extremely interested in doing something along those lines," said Hillary Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Mint Museum in Charlotte. "Our mission is to be one of the leading, most innovative museums in the country, and in order to do that, technology is going to play a big role," Cooper said. Another Charlotte museum, the McColl Center for Visual Art, had an interactive exhibit a couple years ago that used some of the same technology as "Born Digital." A spokeswoman for the McColl Center said the exhibit had one of the most crowded openings she's seen. She said the museum wants to put on a similar exhibit in the future, but there's nothing immediately planned. The Contemporary Art Museum's executive director, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, said producing that kind of exhibit creates challenges for a museum. "Born Digital" wasn't cheap - it cost more than $70,000. And as with anything high-tech, there were plenty of kinks to work out. "It takes a lot to present these shows because it's such new technology," Borowy-Reeder said. "And there isn't a quick answer - how do you display it, how do you explain it to a visitor? People need to know what to do and what they should get out of it." So the museum brought in some outside help - middle school students. "This piece is called disruption, and what it does is there's an infrared camera that tracks visitors' movements," said Clara, an eighth grader and docent at "Born Digital." (The museum prefers the middle school docents only use their first names.) Nicole Welch is in charge of the middle school docents. She said the museum got the idea because those kids grew up in the digital age. "All of this kind of experience, having technology that interacts through your movement, these are all things that come kind of second nature to these young people," Welch said. The middle school docents aren't always around, but they'll lead a few more public tours: Friday, Feb. 3 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Friday, March 2 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Clara, one of the docents, said the best part of her job is watching how much people get into the art. "Seeing adults flap their arms and pretend they're birds or twirl around or juggle the balls - it's definitely a lot of fun," she said. In a way, "Born Digital" is a chance for everyone to be a kid, Clara said. As the cutting-edge art becomes more common, more museums will give visitors that chance. The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a collaborative effort of WFAE, the Charlotte Observer, WCNC-TV, QCityMetro.com, Charlotte Viewpoint and UNC-Charlotte to enhance arts coverage in our region.