“Is technology something that helps us or is useful to us, or is it something that can maybe be a bit more sinister?” According to Harry DeLorme, Telfair’s senior curator of education, this is the question being raised at this year’s PULSE Art + Technology Festival.

On Jan. 22, the Telfair Museum will host the opening night reception for this year’s annual PULSE Art + Technology Festival. The reception will kick off the week long event with a discussion panel featuring visiting artists Neil Mendoza, Alicia Eggert, and R. Luke Dubois. The panel will be followed by an audiovisual installation created by Savannah-based artist John Colette.

Originally conceived in 2007 as an “arts and technology week”, PULSE has evolved into an all all-ages festival that showcases artists’ creative uses of technology, and supports STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics] education. “PULSE encompasses exhibitions, lectures, gallery talks, youth programs and workshops and a free family day, highlighting artists locally and nationally who are working with recent technologies,” says DeLorme, who is also the curator and creator of PULSE.

The exhibitions at this year’s festival explore the various relationships between humans, machines, and nature. Through installations, videos, virtual reality, and interactive media, the artists are either demonstrating technology’s usefulness for creating positive change or commenting on the absurdity of technology in today’s society through their work.

“Each year we bring in new artists, new themes, and new technologies. Last year’s exhibition focused on a single artist, game designer Keita Takahashi. This year we have two exhibitions which take a look at two sides of technology,” DeLorme said.

The first exhibit, “Machines of Futility: Unproductive Technologies”, features machines created by artists that function in peculiar and nonsensical ways. One of the works being highlighted is Neil Mendoza’s “Robotic Voice Activated Word Kicking Machine” — an interactive audiovisual installation that uses robotics and projections to replicate verbal interplay between virtual and human voices. As the viewer speaks into the machine, their words become a projection. Those words are either “kicked” by a robotic foot or converted into sounds. The interaction is simultaneously surreal and eerily familiar due to the sounds and voices being reminiscent of everyday electronic devices. Mendoza’s piece is an examination of “our strange relationship with talking to machines”, an activity that has become normalized with the invention of virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa.

“The other exhibitions in our TechSpace focuses on artists who represent the natural world in projects ranging from interactive video to augmented reality, virtual reality and video games,” said DeLorme. This exhibit is entitled “Second Nature” and showcases artists that are demonstrating how technology can be useful in improving our understanding of the environment.

“Immanence,” an installation by new media artists Teri Yarbrow and Max Almy, uses augmented reality to convey the “cultural, spiritual, cosmological, historical and environmental importance of the ’tree’ throughout history.” Augmented reality, or “AR”, is a type of technology that superimposes digital imagery into a real physical environment. With “Immanence”, the physical part of the installation is a tree made from patinated waterjet cut copper and the AR is a blend of “still images, videos, 3D objects by Andy Atkins, and particle effects” that emanate from the tree.

“Immanence is based on the concept in physics called vibrant matter; that energy is in all matter, that there is an immanence of spirit in all things. Using an image of an ancient live oak as a metaphor or target image, energy pours out of it using augmented reality. AR frees the energy and liberates the stories hidden in the tree,” said Almy. The installation was inspired by Savannah’s old live oak trees, which play a crucial role in our local ecosystem. Through “Immanence”, Yarbrow and Almy aim to convey how important trees are for the overall health and future of our planet.

“Trees have sustained us throughout the ages and some scientists now say that the trees will help us save the Earth,” Almy said.

In addition to these exhibitions, PULSE will be debuting a new program on January 26th, the final day of the festival. The Telfair Museum has partnered with Deep Center, a local nonprofit that promotes youth literacy and art, to host a Youth Poetry Slam for middle and high schoolers. To keep in theme, students will perform their spoken word with interactive projections.

With themes of climate change and human versus machine interactions, attendees of this year’s PULSE can look forward to a thought-provoking and progressive display of technology and art.

“I think it’s an opportunity to experience immersive experiences that technology can provide, and to connect with other people in a highly interactive environment that you really can’t find elsewhere in Savanna,” DeLorme said. “I think it’s important to have programs like this in Savannah, to show that our city is facing the future, to highlight the creativity and talent in our own community, and to provide an opportunity for kids to learn how they can engage with technology creatively.”