Sachs Program grant-winner Saif Khawaja, W’21, wants to engage engineers and artists alike to experiment with electroluminescent artwork.

Saif Khawaja, W’21 — hopeful Physics & Astronomy major and musician-at-heart — dislikes formalities. He’s more comfortable with challenging convention: his upcoming student engagement project, for example, is blurring distinctions between hard science, the arts, and how people typically experience creative works.

“On very few campuses do people really fuse technology and art,” Saif said. Titled Electroluminescent Interactive Art & Music, his project won one of five grants in its category this year awarded by the Sachs Program of Arts Innovation, which funds and supports creative endeavors in the Penn community across all 12 schools. “I want to push people to understand that tech can be a part of art, too. There’s a lot of power you can give your art if you make it very malleable.”

In the fall, Saif will be designing a prototype for a “digital way to express art” that will allow the artwork to react to sound in its environment. The prototype will be electroluminescent — possibly a paint, made of a material that emits light in response to an electric current.

Thinking Outside the Box

Part of Saif’s driving philosophy is pursuing knowledge beyond traditional boundaries and having a passion for the research process. It’s what fueled his leisure projects as a high-schooler in Dubai: building a Tesla Coil, constructing hardware toys, and designing his own websites.

“Putting something in a box,” Saif believes, “is never conducive to exploring.” The concept permeates both his project approach and academic life. The inspiration for his engagement project spans rave culture, installations in the Institute of Contemporary Art, recent innovations in special printing inks, and a Penn electronic music class.

Although he’s currently studying Entrepreneurship & Innovation and Statistics at Wharton, he’s also here to learn life skills. “Business fundamentals give you [the] foundation to study more niche interests,” Saif said. “Your education is your education. What you learn is up to you.”

In the far future, he sees himself moving into entrepreneurship or venture capital, where he can work on companies and projects from the ground up.

Spirit for Experimentation

The idea to experiment with electroluminescence came to Saif last summer while attending a concert. There, a blacklight illuminated his glow-in-the-dark shirt to the beat of the music. He wants other people to feel the same kind of awe when they encounter interactive artwork for the first time.

“There are only so many things you can do with your hands in the real world,” he said. “The project is about giving people the power to explore beyond using their hands, beyond this dimension.”

Saif references research conducted by professors from Penn, Drexel, and MIT, whose interdisciplinary thinking stimulates his own. Already, there are Penn faculty members from the design, electrical engineering, and music departments interested in contributing to his project. Together with collaborating students, local artists, and musicians, Saif hopes that their ideas will gradually shape the project’s “guiding framework.”

He likens the process to ongoing research. “I don’t want people to be pulled down by thinking, ‘I don’t have a tech background’ or ‘I’m not artistic enough.’” Instead, they simply need a spirit for experimentation.

Saif is not ruling out any unexpected directions the project might take in the following months. From giving the interactive artwork personalities and language processing capabilities, to holding a concert where electroluminescent displays will be uniquely coordinated to the performing musicians — creativity, it seems, is the limit.

— Gloria Yuen

Posted: June 29, 2018

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