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education & the arts


structures, strictures & students

melinda rackham: challenge & change in media arts education

Dr Melinda Rackham is an Adelaide-based artist, curator, writer and educator in the arena of emerging art practices.

Leo Clayton and Sam Doyon from their Advanced Techniques for Modern Living project, Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong Leo Clayton and Sam Doyon from their Advanced Techniques for Modern Living project, Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong
“A GENERAL ISSUE PLAGUING UNIVERSITIES TODAY, WHICH IMPACTS ON MEDIA ARTS, IS THE “COMPLIANCE CULTURE”—THANKS TO ENDLESS AND INCREASING GOVERNMENT REGULATION AND ACCOUNTABILITIES… BESIDES WASTING ACADEMICS’ TIME, IT MAKES PLANNING AND TEACHING LESS FLEXIBLE. IT ALSO APPEARS TO HAVE A STRANGE FLOW-ON EFFECT WHERE STUDENTS SEEM INCREASINGLY INFLEXIBLE IN THEIR EXPECTATIONS—AT LEAST INITIALLY. FOR MEDIA ARTS, THIS INFLEXIBILITY IS PARTICULARLY DETRIMENTAL, GIVEN THAT THE JOB SITUATION IS SO FLUID AND THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE, INCLUDING SOCIAL MEDIA, CHANGES SO QUICKLY.” NORIE NEUMARK

Last year, Lisa Gye’s article “sublimation vs subjugation” (RT104) looked at the changes brought about by the restructuring of the Australia Council Boards in 2005, which abolished the discrete funding field of New Media Arts. By interviewing academics who teach media Gye found that as an academic discipline, media art was “settling back into more established disciplines—Fine Art, Media and Communications, Design, Creative Arts and Science and Technology” and no longer considered “a monstrous hybrid struggling to find its place in the gallery or the museum.” Gye rightly concluded that “vigilance is required to ensure that the sublimation of media arts practices to the mainstream does not result in their subjugation.”

In 2012 I have extended her research with an open-ended question on the major issues facing new media arts education. Of the 16 key academics around the country who responded to my enquiries, the majority found, as Neumark succinctly describes, that wider issues are transforming teaching in this arena. Broadly speaking, the challenges in media arts education today revolve around institutional structures, discipline strictures, student expectations and the shifting role of the academic.

For Christian Haines (Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide), “Sound media or sonic arts education seems to be in a constant tension amongst a multitude of ideological and institutional forces where modes of pedagogy can be incompatible with sonic arts practice. In particular, the language and mode of teaching the aesthetics and practice of sound is contemporary and often amorphous, while the Western music tradition and its language has largely been formalised for at least over a century.”

Another “large conundrum” for Nancy Mauro-Flude (Tasmanian School of Art, University of Tasmania) is that “computer art and culture (software, hardware, networked media, operating systems) cannot be learnt in the usual three-hour slot allocated in an undergrad environment.” Mauro-Flude finds that institutional environments can actually inhibit experimentation and creativity due to proprietary software being taught as is, and security protocols limiting students intimate engagement with their means of production. Her teaching approach is to encourage students “to tinker...to open up machines and touch their inner parts.”

Studio practice taught in two-hour tutorial blocks is also problematic for Lisa Gye and Darren Tofts (Swinburne University) who “don’t actually teach a media art program as such, but ground our media arts and contemporary critical remix subjects within the context of an arts and humanities program.” At CQUniversity Steven Pace finds the “demand for greater efficiencies within the system puts educators under constant pressure to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, but that simply doesn’t cut it.”

Of course the problem isn’t just that existing structures don’t fit what can be termed new media/transmedia/digital media/computational media/programming/kinetic art/sonic arts/electronic media/robotics/bio art /interactive art/social media. Many faculties are rebuilding themselves around the unique challenges of these forms. Gavin Sade (Creative Industries Faculty, QUT) sees “ that while new media arts has struggled to find a natural home discipline within higher education, it is this very problem that points to its significance—and that is the way the practice of ‘new media arts’ has played a role in the development of a range of disciplinary-based practices and programs.”

With no wish to fashion a Media Arts empire, Brogan Bunt (University of Wollongong) agrees that disciplinary coherence is less interesting “than fostering points of disciplinary intersection and unsettling. The challenge is how to maintain this mode of being within a university environment that tends to prefer clearly delineated fields with straightforward (however illusionary) graduate employment pathways.”

Over the last year media arts in the school of art at RMIT where Martine Corompt and Ian Haig teach “has been combined into an area called Expanded Studio Practice, which covers areas like video art, animation, media art installation, emerging media and more traditional mediums such as painting and drawing. Being situated within a more traditional art school model has its challenges but also clearly establishes what we do within a fine art pedagogy and not a media communications, applied media or design course.”

Norie Neumark, in her role as Director of the new Centre for Creative Arts at La Trobe University has just led a year-long curriculum review resulting in “building exploration, openness and critical skills into the core of the curriculum and assessment, particularly in the early years. This way we build a Media Arts and Creative Arts culture where experimentation and flexibility are valued.”

One Giant Leap, Luke Mallie, Central Queensland University One Giant Leap, Luke Mallie, Central Queensland University


Mauro-Flude had her best results when she ran a winter-school ‘hot house’ of a “daily 10-day unit” rather than a weekly slot. “We are witnessing FabLabs and Hackspaces popping up in most institutions and ice-cream vans (Android software development) as a ‘must have.’ The Tasmanian School of Art is undergoing a renovation at the moment which has these things implemented and is possibly in the process of opening up departments for students to migrate and explore forms, which are inherent to the subjects in question.”

At The University of Sydney, Kathy Cleland in the Digital Cultures Program “focuses more broadly on the critical analysis of the cultural and social uses of new media and digital technologies in the Arts and Humanities area.” The Digital Cultures Program will amalgamate with the Department of Media and Communication in 2013. Due to substantial growth in student interest over the past five years, Chris Chesher states they are currently renewing the curriculum in the Master of Digital Communication “to reflect the growth in social media, mobile media, controversies in regulation, new literature and changes in careers in the broad digital media industries.”

A new sonic arts program has arisen from a re-structure at The Elder Conservatorium of Music to accommodate a broader, more inclusive understanding of the field of music and sonic arts. For Haines, “pedagogy in the sonic arts is vibrant and evolving as free and readily available tools and knowledge encourage the exploration of new aesthetic and conceptual ideas by students.” Mauro-Flude insists, “These days you don’t have to be a hardcore developer or programmer to build a custom application with free software.” Meanwhile Sade is seeing some of his best students sign up to free online tertiary courses from top international universities (eg www.coursera.org ) to augment their studies at QUT.

Bunt reminds us that when integrating media arts it is vital to maintain multiple points of access to “all manner of activities that involve communication, information, system, gaps, deferrals, delays.” Mauro-Flude set up a Temporary Autonomous Zone [TAZ] in her garage in Hobart to transfer an experiential, hands-on collaborative learning approach outside the institutional framework. The main objective of this ongoing venture is “to implement the ideas of a ‘free society’ in a daily practice of cultural and artistic production dealing with a holistic approach to technology and to develop a network of trust when learning new skills.”

 Breath, Jessica Green, South Australian School of Art, UniSA. Breath, Jessica Green, South Australian School of Art, UniSA. "This projection work focuses on the simplicity of breath an act that is so implicitly important and present in life. There is rhythm to this motion. Like the ocean tide"
For Mark Kimber (South Australian School of Art, UniSA) “the adage of ‘build it and they will come’ does not necessarily apply in education “considering the trepidation of all involved and the current fiscal tightness.” UniSA has media arts workshops within first year foundation courses to introduce new students to the possibilities of a range of mediums that they had previously not considered. “In our experience most of our students come to art school with a definite medium in mind but many do change their preference upon discovering other disciplines…which has pleasingly resulted in a marked increase in enrolments in our New Media courses.”

Corompt and Haig agree, “One of the biggest issues we have faced recently is in the awareness of a media arts practice to incoming students. Many secondary students have folios in painting and drawing, less so in media arts-based work it seems. It appears secondary school students if interested in media art and emerging media are often inclined to apply to a media and communications course and not a fine art course.” Haines concurs with “the need to develop secondary school level subjects to facilitate and nurture skill sets in the sonic arts/sound media arts and to do so in a manner that is able to readily adapt to a rapidly changing field.”

Pace acknowledges, “We’ve made a lot of progress in responding to the challenge of student diversity over the past 20 years, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.” This is particularly difficult at CQUniversity when working with distance education students who have no standard communication technologies or access to resources in their homes. Lucas Ihlein (UOW) finds a strong practice of blogging by students effective. Students update and upload on the progress of their own projects on a self-managed independently set-up domain on the university server, which “accelerates their critical-reflection cycle, and also helps cultivate a strong classroom culture.”

The way academics think about and engage with their students must change. Alan Dorin (Monash University) cautions, “As academics we need to resist the temptation to mould new electronic media artists to our own approaches with respect to the technology they employ, the way they employ it and the issues they address.” Dorin respects that the majority of incoming students “have spent their entire lives gaining familiarity with digital technology and its potential. The online environment is a part-and-parcel of growing up, so too are international networks of teenagers exchanging music, images, videos, software and techniques for working creatively.”

Gye and Tofts also see a shifting academic role. “Students also need to be sufficiently motivated outside of formal class time to pursue their own practice; so we need to also be adaptive to work they are also doing in their own disciplines.” Dorin continues, “We can show students the history of their media; assist them to place their own work in this wide context; encourage students to reflect on and critique their work, and that of their peers” and promote “active engagement with issues outside of the art world.” Haines, while ideologically differing from Dorin, supports the need for “pedagogical methodologies that permit rigour with respect to the theory and can counter some of the undesirable by-products of internet culture, such as the ‘mile-wide, inch-deep’ approach.”

Russell Fewster (UniSA) considers an “ensemble approach”—courses which focus on individual skill development within a group setting—as “essential for preparing new media artists for the future industry.” UniSA’s Media Arts Program promotes cross-program projects, cross-disciplinary production and performance techniques, with students also learning experientially by participating in professional industry projects driven by staff outside the university. This learning/research strategy works both ways as staff, although putting in time outside the curriculum and normal teaching hours, achieve a measured research outcome.

For institutions and program leaders around the country the main challenge, as articulated by Ihlein is that most of today’s students “will not be practicing as ‘artists’ in the sense we currently understand that term, so it can be difficult to know how to guide them into industries that are only just emerging.”

Media Arts is the tip of a global revolution that has changed modes of learning, communication, communities and expectations. Online learning is common, and in a networked education environment, the local university may not be perceived as the pinnacle of knowledge and research it once was.

To navigate these significant hurdles requires strong vision and a persuasive manner, coupled with a ready flexibility and passion for engagement with students.

Considerable thanks go to my correspondents for their generosity and insight in the composition of this article. I wish them well as they usher Media Arts education into the near future.

Dr Melinda Rackham is an Adelaide-based artist, curator, writer and educator in the arena of emerging art practices.

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 22

© Melinda Rackham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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