An Art Hacker’s Digital Dream: An Interview with Stefanie Cohen

An artist’s view of the world is completely their own. Art is personal, unique to the eye of the beholder. And while typically art and science don’t come together often, 23-year-old Stefanie Cohen is obsessed with fusing the two.

Stefanie, who is finishing her masters in bioengineering at the University of Maryland this May, has set herself apart in an otherwise male-dominated field. Stefanie’s passion for both art and science has inspired her to create an art hack that landed her a place at South by Create (SX Create), part of South by Southwest (SXSW), in March 2016. SX Create has diverse activities that make the community showcase interactive for both creators and visitors alike.

Stefanie’s goal is to change the way art is created and how people experience art through the use of electronics. She mainly uses paint, but some of her projects are completely digital. She uses hardware such as LED lights to do things like animate paintings.

“We are viewing art in a different way because it is changing,” Stefanie tells us, “and because of the way it is changing, we can now create art with sound frequencies.”

At SX Create, Stefanie premiered her art hack, a record printer. Stefanie created a program to analyze the frequencies and intensity of the music being broadcast by the printer. She sampled the music at different moments and, depending on the frequencies, a different color of paint would be expelled onto a platform that held a canvas.

“I made the canvas rotate so it would look like a record,” Stefanie says. She even prints on real records, creating abstract pieces from the frequencies and intensity.

“It was basically a 2D printer that used paint instead of ink,” she explains.

Stefanie had been to SX Create the previous year as a first time visitor.

“I was in love. It was all makers and it was perfect, so I decided randomly in October to apply,” Stefanie says.

By the time she heard back in January, she had almost forgotten about it.

“I had to build all my stuff for it,” she admits.

But once she had constructed her idea into reality, the reaction Stefanie got at SX Create was beyond what she had hoped. Visitors were astonished when she explained that the painting is controlled by the music.

Stefanie remembers, “[everyone] had a great reaction to what I was doing and I got to meet really interesting people.”

However, that’s not all Stefanie has been up to, technologically speaking. In November 2015, Stefanie attended Technica, an all ladies hackathon at University of Maryland.

“Promoting women in tech excited me and I wanted to be involved in some way that was more than just hacking,” she tells us.

It was at this event that she decided to do something huge by involving drones.

She created Drone Pollock, named after Jackson Pollock and his style of paintings. Drone Pollock is an IOT (Internet of Things project), that uses a drone with a cup of paint on top of it that does a flip over a canvas. Over the internet, anyone could input coordinates that would make the drone drop the paint to create a splatter painting. A lot of hard work went into Stefanie’s project.

“It was a week of all-nighters where I thought I wasn’t going to get it done, but I did,” she says.

Stefanie wrote an article about the “insane experience” of creating this project. Over 200 people around the world gave coordinates for the Drone Pollock project.

“I had no idea how drones work, so I had to figure out my skill set and what I could achieve. It was an incredible experience to play with technology and learn,” Stefanie says. She got to see people’s reaction to Drone Pollock at SX Create.

“When I explained to people that the drone is controlled over the internet, the reaction from the visitors was, ‘that is so cool!’” she shares.

Despite Stefanie’s love for both art and technology, she’s found that being a woman in the bioengineering field is not easy.

“I think one of the biggest things I still go through and have to get past is being a woman in tech, and also a woman in the engineering field. We, as women, receive a lot of microaggression,” she tells us.

But the impact that woman like Stefanie can make is why she is pursuing projects and ideas in the bioengineering field.

“This field is so cool and is also advancing technology and healthcare. The impact that you can have on so many people in the world is why you have to put the aggression behind you,” she says.

Stefanie loves that she gets to spend her time making really cool and interesting work, and she is grateful for the opportunity.

“I want to be a part of advancing healthcare around the world and encouraging other women to have the same impact,” Stefanie says.

Stefanie draws her artistic inspiration, not from a modern day celebrity but an ancient one— Leonardo da Vinci.

“My favorite artist is da Vinci because he was an artist and also an engineer, which is so cool and so me. That’s what I’m inspired by!” she tells us.

Overall, the message that Stefanie wants to spread is an appreciation for her craft.

“I want people to start to appreciate art and sciences. There is this notion that art doesn’t have as much worth, but by doing these art hacks I am exposing how people can work together among different fields and create something great. And that’s what I want to do.”