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Rich Dionne: It is exciting to see Purdue embrace students' creativity


Fall 2019 | By CLA Staff. Photo by Contributed.


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Rich Dionne's work meshes the creativity of the arts with technological innovation.

The clinical associate professor and technical director in the Rueff School of Design, Art, and Performance is part of an ongoing collaboration with choreographers in the Dance Division that allows performers to control the onstage lighting through the use of motion sensors. Among his many other responsibilities, he also works closely with the department's theatre engineering students, helping them gain hands-on experience in projects like Purdue Theatre's spring production of She Kills Monsters that can help them land jobs in the entertainment industry.

In this conversation with THiNK Magazine editor David Ching, Dionne describes what it's like to work at the intersection of art and science at Purdue:

Q: How do you describe the work that you do at Purdue?

A: My personal work sort of lives in this nexus of art and technology. I’m interested in control systems, a little bit of machine learning and automation and finding ways to apply that to live entertainment in ways that can change how we think about what is a production and how does a production work.

The work that I’ve been doing with some colleagues in the Dance Division in embedding sensors on costumes and having them choreograph work that utilizes those sensors to communicate and enter a dialogue with lighting and sound technologies during the performance is a key part of that. I think it’s really exciting because it has the potential to change what it means to be a choreographer, what it means to be a lighting designer, and what it means to have an aural and visual landscape for a performance. The performance itself and the landscape, the way we approach it right now, those inform each other, but aren’t connected. So to be able to put technologies in place to connect those things is really exciting for me.

Then very much related to that is my academic work, particularly with the multidisciplinary engineering major – finding ways for students to have an academic path that links those two things together in ways that are recognized and valued in both fields. Having an engineering degree that is embedded in and informed by theatre academics that engineers respect, and vice versa. I think that’s really exciting and has attracted the attention of a number of universities in the entertainment field. We’re hearing that folks want to do that, and we certainly know that students want to do that. We have more students interested than we could possibly serve every year.

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Q: What do you find fulfilling about doing work that integrates art and science?

A: It’s, particularly in the academic arena, the excitement that the students bring and the potential for being there when they discover something new. Not just something new for them, although that’s super-exciting, but the potential for them to discover something new that the field or the industry hasn’t thought of. And then personally as a technologist, as an artist, to find ways to change the way we think about the work. That’s really what is exciting to me is how can I give tools to a designer or a director or a choreographer or performer to amplify or change the direction of their work.

Q: What are you working on currently?

A: I think the main things I’m working on are the things we’ve discussed. We’re looking at new ways to start thinking about integrating machine learning or artificial intelligence in the sensors project for dancers so that it becomes more of a dialogue and less of a control system between the performers and the technology.

Q: Is there something unique about Purdue that makes it an inviting place to do this kind of work?

A: I think there is something unique about Purdue. That’s why I’ve been here 15 years, arguably in the face of some real challenges and difficulties about being here. You can’t deny the caliber of the students who are here. They’re smart, they’re driven, they work hard, and they’re excited. That’s one.

It’s Purdue. It’s a hugely influential and impactful STEM and engineering school. So to have access to those minds on campus, even if we don’t collaborate, I’ve had a chance to meet with a number of folks from different engineering fields about their research. Even if it’s hearing them say, ‘Oh, well we’re exploring this,’ that opens up a door to me thinking about things differently, and that’s exciting.

I don’t know that we trumpet it enough, but the arts on campus are fantastic. My colleagues in art and design, and dance, and music, and theatre are nationally or internationally recognized and do strong work. Many of them are very much interested in this intersection, so there’s lots of room for collaboration and exploration. That’s what makes it wonderful.

Q: What kind of changes have you observed in this area in higher education and how do you see things changing in the future?

A: I think that in the last five years, at Purdue in particular, the recognition that that intersection is an interesting place to live and work has really blossomed. I can’t say that 10 years ago people recognized on campus that that intersection was a worthwhile place to live. But that has really changed in the last five years and there seems to be a lot of excitement at all levels, from the president all the way down, and certainly the students are interested.

I’m not an ethnologist or an anthropologist. I don’t know all the reasons behind it, but I’ve noticed students are far more interested in, ‘What can I do with technology that’s not design another airplane or design a rocket ship or design another bridge? I want to do something interesting and exciting.’ Something has changed where students want to express themselves in some kind of creative manner or create something new. I’m excited to see that Purdue is embracing that.