A couple of weeks ago, I did a webcam talk over lunch with Trebor Scholtz at the Institute for Distributed Creativity called "Teaching for the Wireless Commons." Trebor and I wrote up some resulting notes, and I thought they might be interesting/useful to some of you.
Trebor Scholz: Please present your thoughts on new media education, in
particular your course "Site-Specific: Wireless Networks and Urban Art
EG: This course was a mixed graduate-undergraduate seminar I taught at the
San Francisco Art Institute with Alison Sant. The course examined radio
signal as a medium for expression in its own right, with its own aesthetic
qualities and cultural significance. It was a diverse class, with
undergraduate and graduate students. The class focused specifically on
sensing and representing wireless signals; we did not intend it as a
technical class centered around any one tool. Using whatever medium they
preferred, students were to create their own interventions into what Fiona
Raby and Tony Dunne have called the ‘Hertzian space’ of San Francisco. Final
projects included a game, a proposal for a video installation, and a
GPS-coordinated city tour. There have only been a few classes on wireless
networks as art medium thus far, so there weren’t many models to draw from.
TS: What did you learn from the experience of teaching a course with so
EG: Learning from the experience of this course and from my own experience
in school, I'd like to point to some larger issues about the state of
interactive art education:
1) Art education: training for what?
2) The importance of historical perspective
3) Defining core curriculum
4) Moving the computing arts away from the computer
TS: Please describe the course more in detail.
EG: The Art Institute in San Francisco, for those of you who might not be
familiar with it, is well known for its historical emphasis on conceptual
art. Alison and I found that, as so often happens, our students were more
comfortable with the conceptual. Partly, this is because it’s easier to talk
than build. But the greater issue was unfamiliarity with the underlying
technologies of wireless networks – the physics of radio waves, the
proliferating transceivers, the logging programs and the graphic interfaces
– not to mention the pervasive fear of the unfamiliar. Even with the loan of
wifi- , Bluetooth-, and GPS-enabled iPaqs from the Exploratorium, some were
reluctant to experiment. And those that did were often daunted by the amount
of time they had to spend troubleshooting the devices. An increasing number
of people comes to courses such as ours with some knowledge of computers,
but only few are comfortable with code.
Indeed, some of our students came in with far less knowledge of the tools
of new media artists than we had expected. “New media” stretches from video
and sound editing, to image manipulation, to animation, to interaction
design, and code. The question of documenting and presenting a new media
project gets complicated when you’ve never used a digital camera or created
a web page. In addition, students were dismayed by the seemingly endless
list of expensive equipment that visiting artists recommended. Laptops, GPS
devices, PocketPCs, wifi-cards, specialized radio receivers… Some felt that
the medium was simply unaffordable on a student budget, and the school was
not planning on picking up the bills.
TS: This is a phenomenon that you also find with much of recent
location-based cultural practices that require a whole set of hardware that
it still unaffordable to most city dwellers.
EG: There’s an interesting and common phenomenon that happens when students
– anyone, really – attempts a new medium. You called it
“techno-determinism,” and I agree. It’s a kind of blindness. The sheer
difficulty of making any headway with unfamiliar and imperfect technologies
such as PocketPCs running an interface to a Bluetooth GPS module, or a Flash
animation, leads to the mistaken belief that the technologies themselves are
the most interesting part of a project.
TS: How do you approach the confluence of art, theory and technology?
EG: Given students’s understandable fears of new, unfamiliar, and
un-user-friendly technologies, we need to actively reward exploration,
experimentation, and sheer determination. However, the class as a whole
suffers when the focus of discussion and critique moves from developing and
expressing concepts to solving technical problems. Steering a course between
technophobia and techno-obsession is harder than it sounds. One of the great
challenges, I learned, of teaching ‘new media’ classes that are not designed
to be technical workshops is keeping promising concepts (that are often
technologically interesting as well) from derailing into technological
minutia. Throughout the class, Alison and I developed some strategies in
response to techno-phobia, techno-obsession, and the sheer expensiveness of
TS: How do you link these emerging cultural practices to their backgrounds
in the history of technology, and culture at large.
EG: There is a tendency among the techno-obsessed to think that ‘new media’
is somehow the product of a catastrophic, unbridgeable break with older
tools and practices. Alison and I tried to locate the class within a longer
history of site specific art and urban engagement. We started by asking
students to think critically about the notion of “site,” drawing on Robert
Smithson’s work, the notion of ‘non-sites’ and on Gordon Matta - Clark’s
building deconstruction projects. We also used sources from urban theory,
the Situationists and asked students to think about how we come to know a
city – how we travel through it, how we map it, how we remember it. We found
that bridging the old and the new produced richer conversations in new
students – which is no surprise – but also created a comfort zone for San
Francisco Art Institute students who were already familiar with
mid-twentieth century art movements.
TS: You mentioned that a few weeks into the class you asked students to
switch off their computers and go to the drawing board.
EG: Yes, drawing and sketching also proved a useful introduction to the
ideas and methods of the class. One of our most successful class exercises
required students to create a map of the campus using only mobile phones,
paper, and pencils. Working in teams, students had to both agree on how to
represent mobile phone signal strength but also what areas they found most
significant. The resulting critiques allowed us to talk about some core
issues: the representation of temporality, definitions of site, and
visualization of the invisible.
In fact, mobile phones became a cheap and accessible medium for students
daunted by the expense or unfamiliarity of wifi-enabled laptops and GPS
devices. For those of us who think in terms of code, it can be useful to
step back and see mobile phones as a platform for development but also
simple sensors in their own right. One student even used his mobile phone as
a kind of game wheel, dynamically ‘spinning’ paths through the city based on
I would have loved to have my students build applications for mobile phones.
But because the class blended art theory and practice, we had to think
realistically about time management. We simply did not have enough time to
both introduce key concepts and teach programming. As well, showing a
project in a gallery is very different than supporting it on a city-wide
level. Moving from the university lab to the streets means asking students
to simplify their technical needs as much as possible.
TS: Could you come back to the four main issues that you introduced earlier?
You started off with "Art education: training for what?"
EG: One of the subtexts running through in-class discussion was the desire
to be taught specific tools – Photoshop or Flash, for example. There is a
lot of fear about the high cost of education in North America, about getting
jobs, and that is reflected in these demands for vocational training. I
think many will agree with me when I say that undergraduate art courses
should not focus on software. Defining education by the tools currently in
vogue reduces learning to a set of instruction manuals. As we have all
discovered, learning is often more a changing set of practices than
abstract, static data.
Which brings me to my second point: defining a new media core curriculum.
I think student calls for software-based training indicate a deep
insecurity. Many students are not sure what they are supposed to know and
how they are supposed to learn it. That is a very disconcerting situation.
And part of the role of a faculty member is to answer those questions
through curriculum development.
A curriculum is – or should be – the articulation of a community’s
understanding of disciplinary boundaries: what they value, what they
exclude, what they require. I had a fairly traditional undergraduate art
education, based around a choice of prerequisite classes: drawing,
sculpture, photography, graphic design. Drawing was mandatory. As a master’s
student at New York University, I had another core curriculum: programming,
basic electrical engineering, visual design, and communications. Everything
was mandatory. Communications included training in Photoshop, video editing,
etc – but it came wrapped in a larger conversation about the social
significance of technologies.
I personally believe digital media core curricula should include programming
and drawing. But I’m not the deciding factor in discipline-wide curriculum
development. The faculty of every school has the responsibility to decide
what their students should learn. I don’t think we’d see wildly divergent
curricula. But internal conversations need to happen so that consensus can
emerge and students get consistent messages about what they need to succeed.
TS: An additional starting point was your emphasis of moving the computing
arts away from the computer. Please elaborate.
EG: To me, this is perhaps the most important point: moving the computing
arts away from the computer. One of our greatest struggles during the class
was the fixation on the technical at the expense of the conceptual. We
suggested refocusing projects, but more than once we found that students did
not believe that sketching ‘counted’ as part of their work as digital
artists. Yet in retrospect, it’s significant that the semester’s most
successful exercise was based on drawing.
For us, the lesson was that teaching the digital arts should not be
confined to digital media. Many institutions without the budget for
expensive equipment can use diagrams and formal logic as a proxy for
circuitry. Nothing can totally replace learning by doing, but teaching the
underlying principles of computing still helps students. As Casey Reas
points out, code creates the tools we use – it’s an important medium in
itself. I think that teaching drawing can serve as an important bulwark
against the fixation on technology, and it can remind students to focus on
the underlying ideas that they strive to communicate.
So, I see several issues: I feel conflicted about the perception of the
teaching of "new media" as something that is completely new. Another issue
is thinking solely of what we produce as solely a function of ‘media.’
I think we’ll do ourselves and our students a service if we think less about
newness, less about a specific media, and more about continuing art
practices based around the implications of computing.