The creative degree as interface

Christy Dena

Ian Gwilt, Scrollingheaven

Ian Gwilt, Scrollingheaven

Frankly, it should be no surprise that new media artists gravitate towards academia. The net was created by academics, for academics—manifesting collegial networking and the intertextual nature of their theories. At the risk of foreshadowing a potential epiphany at the close of this article, this mature marriage between thought and technology emerges as perhaps the major attraction to postgraduate research for new media artists.

Motives

Tracey Benson, a PhD candidate at the Centre for New Media Arts, Australian National University, comments that “many artists working with new media have a strong conceptual rationale supporting their work”. Ian Gwilt, a PhD candidate at the School of Art History and Theory at the College of Fine Arts (COFA), University of New South Wales (UNSW), wanted to channel his “theoretical, research and creative activities through the vehicle of a postgraduate qualification.” Joel Zika, who is studying a Master of Fine Arts by research in Digital Imaging and Multimedia at Monash University, was intending to embark on a “lengthy and concise body of research” anyway and quite simply wanted to be acknowledged for it. Obviously an artwork is a certification of research undertaken, of a different kind. If new media artists research anyway, why enter an institution, and what are the benefits of a postgraduate qualification?

Chris Caines, who is researching towards a Doctor of Creative Arts at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), thought his work could “benefit from being explored in the context of ideas bigger than those [he] might consider in just making a project alone”. Caines’ creative projects have oscillated between film, video and new media, with interactive narrative being a common thread. Recently, handheld media has piqued his interest, culminating in a locative media project, go this way, commissioned by ACMI in 2004. Likewise, Gwilt is interested in the “crossover between the human experience in both the digital and physical environments and the relationship between these 2 spaces” and explores the big ideas of theorists such as Lev Manovich, Pierre Levy, Michael Heim and Walter Benjamin. Gwilt creates interface paintings, large scale digital prints, video animations and 3D Rapid Prototype sculptures that foreground the Graphical User Interface (GUI) as “a vehicle to comment on the formal, social and speculative aspects of a computerised culture.” His research, Gwilt reflects, has allowed him “to contextualise [his] work from a variety of perspectives…from a historical, theoretical and conceptual position.”

The right niche

All the new media artists I interviewed unanimously volunteered the supervisor as the critical factor in their choice of institution. Gwilt thinks it is “crucial to establish a good fit with your supervisor who is knowledgeable about and interested in your area of study”. Benson warns that the relationship with your supervisor “can make or break your project.” A good relationship with a supervisor, she elaborates, nurtures your creativity. The number of funded places, the status of the university, and facilities were also cited as deciding factors. But what of the defining structures?

The dissertation incubator

Zika has been creating animations and printed works in installations and performing with video and animated content for 6 years. He is researching new ways of imaging the scenography of ‘Gothic cinema.’ At the moment he is looking at “early amusement park rides (ghost trains, haunted houses) as interesting examples of immersive cinematic spaces.” Just like the click clack of an old ghost train, with skeletons jumping out of the pitch black, Zika wanted to rattle along the dissertation methodology with the “pressure of committing to a set of works” at certain turns. This downward pressure of the tropes of a dissertation—‘scope’, ‘aim’, ‘goal’ and ‘methodology’—fashion a unique incubator for artworks, which can have positive and negative effects.

Zika notes that it “slows you down and makes you focus” and that he is “focusing on the links between ideas which [he has] had on the table for years”. For Caines, academia presents an “opportunity to develop an area in a formal and rigorous way that forms a strong underpinning for future work.” Rhys Turner has just completed a Master of Visual Arts Electronic and Temporal Art by research degree at the Sydney College of Fine Arts. He started creating digital works 4 years ago and is currently experimenting with “alternate interfaces, and social interaction within a new narrative mode.” His latest work, Video Stereo, uses a modified 1960s stereo cabinet, a Technics 1200 and a computer. The work, which was part of PICA’s 2005 Hatched national graduating artists’ show, invites the user to interact with the video by scratching, DJ-style, the vinyl platter. Turner says his experience in academia has given him a more professional approach to his arts practice. Inversely, he laments the bureaucratic complications involved in obtaining funding and, as for Gwilt and many others, the tight definition of research often excludes aspects of his creative practice.

Creative limits

How is the creative process different in academia? Academic requirements, for Benson, limit the “opportunity for free-forming ideas” but the active community of forums and seminars has contributed greatly to her research and skills development. Caines has found funding and research models encourage the approach of a “creative product as simply a means to those research ends.” On the other hand, Gwilt observes “[t]he process can take on a more elevated position and become the focus of the creative activity, as opposed to the production of discrete finished pieces”.

How does academia nurture the creative process? Gwilt feels that funding to attend creative conferences and even have a sabbatical is valuable. Primarily, however, the “creative and responsive environment cultivates a sense of enquiry and constant re-evaluation” and so provides a “healthy challenge.”

For Turner there is “encouragement for new creative processes and ideas” and “productive criticism.”

When asked about the relationship between her creative work and her thesis Benson described it as “dysfunctional.” However, unlike a dysfunctional human relationship, an exegesis and creative work never separate. For Benson, the insights she gained from her theoretical investigation into the effects of online communities, activism and accessibility informed her studio work. Out of “interest and concern for one of the case-studies” in her thesis there grew an impetus to create her latest web-based work, Swipe (2004-5). Zika is hoping to build a symmetrical relationship between his practice and theory, where ideas he discovers through his creative experimentations are explained in his theoretical conclusions while other findings are expressed purely through his creative work. Turner sees the dynamic as hierarchical, with “theory as an important step in solidifying art practice and storytelling…secondary to art practice”.

Exhibiting, more or less

Are these artists exhibiting more or less since commencing study? Benson finds that she is exhibiting less because she is wary of distracting herself and straying too far “off-topic.” Gwilt finds the rigour of study drives his creative output and so he is exhibiting more. However, due to time constraints, he is exhibiting more locally and less internationally. Zika is exhibiting more and claims this is due to links he’s made whilst at university.

The network benefit

Besides the inspiration to create, what do they take from their experience? Most important for Turner is the ability “to create no matter where, why or how.” But, just like the unanimous nominating of the choice of supervisor for selection of institution, all the artists are in chorus about the primary benefit of the academic experience: networking. I was surprised by this, but, given the new media artists I interviewed were already somewhat established before commencing postgraduate studies, the desire to network would be paramount. However, I must note for those who are in a position like myself, where they are both emerging artists and researchers, “networking” plays a larger role shaping my creative and theoretical expressions than broadcasting them. This dual function of configuration and portal renders academia as a kind of GUI (Graphic User Interface) to potential novel creations.

Clarity

Finally, would the postgrads recommend the experience to others? Turner would, because it “lets you focus on what you want to specialise in…You meet lots of like minded people and you get to create your own work in your own space with good feedback and facilities.” Gwilt suggests that you should be clear on what you want to study and why—the topic should be something you’re willing to spend 3 to 4 years on. And, as all the artists have agreed, “find the right advisor to suit your needs.” Benson would recommend the creative degree “to artists who want to push the theoretical and conceptual aspects of their work.” She says that there are “some exciting things happening in tertiary education at the moment, particularly in the field of digital and new media arts.” The best elements of academia for artists, offers Caines, is “the collegiality, the free flow of ideas and debate [and] the freedom to explore work outside the constraints of the market.”

Chris Caines: http://madeupstuff.com/
Ian Gwilt: http://www.iangwilt.com/
Rhys Turner: http://www.rtek.com.au/
Joel Zika: http://joelzika.cjb.net/

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 32,

© Christy Dena; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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