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Art school redux: from oldest to newest

Keith Gallasch: Interview, Ross Harley, Dean, Art & Design UNSW

Segue, 2014,  installation view, Neil Brandhorst, a PhD student at UNSW: Art & Design Segue, 2014, installation view, Neil Brandhorst, a PhD student at UNSW: Art & Design
Sydney’s College of Fine Arts, a campus of the University of New South Wales, will take on a new name and new life on September 30 as UNSW Art & Design under the directorship of its Dean, the artist and writer Professor Ross Harley who has been shaping the rebirth of the campus over recent years. Not only will its new buildings be completed but there’ll also be a dedicated public space, its construction, Harley says, “facilitated by Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore.

Given the venerable age of the art school, Harley quips, “we’re the newest and the oldest art and design school in Australia.” He’s adamant, “We’re up there with the best and we’re thinking not just nationally but internationally—that’s where we think the next 10 or 20 years for the institution will take us. We want to be best in the world.”

International thinking

I ask what form this international thinking might take. “It’s about a trans-disciplinary approach to the big social, cultural, aesthetic and political problems of our day. Only artists and designers really have a sense of tackling that in the creative spirit we know art is all about. Art and design are at the core of the 21st century. They feed into so many other areas which need the benefit of an aesthetics approach.” Consequently international connections have been made with the likes of ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, and with Jeffrey Shaw, Dean of the School of Creative Media at Hong Kong City University. “We’re also working with the GLAM sector—galleries, libraries, archives and museums. We’ve appointed around 20 new academic staff in the last 12 months or so, attracting people we think are really world-class leaders.” Harley offers as an example Sarah Kenderdine, “who is partnering with many museums around the world from the Smithsonian to the V&A to major institutions in Hong Kong and China.

“She works in the area of digital cultural heritage. Sarah’s work is very high tech but it’s also embedded in the most ancient of cultures. For example she’s been working on a project with researchers, social scientists and archaeologists in the Dunhuang Caves in the north of China—the Mogao Grottoes, a series of over 200 caves which are of significant cultural heritage for Buddhism but also for China. The more the caves are visited, the more damage is done to incredible paintings and statuary. Sarah and a team of experts have scanned the caves in incredibly high resolution data that goes beyond the ability of the naked eye to see. Then she’s constructed augmented reality exhibitions where you can explore the caves away from the actual site. The demos of the work she’s been doing are mind-blowing.” Kenderdine, who has set up a laboratory on the campus— iGLAM, for Innovation in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums—is also with Museums Victoria.

Local partnerings

Harley adds, “We’re also putting in place significant partnerships with major cultural organisations in Sydney—MCA, Art Gallery of NSW, Carriageworks, Artspace, Powerhouse and the State Library—formal ongoing relationships where staff from our respective organisations have the ability to work across institutions. We also have particular projects we’re working on, for example we’ll partner Carriageworks on their 24 Frames dance film project. The artists in that program will be able to work with our academics and students and with our facilities. Similarly with Artspace, we’re looking at a program where visiting artists and scholars will reside at the Artspace studios and they’ll have a visiting fellowship with us, teach in our courses and have access to our facilities. I think that it’s in all of our interests to work more collaboratively in the sector.”

The 4-year integrated degree

I ask if the re-naming and the new buildings come with changes to degrees and courses. “We’ve now pretty much totally overhauled all of our degrees. We have four areas where we offer degrees: Fine Art, Media Arts, Design and Curatorial/Art History/Art Theory. In all of those areas we now have a four-year integrated Honours degree where students get training in a research-intensive university but also have work-integrated learning or internships and work experience structured into their third and fourth years. As well in the studio degrees—Design, Fine Art and Media Arts—students share a common first year for half of their courses and then they all come together again in the fourth year.”

As part of a more expansive view of the education of the artist or designer, the school will offer the opportunity for double degrees. “For example, you could be studying Fine Art in which you do one stream or major in Painting and the other one might be in Animation or Visual Effects that comes from another degree. Or you could do Graphic Design and a Media Arts stream and so on. Allowing students to really choose what they want to do has been a big change. And students are voting with their feet.” Harley sees the majority of students undertaking a four-year integrated program, the benefit residing in “students having enough time to really get their practice honed, to work in the industry and to develop research skills.”

Ross Harley
Ross Harley

photo Richard Glover
Combination opportunities

Even more expansive and opening up opportunities for innovation is “the offer of more dual award or combined degrees, for example Media Arts and Computer Science & Engineering, or Design and Commerce. You can take the BFA and also do the standard BA and major in Politics or Languages or whatever. We were surprised when we looked at the numbers this year: half our commencing students are doing dual award degrees. That’s what they want to do.”

Postgrad: getting to the essence

As for postgraduate studies and research, Art & Design UNSW “offers a postgraduate coursework degree and a two-year postgraduate Masters Degree. If you’ve done an appropriate Honours degree then you get credits for the first year of the Masters and you would complete the degree in one year. Then we have HDR (Higher Degree Research) students who do PhDs and MFAs. [In the US] they’re saying the MFA is the terminal degree, you don’t need a PhD. I think we’ve gone the opposite way, saying actually it’s the PhD that’s required because we know that in this multi- trans- or inter-disciplinary world you need to have research training and qualifications. So we’re doing a lot in the PhD space, particularly in what we call Research-led Practice rather than Practice-based Research. It might seem semantic, and probably is in some regards, but we think your practice can be led by your research. A lot of our students are making work that gets exhibited in all the ways you might expect, or not when it’s more innovative. They also write a thesis that informs that project. These degrees allow candidates to perform their research in a traditional and a non-traditional way so the work that you produce is not just an example of your theory but embodies the very essence of the new knowledge that you’re producing.”

Labs, studios, galleries

When it comes to discussing facilities and resources, Harley’s excitement is palpable: “That’s really the best story of all. We’ve got lots of new studios, laboratories and workshops as well as galleries. UNSW Galleries comprise three new gallery spaces over two floors taking up about 1,000 square metres of museum-grade exhibition space. We intend them to provide a platform for engagement with our research and what characterises the work we do.

“We’ve got a number of new laboratories: the IGLAM Lab, the Creative Robotics Lab, directed by Mari Velonaki, and the 3D Visualisation Aesthetics Lab, directed by John McGee “working on the visualisation of the body from an artist’s perspective. An aesthetic approach to the understanding of the body can be helpful for both patient and medical and health professionals.”

Motion capture session in Black Box, Art & Design UNSW
Motion capture session in Black Box, Art & Design UNSW

photo Britta Campion
Minds and hands

Among the new facilities, are “sound recording studios and brand new state of the art analogue film processing studios—so we have darkrooms and a wet lab. Some people say, ‘Really? Do students need to learn how to do black and white photography and how to do photograms?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I think they do.’ A new course Debra Phillips has put up is called From Photogram to Instagram. Students get to think more deeply about what an image is and how it’s produced, how light works and its relationship to science and chemistry. When you’re in a wet lab it’s all chemistry.” For Harley this corresponds admirably to the UNSW motto Scientia Manu et Mente, “Knowledge through Mind and Hands.” “For us,” he says, “thinking is a form of doing or making and making is a form of thinking. So we’ve got a lot of new maker labs including a new facility with 3D Rapid prototyping machines and soldering bays for working with Arduino, Fidgets and Raspberry Pie devices where you can bring programming and electronics together into a physical 3D maker world. That’s another really big part of the present and the future”.

What’s in a name?

Finally, I ask Harley about the re-naming of the school, which has stirred a modicum of public debate. “’Design’ has never been in the name and while I think the old name was very appropriate in 1989-90 when the art school came into the university, I think things have changed and this is the time for us to say very clearly we’re not a college [in the American sense as sub-university]; we’re part of the university and art and design is what we do. And it’s all kinds of art—media art, experimental art, anti-art, performance art, video art, art history, art theory, art thinking—and all kinds of design: media design, graphic design, environmental design, whatever. Art and Design go together hand in glove. It’s also a combination that has real resonance out in the world.”

UNSW Art & Design indeed resonates with the world: locally and globally, maintaining traditional skills, which now include the likes of photo-processing, side by side and integrated with new ideas, forms and techniques. Ross Harley exudes utter confidence in his ambitions for a wonderfully regenerated school, the oldest and the newest.

UNSW Art & Design [formerly CoFA, College of Fine Arts], Paddington, NSW

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 6,8

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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