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The proposition of Teaching New Art Media-Part 2
un texte de David Van Ness présenté par Jaewook Lee
David Van Ness is an artist working with 3D printing and digital fabrication. He combines data to alter and create 3D models. Also, Van Ness currently uses biological materials such as stem cells that will be grown on the two-inch sculptures that will be converted into human bone when complete. Van Ness is the New Media Art coordinator at Northern Arizona University, teaching cutting-edge digital and interdisciplinary New Media Art courses. I am happy to invite Van Ness to Tk-21 to listen to what it means to teach art in the advanced digital age.
First and foremost, I would like to thank Jaewook Lee for inviting me to write this follow up to his article, “The Proposition of Teaching New Art Media-Part 1” from September 2019. I would say that, for the most part, Lee put into words what I did when creating the New Media Art program at Northern Arizona University (NAU). The program we created at NAU offers additional opportunities for students outside the School of Art to pursue their interests as it applies to their research. The program culminates in a senior seminar led by the students who drive the conversation and direction of the course based on their research, bringing the educational model closer to what Lee referred to in creating classroom equality and self-reliance. Without unlimited resources, there is no way only two professors could cover all that falls within the purview of New Media Art. My experience as an adjunct trying to find a niche and my years of odd jobs taught me a lesson on how to we should be teaching our next generation of creative thinkers and makers.
“Our thesis is simple : in the age of electronic media, the artist needs much more than training in the technologies of the “image world” in which we live. This visually saturated media culture that surrounds us demands that students become media philosophers…”
Deborah Haynes, Mike Mandel, and Rita Robillard (1998)
Before teaching, I spent a long time working in retail, managing the operations of a trucking company, building props for film, and many other odd jobs. I had to reinvent myself constantly and teach myself new skills to stay competitive. This experience goes far beyond the scope of the art world and heavily influences how I teach. I know that any technical skill taught in any specific course will almost be obsolete by the time the course is complete, and I also know that students are very apt to learn what they want online and from other practical resources. For these reasons, the role of the educator is more about creating an intellectually curious and critical thinker than that of the technical guru. I am not saying that the educator should be completely ignorant of the need for technical sophistication, but rather that our first obligation must be to help our students to define, select, and meet their long-term artistic goals, and to do this, it is important to expose them to as many new ideas as possible. To help students discover new ideas and inspiration, they need to learn how to research and develop their ideas and to approach each task from many different perspectives. These skills are timeless, essential, and fundamental to success in any creative or professional field. Skills such as research, critical thinking, and creative problem solving transcend medium and method, do not become obsolete as might a given technical skill and are relevant to students in any art or non-art major. The aim is to develop a creative thinker and not create the next technical assistant for some industry needs. I believe that it is important to understand what some future jobs may want but also know how to sell the skills you have and adapt and train yourself to meet those needs. Many of the jobs our students will perform have not been invented. Especially as artists, we cannot know what new media, philosophical drive, or technique may be popular and speak to our students after they graduate. Instead, we need to prepare them to be curious and driven to be lifelong learners.
To get the students exploring, we must force our students into the deep end and allow them to experiment while acting as a lifeguard stepping in only when necessary. As educators, we are more akin to a master artist with student apprentices, each exploring some different aspects of the given class, than a sage imparting specific wisdom. The one-on-one training of 18 or more students is more taxing than the one-hour lectures our friends across the university provide, but the discovery that comes out of these courses is by far more personal and rewarding to both the teacher and the student. It can be rough — and it should be — as a student moves into higher education from a K-12 system that established a much more directed and guided process to learning. Our students are much smarter than we give them credit for. The students are probably even more knowledgeable than we are when it comes to images, visual culture, and visual literacy. I often push them into the deep end with little guidance and then work with them to discover the various skills and techniques. We must meet them where they are and help them discover this fact, at which point they become a colleague in their education along with the teacher. The additional boon from this approach is that I am always learning and adapting as an educator and an artist. I originally taught New Media Art courses at the University of North Texas, but I honestly only had a passing knowledge of the practice. It required that I learn everything a few days ahead of the students. I maintained it, at least as far as I know, and trained in a baptism of fire that had me learning about laminar water flow, circuit design, physical computing, and generative image design. In many ways, the students drove my own apprenticeship with them that has me constantly learning and discovering new things. Their many eyes see and experience much more than I could ever consume.
Students must also fail. The paradox of failure is that the fear it creates keeps the student away from the highest levels of success. I fail all the time, and it is the resiliency to go on and take the lessons from failure that propel me to the next success. Allow students to explore. Let them push well beyond the particular lesson as they very well may discover something new, but if they don’t and it doesn’t work, allow them that chance to fail. Curriculum and projects should allow for failure of a project, not be the downfall of their overall grade of the course. Permit them to fail, and who knows ? With that much leeway, you might discover something truly amazing.
“Failure sucks, but it Instructs” – Diego Rodriguez, IDEO partner
One of my undergrad professors told me a story that painters were the high priests of the art world, sculptors the frontline fighters, and the other disciplines somewhere else in that medieval scenario. This metaphor is too basic and denies the truth that we are all priests, magicians, soldiers, and salespeople. Higher art education has gone on to reinforce the notion that we belong in separate camps. New Media is the only field honest enough to know that we cannot be so easily categorized. Artists are products of their time and culture and need to have connections outside the gilded walls we have built. I propose we offer classes in Biology, Economics, Hotel Restaurant Management, and other disciplines outside our field and in partnership with those disciplines. When I was finishing the design of the New Media Art program at NAU, I was also teaching a course on entrepreneurism, innovation, and design thinking. I took many studio art practices and applied them to business and entrepreneurial concepts. I am proud to say that it works, and it has produced some amazing results. I have had two real-world projects launch from that course. The first was a new way of child dentistry, and the other a gourmet marijuana distributor. This overlap also made me look closely at the d.School at Stanford (https://dschool.stanford.edu) more than traditional art programs when it came time for finishing the final curricular design. I pushed hard to open up the program to more electives and less required courses to let the students engage with what they were interested in and build a more Liberal Arts education. Classroom projects should be more focused on design challenges that require interdisciplinary inquiry led by the specific skills or techniques from the course focus. In my 2D/3D digital design class students are asked to look beyond traditional 3D modeling to find means of 3D model creation. We look at how data can be captured and converted into 3D as a means to develop sculpture from a research interest outside of 3D modeling of the students. Students explore glitch art, generative 3D design, and other processes in this final sculpture.
State of State School
To facilitate all these goals at a state school in 2019 in America is a challenge. Northern Arizona University is the outreach university in the Arizona system. The School of Art at NAU has a difficult proposition. NAU attracts students from a large first-generation and underserved population and culturally many students have been told they should not to go into art or that they cannot make a living at art. We also have very tight budgets and have to operate much more in partnership with other programs and the students themselves to make ends meet. Luckily this typically means we are attracting very motivated and very energetic students. It takes a special student who wants to take on helping grow a program, but I’ve found many do and enjoy that sense of ownership to their education. This sense of ownership is something that I wish to encourage and built into the program, along with growing their curiosity beyond the borders of our program. We cannot offer all the tools needed to be the most cutting edge artist, but we can offer the opportunity to explore and develop the tools to succeed without anything.
I’ve been asked hundreds of times how I teach programming and 3D digital design without a computer lab. It is difficult, but when you are honest and collaborate with the students, resources can be pooled and ideas discovered to cover the topics and skills taught in those types of courses. I use open-source software whenever possible. Not only does this save the department money, but it also sets the students up with the knowledge of how they might approach their practice starting with little or no money. I graduated with years of experience in fiberglass and automotive finishing, and once out in the real world, this specialized training became a hindrance to my practice. I did not know alternatives nor the correct practice, but over time had to reteach myself to work in an environment without a cross draft booth or any air tools. I don’t want to see my students facing the same issue and is honestly the main reason I teach with open source and free tools. The fact it saves the school money is just a secondary boon.
As as art faculty we are expected to do more and more. The position of Liberal Arts has changed in higher education. We are increasingly sought to offer support and provide more teaching of critical thinking and more general skills for non-majors. Though this trend has begun to buckle with STEAM initiatives, we still are under a strong STEM-focused education system. It might be the initial reaction of a New Media Art program to adapt a more STEM-oriented profile, but I propose we are careful in the approach and use the tools of the STEM disciplines and ideas critically. There are other middle grounds than becoming a means of visualization for the STEM field. Instead, both fields must be pushing the boundary of their fields. It is also important that we understand the parallels between fields and how the disciplines complement one another.
It all comes back to a focus on teaching students to be self-reliant and driven to find the answers they need on their own. This ability will serve them long after we finished teaching them. We want to install a growth mindset in our students that reinforces the notion that they must always be learning and are not limited by what they have done in the past. Our New Media Art program asks them to be engaged in a contemporary practice that extends well beyond just one discipline. Faculty must be able to adapt and create opportunities that reinforce this and curate experiences that show ways to find novel solutions to thousands of ideas. Be honest and show the students what it truly takes to be creative no matter what you are given. Our students know how to find the instructions for the tools and technology ; we must teach them why to use the tools and technology.
Haynes, Deborah, Mike Mandel, and Rita Robillard. “Curriculum Revolution : The Infusion and Diffusion of New Media.” Leonardo 31, no. 3 (1998) : 187. https://doi.org/10.2307/1576570.
Kelley, Tom, and David Kelley. Creative Confidence : Unleashing the Creative Potential within Us All. London : William Collins, 2015.