• Electronics for Artists, a Tisch School of the Arts Collaborative Arts major course, provides students from all disciplines with a foundation in electronics.
  • Students learn the basics of electricity, soldering, fabrication, and circuit prototyping.
  • In the first lesson of the class, “Intro to Magic Power,” students build a simple circuit.
A person slices into a cake covered with white fondant, which is illuminated from below by multicolored LED lights. The cake sits on a blue stand, with various wires visible in the background.
Senior Ray Chen cuts into a cake lamp at the start of the class. Photo by Tracey Friedman.

With a dramatic flourish, senior Ray Chen tips a large chef’s knife toward the ceiling before sinking it into a small white cake. The cake’s multicolored lights begin to pulse. Ray, a Communicative Sciences and Disorders major at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, watches as his fellow students gasp and clap.

“Do it again,” says a classmate sitting across the conference table. Ray obliges, and a different pattern of colored lights blinks.

“It feels like you’re conducting with a knife,” says Assistant Arts Professor August Luhrs (they/he). They snap photos on their phone. Luhrs is an interactive artist who earned a master’s degree in 2020 from the Tisch School of the Art’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.

It’s Weird Lamp Week in the Tisch course Electronics for Artists. Ray’s vanilla chiffon cake–lamp kicks off the presentations. Undergraduate student artists enrolled in this Collaborative Arts class take turns showcasing their light-emitting diode (LED) projects. First, there’s a traffic light desk lamp and a chandelier made with green bottles that light up to the beat of music. Next, there’s a flashing necklace and a blue floral hat embellished with strands of lights. Each presentation is met with applause and questions about the student artists’ processes, discoveries, and challenges.

A female-presenting person with a glowing flower crown is illuminated by blue lights in a dimly lit room. They are handling a strand of LED lights, creating a captivating and artistic scene.
Student Kally Hall lights her floral hat. Photo by Tracey Friedman.

Expanding Your Artistic Tool Belt

The department requires all Electronics for Artists students to take safety training at the start of the semester. Then, under Luhrs’ guidance, they learn the basics of electricity, soldering, fabrication, and circuit prototyping. These skills are the foundation for exploring how circuits can make music, move sculptures, illuminate a space, and create body-responsive fashion. Finally, the semester concludes with a gallery of student work.

“The goal is to expand students’ tool belts to include skills to help them make interactive art,” Luhrs explains. Specifically, the structure of the class provides time and space to brainstorm, make a prototype, test it, and then refine it.

“It’s more about art and performance than it is learning electrical engineering. How do we give them the tools necessary to implement their own creative vision, to deepen their own creative practice?” Luhrs says. “They are already artists, screenwriters, dancers. So how can tech augment those mediums?”

A person performing a dance or movement with illuminated LED light strips wrapped around their body in a dark room, creating a vibrant display of purple and blue light.
Student Xim Montes de Oca demonstrates her wearable art lamp. Photo by Tracey Friedman.

Leaning into “Sparkle Magic”

Luhrs starts the semester by having students build a simple circuit. He calls this first lesson “Intro to Magic Power.”

“It’s so absurd that we have this sparkle magic that exists all around us and we can hack into it. Maybe it will kill us, but maybe it will make art,” Luhrs laughs. “We start with lighting up a tiny LED bulb. Then, once students see it light up, I can also see the light bulb in their brain go off. It’s this feeling of: ‘Oh my God, I can do this. I don’t have to be an electrician. I can learn these principles and make something I didn’t think I could make before.’ It’s always exciting.”

Luhrs’ student artists represent a wide range of interests, from visual art and film to drama and business. The Monday afternoon classes move from lectures and discussions to practical experiments and workshops. Some workshops have the vibe of The Great British Bake Off, Luhrs notes, where everyone helps each other master a challenge.

“You know where the contestants look around and go, ‘Oh, you’re folding it three times instead of four?’ And then they start doing that themselves, and it starts to work, and they’re high-fiving,” Luhrs says. “There’s something so satisfying with this hardware. When you get something to work, you can feel like a wizard.”

The course aims to provide a foundation for creative exploration. However, learning new skills and having the space and time to discover new approaches will inform students’ practices for years to come. “I really believe that everyone is creative. But we often put boxes around what is good creativity and what is capital-A art,” Luhrs says. “So it’s nice when students can just throw some junk together and make it light up or make it move and be like, ‘Yes, it’s art.’”