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Utopia within, across & beyond the university

Martyn Jolly, Denise Ferris, Alistair Riddell: Visual & Media Arts

Martyn Jolly, Head of Photography & Media Arts, Denise Ferris, Head of School, and Alistair Riddell, Lecturer in Sound Art and Physical Computing, are staff members of the Australian National University School of Art.

 Matt Higgins, Master of Philosophy candidate, Photography and Media Arts, ANU School of Art, Untitled, chemigram, 2013, detail Matt Higgins, Master of Philosophy candidate, Photography and Media Arts, ANU School of Art, Untitled, chemigram, 2013, detail
The invitation from RealTime to ‘think utopian’ lobbed into our email inboxes with startling precision. We feel as though we’ve been down in the educational trenches for so long, only putting our heads above the parapet occasionally, that an invitation for long-term wish lists of new ways to encourage and enhance creativity seemed like a pretty but fragile present delivered from far away.

Utopian beginnings

But of course art schools, despite all the obvious constraints and compromises, still are utopian, or perhaps quixotic, places in which to teach and learn, because the outcomes of creativity are so precious but elusive. We were reminded of this, even before the RealTime invitation, because this year is Canberra’s Centenary, so there’s been much activity celebrating the historical ideal of the city, which was itself in part a utopian project, as well as the history of the ANU School of Art going back 40 years. For instance last semester we had two visiting artists from the UK, Neil Bromwich and Zoe Walker, working with students from across the school’s various workshops on a performance called Art School Anecdote, that celebrated the school’s philosophical roots in the Bauhaus tradition as well as its place in the community; and this semester performance artist Barbara Campbell is working with a different school-wide group of students on RE:ACT which will ‘reactivate’ the historically significant ACT3 performance event, which took place at the School in 1982.

Art school spirit

Seen in this longer historical duration the big deal about art education remains that it is now a thoroughly university education. We have now been an academic unit within the Russian doll of the university system, as opposed to a stand-alone institution, for over half our history. Nonetheless the ANU School of Art today still looks, feels, sounds and smells like an art school, and that sense of a complete creative environment has to be part of any future. It has its own culture where students still spend big chunks of time in the studio, or darkroom or lab, working with their bodies, hands, muscles or brains on detailed, skills-based processes, within disciplines that they feel part of as artists.

The studio as utopia

Our students still engage with materials, be they virtual or physical, and deal with the specific qualities and resistances of those materials. We recite the mantra of ‘studio-based teaching’ so many times that we forget how profound it is, but it has to be the bedrock of any future utopia. Our utopia would therefore still encourage students like master’s student Matt Higgins, who has revived an arcane photographic process called the chemigram, where through the successive application of photographic chemistry, as well as various resists, to photographic paper, either an extraordinary tessellated, lapidary surface is built up, or a remarkably illusory space of abstract 3D forms and swirls is created. This intense, concentrated, studio-based work has not only produced jaw-dropping images (‘How did you do that?,’ people are always asking) but has also led to Matt forming international networks across Europe and the US, linking some of the older generation of ‘chemigramists’ from decades ago with younger artists such as himself on collaborative workshops.

Erica Seccombe, PhD candidate ANU School of Art, Grow: visualising nature at nanoscale Erica Seccombe, PhD candidate ANU School of Art, Grow: visualising nature at nanoscale
courtesy the artist
The transdisciplinary studio

But disciplines aren’t silos. We’ve also been saying that our teaching encourages ‘multidisciplinarity’ or ‘interdisciplinarity’, or ‘transdisciplinarity’ for so long that we tend forget the future implications of those sometimes glib throwaway lines, which are unfolding right now. The future of interdisciplinarity isn’t so much the simple partnering of artists, or the combining of skills or the translation of forms from one medium to another, it is the fundamental integration of creative spaces—‘studios’ if you like—across wide stretches of creative interest. This can only happen in a university, where there are also creative people down in their own Russian dolls elsewhere, in computer science, applied mathematics, physics, music performance, anthropology, archaeology and so on. Increasingly we are seeing collaborations not only between interdisciplinary students and researchers, but within transdisciplinary spaces.

One such space is custom software called Drishti, developed by the ANU Department of Applied Mathematics, which enables researchers to view virtual microscopic data recorded over time in three dimensions. Visual arts PhD candidate Erica Seccombe has a background in printmedia, but she is now testing the limits and possibilities of this virtual 3D data visualisation in Drishti. In Grow: visualising nature at nanoscale, she has been using 3D microscopy and x-ray tomography to capture the very moment agricultural seeds germinate in three-dimensional, time-lapsed, x-rays. Erica has been working integrally within this leading research group of applied mathematicians and computer visualisers over several years and has mastered the Drishti environment in close dialogue with the software engineers who have also continually developed and refined it. By ‘controlling,’ ‘sculpting’ or ‘moulding’ the data parameters, Erica is producing a work where her audience experiences the moment a seed comes to life in an up-close and personal way they have never experienced before. They not only see the outside of the seed develop as they might with conventional time-lapse photography, but because it is x-ray data they see the internal structure of the seed grow at the same time.

Why seeds? Her project is a response to a prediction of future food shortages due to the environmental crises of global warming and overpopulation. She says, “Our culture grew out of the human ability to harvest and grow seeds for crops, so seeds really are symbolic of what we understand as progress. However, without the natural environment we are nothing, so I think it is crucial to understand the importance of plant conservation. There is a growing understanding that contemporary installation art can provide phenomenological experiences in a way that the hard facts of science cannot. In the digital age it is scientific research and emerging technologies that provide us with a new way of looking at the world. As an artist I’m tapping into that development but resolving the work with an artistic research question, not a scientific one, and this perspective should be considered equally valuable.”

Ursula Frederick, PhD candidate ANU School of Art, Back seats Ursula Frederick, PhD candidate ANU School of Art, Back seats
courtesy the artist
Trained as an archaeologist and artist Ursula Frederick has just submitted a PhD project on the contemporary archaeology of car culture. Her work seamlessly incorporates tried and tested archaeological techniques and methods, visual anthropology, documentary photography and fine art formal strategies (the grid), in an efficiently integrated transdisciplinary package which would have been hard to imagine as either ‘art school’ or ‘archaeology department’ project 20 years ago, but is becoming more and more commonplace now.

Studio togetherness

The ongoing moment of performance is also being returned to as a transdisciplinary space. Spontaneous and ephemeral creativity, like the repetitive and consistent techniques of the studio, has become a rallying point for explorations between technological innovation and human expression. Ben Swift, a research fellow from the ANU School of Computer Science, asked the question: could the moment in musical performance understood as ‘groove’ be identified in data? Most musicians or performers have vivid memories of that moment in a performance when the shared experience is at its most sublime. It is the consequence of a ‘togetherness’ that is all but indescribable. Using Ben’s custom musical instrument, an iPod Touch App, students from the Schools of Art and Music ‘jammed’ over a number of sessions acquiring both expertise and a shared aesthetic that resulted in moments that were clearly greater than the sum of the parts. The sessions established that the intimate tactile experience of music-making with the touchscreen devices still provided the opportunity to ‘groove’ as musicians.

The studio looks outwards

The utopian vision we have is still ‘studio based,’ still intense and focused, and still potentially across disciplines. And in universities, despite all the current angst, other disciplines—in the performing arts, in computer science, in the hard sciences and in the social sciences—are looking outwards as well. We are all now looking not just for others to ‘interpret’ or ‘present’ our work, but to share creative spaces. Researchers are leading the way, but this future is working its way down through shared graduate and undergraduate courses, and through combined degrees.

Martyn Jolly, Head of Photography & Media Arts, Denise Ferris, Head of School, and Alistair Riddell, Lecturer in Sound Art and Physical Computing, are staff members of the Australian National University School of Art.

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 6

© Martyn Jolly & Denise Ferris & Alistair Riddell; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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