In the woods outside Seattle, technology fuses with art in hackathon-style ‘Electric Sky’ gathering

Tech-infused art projects from previous Electric Sky events, an annual gathering in Skykomish, Wash. (Electric Sky Photos)

Technologists and artists and anyone else who can appreciate the intersections where creativity is fostered are invited to head to the woods northeast of Seattle later this month for the fifth annual Electric Sky Art and Tech Weekend Retreat.

In a Skykomish, Wash., ballpark serving as a makeshift campground and hackathon setting, participants will work together to create tech-infused art relying on the natural environment, sound, light, video and more.

This year’s event, which runs July 25-28, is centered around a theme called “Bio Zoom,” and makers are encouraged to “explore how changing perspectives — whether through a microscope or a telescope — expose the beautiful, abstract, often fractal, repeating patterns of the universe.”

Shelly Farnham. (LinkedIn Photo)

Shelly Farnham, a senior UX researcher at Google who previously worked at Microsoft Research, is an artist and lead organizer of Electric Sky, a nonprofit, volunteer-led effort.

“A lot of the most innovative work that I see is happening at the intersection of art and technology,” said Farnham, who co-authored a paper that supports that claim, and who holds a Ph.D in social psychology from the University of Washington.

Farnham has learned some lessons through previous years of inviting people out to the small mountain town, including the fact that if you immerse people in a hackathon-style environment, they develop relationships and learn how to work together and collaborate. But the mix leans more heavily toward techies from both big companies and startups than it does toward artists.

“It’s actually been really easy to get the technologists to go because they’re really eager and excited to interface with artists,” Farnham said. “I would say it’s a bit of more of a challenge on the other end. There’s a difference in how [artists] approach or think about their work. They have a more proprietary feeling toward the production of their work.”

Technologists and artists are encouraged to collaborate and innovate in a hackathon-style setting at Electric Sky. (Electric Sky Photo)

Electric Sky, which culminates with a Saturday art show that is open to all, is designed to be a playful environment where people can learn and make mistakes. It’s also an incubator for projects that go on to be displayed in Seattle, including at the annual Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival.

Projects this year include a giant, walk-through kaleidoscope and a “river table” constructed by a woodworker using a CNC machine that relies on geographical survey data tied to the rise and fall of the Skykomish River.

“Northwest people are definitely more engaged with the environment than I would say the average tech community is, both at the art and technology end of the spectrum,” Farnham said. “Being able to in some way take the technology back out into the environment has actually been a pretty compelling experience for people.”

The natural environment is an integral part of the Electric Sky experience. (Electric Sky Photo)

The potential is also there for what’s created or at least considered at Electric Sky to make it back to the tech companies where some of the people work. Farnham is a big believer in the creative process, how people approach it and what it means for innovation.

“Both art and technology is really about coming up with something new and if you’re doing it effectively you’re innovating,” she said. “One of the predictors of people being successfully creative is their willingness to be exposed to new ideas, the sort of reshuffling of old ideas, exposing yourself to different fields and seeing how they frame problems. Can you adapt some of those ideas into your field?”

Learn more about how to get involved with Electric Sky and the weekend’s calendar of events here.