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Transdisciplinary projections

Gail Priest, Media Art

As the afterglow of ISEA2013 in Sydney begins to fade it’s a good time to reflect on where media art, an area of practice that has always been inextricably linked to the academy, is headed at the outset of the 21st century.

While ISEA2013 was a dynamic gathering of innovative practices, it also highlighted a significant turning point. Occurring 21 years after TISEA in Sydney—remembered fondly as celebrating the beginning of ‘new’ media art in Australia—maybe ISEA2013 marked the end of this first idealistic epoch. (See RealTime’s Media Art Archive which charts the development of media art practices over this time.)

The idea of ‘newness’ in media art was discarded around the turn of the century/millennium. Given the ubiquity of technology in our lives and the rise of a generation who have grown up switched on and plugged in, is the idea of media art as a distinct form still meaningful at all? (There are, of course, some who would argue it never has been.)

If we look at the relevant funding arm of the Australia Council and its morphing nomenclature, the term ceased to be meaningful in 2005 with the disbanding of the New Media Arts Board in favour of an inter-arts blend. As of May this year, we enter the more expansive, though perhaps more elusive territory of the ‘experimental and emerging.’ This latest change brings back the idea of the ‘new,’ associating it directly with the ‘art,’ leaving the ‘media’ open to interpretation.

So what are the ramifications for education in this area? Are institutions leading, following or fighting this shift away from media as a specific medium towards a more general emphasis on ‘new’ and ‘experimental?’ I interviewed Associate Professor Paul Thomas, from the College of Fine Arts [COFA], University of NSW and asked several key academics from universities around the country, teaching in both fine arts and media studies, for their thoughts on what might constitute a utopian education system for their area of practice.

Demolishing the silos

Paul Thomas’s career trajectory is an interesting case in point. Thomas is one of the early advocates and pioneers of electronic arts, co-founding the group Media-Space in Perth in 1981. He went on to found and direct the Biennial of Electronic Arts Perth [BEAP] as well as developing the Electronic Arts course at Curtin University. Now at COFA he is Head of Painting. Thomas says, “The whole rise of technology, the input of technology into the art school became a misguided direction. It’s just another layer of complexity in the potential to construct and make art.” He believes that as technology has become more ubiquitous, as computers and digital cameras have become part of everyone’s daily expression, students don’t “see why it would be a separate subject. It’s just part of the way they make art.”

Thomas is now working with the idea of the transdisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary. “Interdisciplinarity is part of the major problem of the silos. We say you can do anything you like in media arts, you can paint, you can sculpt, you can make installations and so on, and sculpture and painting would say the same thing. So if everyone is saying this, why don’t we have one course instead of all these different courses?”

Dr Gavin Sade, Head of Interaction and Visual Design at the School of Design, Creative Industries, QUT in part agrees: “Any ideal program would be transdisciplinary in nature—not just multidisciplinary through a combination of classes drawn from within essaying faculty silos, but instead a dedicated curriculum designed by academics with an interest across disciplines.”

Science, the new/old frontier

Sade believes “the challenging question is the importance of media art education. For me the most interesting aspect of media arts is actually the intersection of art and science which occurs within the media arts community as seen for example in the publication Leonardo.” Sade suggests a more complex relationship between the arts and science based on the idea of difference. “Value needs to be recognised beyond instrumental readings of Art as an input for innovation, or Art as a form of visualisation of scientific data.” He seeks “development focused on the difference and similarities of art and science and an appreciation that it is from the difference that new knowledge emerges.”

Thomas is of the same mind. “We’ve shifted away from the media arts and back into arts and science. [Our] understanding of the state of the world, how we deal with different concepts of reality, nanotechnology, how atoms work, how matter is formed [is] becoming a new materialism…There are a number of possibilities to explore the world and the university has a lot of them on its doorstep; so how do we access the sort of atomic force microscopes, the biological and chemistry areas, the spatial sciences?”

Australia does boast a leading example of this art-science fusion, the first of its kind in the world, at the University of Western Australia. SymbioticA was established in 2000 by Professor Miranda Grounds, Dr Stuart Bunt and Oron Catts, offering hands-on laboratory access for artists researching in the areas of art and biology, ecology, bio-ethics, neuroscience, tissue engineering and sleep science. It seems that utopia may lie in the development of more laboratory/studios such as these.

Cutting red tape

Dr Mark Cypher, Senior Lecturer and Academic Chair, Digital Media at Murdoch University, also expresses the desire for a transdisciplinary approach which he sees is currently hampered by bureaucracy and inflexible infrastructures. His utopian wish-list includes: “access to disciplines across campus IT/design/art/science/engineering without the politics; university infrastructure and teaching spaces that enable a wide range of teaching practices rather than chalk and talk or lab models; easy national and international university partnerships and collaborations; and a system that enables the diversification of university funding models rather than relying on bums on seats (student numbers) with a churn and burn mentality to education.”

Pedagogy and the internet of things

A common desire from these academics is for the realisation of total connectivity and subsequent access to ever more vast amounts of information. Katie Cavanagh, course co-ordinator of the Bachelor of Media, Department of Screen and Media, Flinders University shared the story of the first time a student appeared to be ‘fact checking’ her lecture on his iPad. After initially feeling nervous about the idea of being “exposed” she came to the conclusion “that he wasn’t distracted by his iPad, he was entirely immersed in everything we were discussing.” Cavanagh sees future teaching methods as incorporating “live discussions where all threads are visited [online] and the experiential multi-tentacled intermingling of knowledge, research, interaction and discussion in class becomes a critical organic part of every unique lesson.”

Cypher and Dwyer also emphasise the potential of easily accessible online information via what Cypher terms “an open Internet…that enables access to meta-data about all things all the time.” Dwyer gets specific, suggesting a database of interactive projects via something like YouTube: “We could see the code, how a new project co-opts existing projects and the mistakes. The teaching possibilities would be amazing.”

Pragmatic futures

Natasha Dwyer, Senior Lecturer in Multimedia at the Victoria University, offered thoughts on the employment landscape for students: “I hope that one day the word ‘entrepreneur’ can lose its status as a ‘dirty’ word…The fact is that industry is changing (for better or worse) and all types of people in the creative industries such as media arts will need to find their way on unproven paths. We need to be able to help students navigate this competitive environment and somehow inform the shy, the unassertive and others without the ‘entrepreneurial image’ that they too can find a place.”

So who is inhabiting this utopian education environment? Paul Thomas sees the utopian student as a kind of “transdisciplinary nomad.” He asks, “What would this student need if they were to land anywhere in the university, to engage from an arts point of view.” His answer brings us back to the basics of a creative education: “The ability to think, the ability to make and play.”

Whether it’s old or new, trans, inter or hybrid, it seems that these basic creative principles remain immutable.

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 12

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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