From Bauhaus to Blackboards

Report by Rens Frommé about the Media Academy Day at DEAF03.

The second edition of the Media Academy Day proved to be more than just the presentation of academies across Europe and their student's projects. Moderator Geert Lovink started by clearly defining the topics which would not be addressed: computers in classrooms, remote e-learning, educational software and alike. Instead the emphasis laid on the different mediatheoretical concepts and principles of the institutions and the resulting terms they use. In order to get a comparative overview of leading concepts at the end of the day, four academies and universities, chosen for their unique and innovative curricular, first presented their programs and then discussed their concepts and methodologies.

The leading concept behind the first school to present itself, K3, School of Arts and Communication in Malmö, was written down when the school was founded in 1998 in a manifest: a digital Bauhaus for the Third Millennium1. According to the Head of research of K3, Pelle Ehn, Bauhaus has been a strong social movement in Scandinavia till the seventies. Bauhaus began in 1919 with a utopian definition of "The building of the future" as a place where all the arts were be combined to create an ideal unity. This required a new type of artist beyond academic specialization, for whom the Bauhaus would offer adequate education. New teaching methods were developed to bring artists and craftsmen together in teaching and production. The intention was to remove any distinction between fine arts and applied arts. K3 uses a similar model, where the school is designed as an open workspace, a creative environment where 'thoughts can fly high- but land in practice and social realities'.

In order to put research into practice, students at K3 get the opportunity to exchange experiences and competencies in 10-week modules that run across subjects and year-boundaries. An example of this was the 'Historiska Sinnen' webproject2, an interactive mix of Swedisch history and fiction, researched and designed by students from different backgrounds. A more applied result of the convergence between art and design connected to a social reality, was demonstrated in the project Ready-Made Design by Per-Anders Hillgren. His project explored a video application to support day-to-day learning in a hospital by expanding the normal oral information exchange visually. The hospital-staff was equipped with small hand-held cameras to record their daily praticeses and routines. The short instructions that the personnel recorded on video, could be viewed on smallscreens in the corridors near the specific site of practice by scanning a barcode. Surprisingly enough, the video's provocated reactions from colleagues and made the staff rethink and rediscuss their daily routines.

The Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, recently established by Prof. Gillian C. Smith, proposes a similar model, and also takes into account the social implications of designer decisions. The institute, co-founded by Telecom Italia and Olivetti, provides a two-year postgraduate diploma course for students from a range of backgrounds. The focus is on designing new ways for people to interact with each other through information and communication technology. Because the institute is based in Ivrea, hometown of Olivetti, it supports the long social design tradition that exists in this city by reflecting on the kind of lives designers make for the people through technology. Students are encouraged to go outside and engage the people of Ivrea in their projects. For example the FARAWAY project focuses on long distance communication between loved ones. It mediates between the desires of people who are physically distant but emotionally close. If you feel the need of hugging your loved ones while living abroad, you put on a kind of datasuit and hug a person standing nearby. As a result your distant loves can feel this affectioned deed. So, although the institute is sponsored, it is not afraid of questioning global design issues defining regional context or to address the interplay between academic output and industry led needs. Prof. Smith recognizes the challenge these pose to the autonomy of an artistic and critical media discourse. She is confident that the ideals of Bauhaus can be realized through the advanced technologies that the industry provides.

The two artschools present, Intermedia Dept. of the Hungary Academy of Fine Arts and New Media, Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst, Zürich, put more emphasis on the autonomy of the artist. To better understand the current position and dilemmas of the Intermedia Department, Prof. Miklos Peternak, one of its cofounders, first contextualized the term intermedia. This art-historical concept is rooted in the Fluxus and experimental art movement. In 1966 Fluxus artist Dick Higgins verbalized the idea of intermedia: a myriad of emerging genres that spilled across the boundaries of traditional media. Before 1989, avant-garde art was suppressed by the communist regime in Hungary. In reaction to this, a new faculty of media arts was founded as soon as the iron curtain had fallen. Here artists could experiment with all kinds of genres and techniques, they were not allowed to use before the fall. Students were encouraged to explore the possibilities limitations of different media and use these in a creative way. The projects presented, like Vakuum TV3, underlined the fruitfulness of this approach. However, because of the increasing importance of digital media, the meaning of the word intermedia changed during the nineties. The romanticism of the early days turned into realism. The department is now facing the challenge to accomodate for a growing number of students. In Prof. Peternaks opinion, artists cannot be educated. The school only needs to provide the tools and (technical) support for students and keep an open eye on undercurrent movements in society.

Prof. Giaco Schiesser of the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst Zürich took this even a step further and refused to make a 'promo-talk' for his New Media department. Instead, he let his students do the talking. Afterwards, moderator Geert Lovink subtly pointed out that the speakers were especially invited the inform the audience on the schools program and its underlying concepts and methodologies. The students' output addressed current issues around surveillance, privacy and datatraces on the web. The webbased platform tracenoiser4 provides a tool to "generate clones from your databody in order to misinform those, who are spying on you". In another project, supervillainizer 5 users could create their own conspiracy.

Using all these projects as a frame of reference, the presenters discussed, in the second part of the day, visions and strategies for media art education together with a panel of Matthew Fuller (Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam), MarieLouise Angerer (KHM, Köln) and Janos Sugar (Intermedia Dept., Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts). Piet Zwart Institute fits close to the Bauhaus model for media-education where craft, art and understanding the material are equally important. However, in order to create art, the disruption of training and skills is inevitable. The German expression "Eigensinnigkeit" popped up, to underline the importance of media-authorship as a way the express oneself in a mediatized society. Here, the dichotomy of arts and design surfaced.

The introduction of bachelor/masters system was discussed, which could stimulate collaboration between different institutes in order to narrow the gap between arts and design in the near future. However, the BA/MA model also dramatically increased the amount of students in media art/technology and raised the pressure on schools by imposing restrictions. To maintain the innovative force and creativity, it is important to get round the bureaucratic rules and play with them. The rapid changes in mediatechnology, the introduction of bachelor/masters system and confusion about the theoretical basis and the definition of the field, made several schools expressed their doubts about which direction to take in their curricula. The KHM noticed a worrying lack of knowledge of history and theory of media-arts in students. After ten years of new media-art, new grounds should be explored, and the school has to point its students in the right direction. So, KHM is in the process of rethinking its concept for the long term, the next five to ten years.

The discussion intensified and focused on the tension between theory and practice. The rapid change in technologies leaves little time to teach more in-depth theoretical knowledge. Students are forced to spend much of their time on the mastery of new tools. The development of resources could play an important role in changing this. Instead of using predefined WebCT tools and interactive blackboards, students should develop their own open source learning environment, and reflect on there own designs. They will then be confronted with the everyday problems of developing and probably will develop a more critical approach towards predetermined software packages. It would also save money for the school. Of course this does not guarantee that they spend more time on the theories behind it.

Moderator Geert Lovink outlined roughly two different theoretical approaches in European media theory: the Anglo-American cultural studies approach rooted in Marshall McLuhan theories and represented by the magazine Wired on the one hand and the media-critique approach of French (Virillo) and German (Kittler) philosophers on the other hand. The panel more or less agreed on a metadisciplinary approach, filtering out the essential parts of media-theory relevant for the arts. However, more dialogs are needed to bridge the gaps between different disciplines that are involved in media-arts. Or, as Prof. Ehn stated, loosely citing Wittgenstein, we will never fully understand each other, but we can try to imagine.

  1. To read the whole manifest, see http://www.k3.mah.se/mani_en.htm
  2. Historiska Sinnen http://webzone.k3.mah.se/projects/hims
  3. Vakuum TV http://vakuumtv.c3.hu
  4. Tracenoizer-project http://www.tracenoizer.org
  5. Supervillainizer-project http://www.supervillainizer.ch
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